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After Mubarak: Liberal Democracy?

February 23, 2011

Here’s an exciting scenario: there is a genuine social and political revolution, in which substantial amounts of wealth and power are redistributed to new social actors. We see the emergence of new political parties, free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, free press, and civil service.

From the Egyptian perspective—and my own, I freely confess—this is the preferred outcome.

It has huge risks. Already there are at least thirteen new political parties forming and more may form as the rules get established. It is quite possible that no one party will form a government, and that political coalitions will become the norm. The NDP and a party promoting a Muslim Brotherhood platform (whether the MB itself will become a party depends in part on whether or not the new constitution continues to forbid overtly religious parties), will certainly take a number of seats in Parliament.

Such a democracy may prove fractious and inefficient, as democracies often are. Egypt’s economic woes are deep-seated, the result of decades of failure by the government to invest in basic civic infrastructure rather than profit-making enterprises, with a result that they will take years, if not decades to improve.

If Egypt gets a liberal democracy, I see chaotic times ahead as new governments are consistently unable to deliver immediate economic improvements to the lives of their constituents. We need only to look at voter impatience with the Obama administration in the U.S. to see how poorly political parties fare when they cannot deliver economic relief quickly to the voting masses, no matter how intractable the problems. In democracies, would-be leaders often promise the impossible, then must face the music when they cannot deliver. As impatience grows, so does the power of even the most outrageous demagogues as they promise simple answers to these issues.

In turn, such democratic chaos will chill Western allies, who fear for their security alliances. Not that Western concerns should shape Egypt’s future–but they will impact it, like it or not.

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