As I watched the results of Egypt’s presidential election last week, I couldn’t help but think back to a scene from that classic animated movie, Madagascar. In the movie – about four Central Park Zoo animals that get involved in a series of hilarious shenanigans (you really have to see it, it’s adorable) – a group of incorrigible penguins hijack an Africa-bound boat and reverse course to Antarctica, believing it to be their destiny.
After a turbulent journey, the jubilant penguins finally arrive at their long-anticipated destination. Stepping off the boat, however, they are confronted with the harsh truth of their new home: it’s really, really cold. As an icy blizzard swirls around them, one of the penguins eloquently articulates their disappointment: “Well, this sucks!”
That same kind of anti-climactic feeling was on display after the first round of voting in Egypt’s presidential election last week. After all the excitement and enthusiasm that accompanied last years events in Tahrir Square, and the buoyant prospects for a new era of freedom and democracy in the Middle East, the two candidates left standing in advance of a run-off election in the middle of June are…drumroll please…Ahmed Shafiq and Mohammed Morsi.
Shafiq was Hosni Mubarak’s last Prime Minister, and many associate him most closely with the previous regime. In speaking about the Arab Spring, he recently said, “unfortunately the revolution succeeded.” Following news of his position in the run-off, several thousand Egyptians protested his candidacy, chanting, “Where is the revolution?” Others ransacked and torched his campaign headquarters, though thankfully no one was injured.
Morsi, on the other hand, is a candidate of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which originally promised not to nominate anyone at all for the presidential election. True to Brotherhood form, Morsi has vowed to institute sharia law, has talked of banning women from the presidency, and has accused Israeli leaders of being “vampires.” Speaking to a throng of supporters recently, he proclaimed that, “death in the name of Allah is our goal.”
Forgive most Egyptians if they’re not exactly overwhelmed with excitement at the options. Shafiq and Morsi actually accounted for less than 50% of the total vote, and there were widespread allegations of voter fraud, but Egyptian law mandates that the top two vote getters proceed to a run-off election. “The election represents a definite defeat for the revolutionary camp,” wrote Mustapha K. al-Sayyid, a professor of political science at Cairo University.
The widespread disappointment in the election’s results now threatens to undermine the fledgling Egyptian democratic process. Several of the defeated candidates have filed appeals with the election commission alleging various violations. Demonstrations have erupted in Cairo and throughout the rest of Egypt, with many promising to protest the run-off.
Writing in the Al Masry Al Youm newspaper, journalist and commentator Hamdi Kandil opined, “We, the people of the revolution who are trapped today between voting for Mursi and voting for Shafik, are in a dilemma but we are not anyone’s hostages. Public anger will explode tomorrow or the day after no matter who the winner is. We will boycott the runoffs by the millions. We will not hand over our country to the powers of the past because we represent the future.”
How did political euphoria turn to disillusionment so quickly? Simply put, we in the west are too eager to prescribe democracy as a panacea for problems around the world. Winston Churchill famously said that, “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”, and while I’d agree with that sentiment broadly, it doesn’t mean that all countries are equally prepared for democracy at the same time.
By this, I’m not suggesting that the Egyptian people themselves are not ready for democracy, because nothing annoys me more than the argument that one group of people could be more “ready” for political freedom than another. What is true though, is that certain countries lack the tools to just suddenly become a democracy, and what’s happening in Egypt is a great example.
Successful democracies require more than just free elections; they need strong political institutions to ensure a robust, legal, and legitimate democratic process. Egypt has clearly lacked such institutions in this election season. Whether its claims of electoral fraud and corruption, the frequent and often-puzzling disqualifications of various candidates for relatively obscure reasons, or the general civic fragmentation and underdevelopment of political parties, Egypt’s democratic experiment has been fraught with problems that stronger institutions could have helped avoid.
The real concern is not that the process itself isn’t perfect; after all, politics never is. When the imperfections threaten what was the most encouraging development for human rights and liberal democratic values in the Middle East in many years, however, then there is genuine reason to worry.
Now the Egyptian people are faced with a choice between one candidate whom many feel represents a return to the Mubarak years, and another whose political platform suggests an even steeper regression. As with the Madagascar penguins when they finally reach Antarctica, for many Egyptians democracy hasn’t been what they hoped.