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July 05, 2013 11:54 AM The “Democratic Recession” in Egypt and Elsewhere

By Ed Kilgore

Predictably, pro-Morsi forces in Egypt called for a “day of rejection” today to show some popular resistance to the army’s coup two days ago. Clashes between protestors and troops in Cairo have already produced casualties.

The whole scenario not only pits the military against Islamists, but also exposes violent differences of opinion about how “democracy” is defined, and whether it trumps other values like tolerance and competence.

This isn’t an unprecedented situation, by any means. And in fact, two years ago in the Washington Monthly, Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations predicted that the then-fresh rebellion against Hosni Mubarek might develop in exactly this direction: new democratic procedures producing an authoritarian “populist” leader despised by urban middle-class reformers who call on the military to overturn election results. Kurlantzick mostly wrote about Thailand, but mentioned other examples of this dynamic:

In the Philippines, for example, the middle classes have become almost addicted to demonstrations designed to oust elected leaders they don’t like by means other than the ballot box. In 2001, urban Filipinos poured into the streets to topple President Joseph Estrada, a former actor who rose to power on his macho appeal with the masa, the underclass in the Philippines, and then demonstrated again in an attempt to remove his successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
In Honduras, a similar story has played out. President Manuel Zelaya, who took office in early 2006, pushed to change the constitution to give himself more terms in office. Zelaya also enacted populist economic policies, like a hike in the minimum wage, which angered many middle-class business owners. As the day of a referendum on constitutional change drew near in 2009, Zelaya’s middle-class opponents began to openly protest his plans and agitate for him to be removed by force. In June 2009, the military stepped in, an intervention welcomed by many in the capital, Tegucigalpa. The army ousted Zelaya, forcing him into exile.

Now Kurlantzick has produced a book on this phenomenon, entitled Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government. Today we are publishing a review of the book by the National Endowment for Democracy’s Christopher Walker that not only connects current headlines from Egypt with similar developments elsewhere, but discusses contemporary conflicts over the meaning and relevance of democracy to a “democracy reccession” that has succeeded the euphoria of the 1990s.

Kurlantzick identifies a range of factors hindering democratic progress, especially for developing countries, including weak institutions, shoddy economic growth, and graft. As suggested in the book’s provocative subtitle, the role of the middle class is pivotal for enabling democracy’s birth. But in the absence of established political parties and institutions of civil society, newly-elected democratic leaders can quickly become imperious—freezing out the opposition, censuring the press, exploiting religious and sectarian grievances for political gain. They also have a tendency to challenge the perks and privileges of urban, educated elites in favor of poor rural majorities. This combination of autocracy and populism can lead to the same educated classes that previously championed democracy to turn against democratically-elected governments.

Moreover, alternative models to Western-style democracy are available to middle-class reformers more interested in economic growth and stability—and frankly, in their own self-interest—than in democratic ideals or even the basic value of self-government. The Chinese are actively promoting their own model of economic innovation harnessed to political authoritarianism throughout the developing world, with greater success than is sometimes acknowledged.

Walker and Kurlantzick alike think it’s time for friends of democracy to stop treating their goals as some inevitable wave of the future and start thinking through concrete steps to strengthen democratic institutions and habits.

At a time when policy makers have tended to place support for democracy on a back burner, Kurlantzick reminds us that the stakes are very high for countries seeking to consolidate democratic systems. In his concluding chapter he writes, “When it comes to indicators of societies’ health and well-being, democracies that succeed in consolidating their political transitions fare better on all of them, over the long term, than do their autocratic peers.” The stakes are high for the United States and its allies, too. Further democratic regression and a shrinking number of democracies would have negative implications beyond any single country’s borders. It would shape, for instance, the treatment of human rights issues in international and regional bodies. Alternatively, if these countries make their way into the ranks of consolidated democracies, they could tip the global balance and reinvigorate democratic governance.

This bigger picture should be kept in mind as events in Egypt continue to unfold.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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