How to undermine democracy – lessons from Egypt

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Nic CheesemanIn this bimonthly column for the Daily Nation, our Co-editor Nic Cheeseman analyses how democracy was undermined in Egypt and, in doing so, looks at what lessons Kenyans can learn about safeguarding their own democracy.


Building democracy is a long-term project. It is also a frustrating one. Years of a painstaking process can lead to only a tiny step forwards. A moment of madness can set the process back decades. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Egypt, where the hope and optimism of the Arab Spring has already turned to despair and fear. New democracies and the foreign powers that support them often ignore this point.

When opposition parties win power, they usually take little care to deliver on their promises. Donors such as the United States and France invest vast amounts of money in supporting elections but sometimes forget that this can be meaningless if they do not defend democratic principles along the way. This is partly why things have gone so wrong in Egypt and why it will take a very long time to put them right. The lesson for Kenya is clear: never take democracy for granted, or the freedom that we have fought so hard for could quickly evaporate.

It is particularly difficult to build a democracy because, in contrast to an authoritarian regime, democracies depend on widespread support and compliance. Political leaders and their supporters are unlikely to place their faith in an unpredictable political system in which their fiercest rivals may get elected unless there is a high degree of trust. In order to willingly concede defeat, presidential candidates need to trust that their opponents will not use power against them. They also need to trust that key institutions such as the Judiciary and Legislature will protect integrity of the political system so that they can also have a chance of winning future elections. Voters are more likely to support democracy and accept the outcome of democratic elections – which is important if electoral violence is to be avoided – if they trust that people like them will not be excluded from political and economic opportunities just because their candidate lost. The problem is that fostering trust takes a long time. In countries that have experienced civil conflict and ethnic clashes, voters are unlikely to simply believe what politicians tell them. Instead, trust has to be earned.

Researchers have found that a number of key events can build trust in the political process in new democracies. The most effective is when the ruling party accepts that it has lost an election and there is a change of government. According to scholar Samuel Huntington, a democracy can only be said to be consolidated if it has enjoyed two transfers of power. Two turnovers may be a crude measure of democratisation, but Huntington chose it for a reason. Two changes of government implies that both the former ruling party, and the opposition that replaced them, can be trusted to give up power when time comes. It is, therefore, good evidence of a genuine commitment to democracy among the political elite– evidence that is likely to inspire trust and confidence in the rules of democratic gain.

Trust and support for democracy also tends to increase when the judiciary successfully prosecutes a leader known to be corrupt and when a president provides services to all citizens, not just those who voted for him. This is currently happening in Lagos, Nigeria, where the State governor, Babatunde Fashola, has embarked on an ambitious set of policies designed to improve public services provided by his government and infrastructure of one of the most populous cities on the continent. Although some reforms – especially slum clearances – have been controversial, his willingness to clamp down on corruption and provide services to all Lagosians has made him very popular. As a result, he won re-election by a landslide in 2011. Since then, public confidence in the governor and his administration has encouraged residents to invest in their state. People are now more willing to pay tax, further expanding public services.

In Kenya, the key moments that built public trust in the system were the defeat of Kanu in 2002, provision of free primary education and the constitutional reform of 2010. Unsurprisingly, victory of the opposition National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) in 2002 had the most dramatic impact on the national mood. According to polls, 87 per cent of Kenyans in March 2003 thought the rest of the year was going to be better than the previous year, making them the most optimistic people in the world.

Through these kind of events, trust can be built piece by painstaking piece over many elections. But any deviation from more inclusive and responsible government can undermine the whole process. For example, the trust Kenyans have for each other and in their political institutions has been undermined at a number of points. Most obviously, the politically instigated ethnic clashes of 1992, 1997 and 2007 created perception in some communities that elections and violence go hand in hand. Ahead of the 2007 and 2013 elections, many Kenyans, especially those groups that had been victims of attacks in 1992 and 1997, expected violence. This meant that instead of looking forward to elections, they were scared. The clashes also undermined trust between different ethnic communities and strengthened the hand of hardline leaders who promised to “defend” their supporters. In this way, the horrors of 1992 and 1997 made the 2007 violence more likely. In turn, the 2007 crisis increased prospects for further unrest.

Less obviously, the collapse of Narc, the failed constitutional review process of 2005 and the controversy surrounding the 2013 election results also undermined public trust. Although many might think that the disintegration of Narc was less important than the periods of electoral violence, it had a profound effect on public attitudes towards elections and their leaders. Many Kenyans interpreted the fall-out between President Kibaki and Raila Odinga as evidence that leaders could not be trusted to keep their pre-election promises and that multi-ethnic governments would always be divided and unstable. As a result, the episode undermined confidence in the process of coalition formation, which is the foundation of electoral competition in Kenya. Having been the most optimistic people in the world in March 2003, Kenyans quickly became some of the most pessimistic. According to Gallup, by October 2004 only 29 per cent of Kenyans thought the future would be better – a drop of 58 per cent!

The collapse of Narc has also shaped Kenyans’ thought about stability of political alliances. It is partly because of the precedent set by Narc that many do not believe that the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (Cord) will stay together, and that there has been such fevered speculation about when the current pact between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto will crumble.

What Kenyan leaders need to keep in mind is that democracy can survive one or two disappointments, but too many can be catastrophic. Egypt is the latest in a long list of examples. During the authoritarian reign of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government had a bad human rights record and failed to generate economic opportunities for every citizen. Despite that, the country received a lot of military aid from the American government. Although the US did not always agree with the domestic policies of Egypt, Mubarak was a key ally on the international scene. In a region dominated by states that have historically been hostile to Israel and are becoming increasingly suspicious of the US, Egypt was a vital ally. America provided the military aid that helped keep Mubarak in power while Egypt respected its peace deal with Israel and acted as a moderating force in the region – a classic marriage of convenience. It was mainly for this reason that the US was very slow in supporting regime change in Egypt. In contrast to less geo-strategically important countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, the US took an awfully long time to speak out in favour of the democratic right of Egyptians.

Sadly though, little has changed following the June 30 “revolution”. Although Mubarak’s regime was later on replaced by the government of Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s new leaders failed to learn from the past. Many Christian and secular Egyptians were concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood would turn the country into an intolerant theocracy. Instead of going out of his way to allay these fears, Morsy established a government that alienated many Egyptians. As criticism of his regime mounted, he also displayed an increasingly authoritarian bent. It was these failings and a period of economic decline that led to protests against Morsy’s regime earlier this year. In turn, the protests encouraged a military putsch.

Morsy’s failings and his downfall undermined the willingness of first his opponents and then his supporters to trust each other and the democratic political system. Shortly after his downfall, rival demos of ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ Morsy groups broke out in Egypt. A chronic lack of trust has also fueled an escalation of the conflict between the interim military government and Morsy supporters, which erupted into shocking scenes of violence and brutality on Wednesday. As government forces fired live rounds into crowds of unarmed civilians, Egypt took a step closer to civil war. Between 500 and 2,000 people have lost their lives and the death toll is likely to rise. More violence is expected over the weekend.

Egypt’s leaders are not the only ones to blame. When Morsy was sent packing, Western governments not only tolerated the overthrow of a democratically elected government, they accepted his detention. In order to avoid having to cancel the $1,3 billion of aid that the US sends to Egypt every year, President Obama even avoided describing Gen Al Sisi’s action as a coup. Of course, Western leaders will argue that there was not much they could have done. The Morsy government had undermined its own credibility and the hundreds of thousands of protesters who took to the streets to demand change had brought the country to a standstill.

President Obama did not encourage the coup, and once it had occurred his options were limited. Had the US turned its back on its military allies in Egypt, the long-term security of Israel could have been undermined. But it is important to realise that by effectively endorsing a military takeover, Western governments broke their own rules. They established relations with a regime that came to power through a coup, and in the process undermined the emerging norm that governments that rise to power through unconstitutional means should be internationally isolated. Their failure to defend the position of a democratically elected leader also signaled to the interim military government that the international community was prepared to tolerate democratic backsliding. In doing so, foreign governments unwittingly played a part in the collapse of Egyptian democracy. Even now, President Obama is pulling his punches. Although he has suspended US-Egypt military exercises and “strongly condemned” the violence, he has not cut off American financial support. Mixed messages like these are unlikely to persuade the regime to moderate its stance and make a swift return to democracy.

The warning for Kenya and other countries attempting to make the transition to democracy is clear: Building democracy is not just about what happens at elections; it is about all the little steps in between. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the 2013 elections passed without serious incident, but that success will mean little if the new government does not rule in an inclusive way and make progress in the fight against corruption. For their part, donors who help to fund the government and projects in health and education also need to maintain pressure for further democratic consolidation. If leaders and others fail to stand up for democratic principles when other priorities seem to be more important, there will be nothing left to safeguard democracy when it is most under threat.

This column originally appeared in the Daily Nation on 16th August 2013.

The Daily Nation is the largest newspaper in East Africa with a daily circulation of around 205,000.

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