The recent ouster of President Mohamed Morsy by the Egyptian military cast a dark shadow on Egypt's fledgling democracy. The president was displaced on July 3, just days after he failed to satisfy an ultimatum put forth by the country's top generals. The interim president Adly Mansour, appointed by the leaders of the military, has already blunted some of the damage and put forth an ambitious timetable to return the country to democracy.
Egypt's political crisis has been interpreted in two sharply conflicting ways. Opponents of the coup lament the irreparable damage it does to Egyptian democracy. Not only has the constitution been suspended as a result of military intervention, triggering a crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood, but Egypt's first freely and fairly elected leader has been toppled, setting a perilous precedent and unleashing violence that threatens to derail the return of elected rule.
The coup's supporters, by contrast, argue that it will help set the stage for a stronger democratic future by offsetting illiberal aspects of the constitution such as the exclusion of secular groups from power and restrictions on free expression. Indeed, they point to the fact that the new transition plan puts Egypt on a fast track to new elections.
These conflicting interpretations are stark: Democracy is rarely cultivated in a Petri dish overnight, but it is also rarely doomed once an experiment in self-rule has begun. History instead suggests that new democracies often muddle through, meandering fitfully to a stable democratic future. Therefore, while democracy in Egypt has suffered an unfortunate short-term setback, it is not destined to fail.
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Egypt's circumstances are not unique. Between 1875 and 2004, there have been 117 transitions to democracy across the world based on the conventional definition of procedural democracy: (1) the chief executive is elected; (2) the legislature is elected; (3) there is more than one political party; and (4) an incumbent has lost power and transferred it peacefully to a new leader. Of these transitions, 25 were quickly overturned by military coups in a manner similar to Egypt. In these instances, the military frequently intervenes to rectify what it perceives to be a critical flaw in the democratic design and sets the stage for a return to a more sustainable democracy.
The good news for Egypt is that some of these stillborn transitions have given way to quick returns to elected rule. In 9 of 25 cases, there was a return to democracy within five years. Examples include Peru, Argentina, Burundi, and Guinea Bissau. In these cases, military leaders have held free and fair elections quickly after overthrowing civilian governments, effectively "resetting" democracy in a manner more favorable to the military or civil society groups allied with them. Some of these "second-chance" democracies experienced further backsliding (e.g., Argentina) before eventually consolidating and shedding the most extreme legacies of politicized constitutional engineering.
Even the more delayed returns to elected rule give reason for hope. In 20 of the 25 cases of stillborn transition (including the nine cases mentioned above), there was a return to democracy within 15 years. These include Ghana, Pakistan, and Thailand. Although democracy is far from perfect in these countries, it has survived setbacks similar to those in Egypt today.
The bad news is that a few stillborn transitions have instead yielded a return to prolonged dictatorship. In five cases, democracy was either dramatically delayed (Nigeria and South Korea) or permanently shelved (Burma, Sudan, and Uganda). And in these cases, civil strife, violence and repression have been ubiquitous features of the political landscape. Hard-line elements within the military pushed for a greater focus on domestic security. If elections are held at all, it is under conditions of severely circumscribed competition that excluded popular groups and in which pro-military incumbents are all but guaranteed victory.