Published: February 15 2011 23:21 | Last updated: February 15 2011 23:21
In the year 508 before the common era, after the overthrow of a tyrant, Cleisthenes established a democracy in Athens. In the 186 years of its existence, this democracy brought forth the most remarkable flowering of the human spirit ever, within a narrow space. Yet, if democracy is 2,519 years old, Egypt is vastly older. First unified 5,000 years ago, it is the oldest state on our planet.
The state, then, is far older than democracy. Its invention brought with it a question: who would control it? Across time and space, the answer has almost always been god-kings, priest-kings, military despots and so forth. Government may have been notionally in the interests of the people, but it was almost never in their hands.
Athens was a great exception, though the ideal of government accountable to the people also existed in ancient Rome and in the Italian city states. Yet direct voting could not operate over a large space. The election of parliaments in England in the 13th century solved that problem. The model of an elected parliament to which the executive is accountable has now spread across much of the globe.
The Polity IV project at the Center for Systemic Peace at George Mason University is an analysis of political regimes from 1800 to 2009. In 2009, 92 of the 162 countries it covers were democracies, while only 23 were autocracies, down from 89 in 1977. Alas, 47 countries were â€œanocraciesâ€ â€“ fragile states with elements of both democracy and autocracy. Nevertheless, for the first time in history, the world is predominantly democratic. (See chart.)
Noteworthy is the surge in the number of democracies in the 1990s, which followed the collapse of the former Soviet empire and the transformation of Latin America. Yet the Middle East is an outlier: in spite of a fall in their number, it is now the only region in which autocracies outnumber democracies. Maybe this will now cease to be true.
Why has democracy made such rapid progress? After all, in 1900 representative government was rare and universal suffrage (including for women) almost unheard of (New Zealand being the exception). The fundamental answer must be economic â€“ the shift from societies in which the bulk of the population consisted of illiterate peasants presided over by narrow classes, or castes, of warriors, bureaucrats and priests. These monopolists of force and fraud saw no reason to share power with those they despised. The role of the yeoman warrior helped make the city states exceptional. Romeâ€™s republic became an empire, as its soldiers became professionals.
Economic development has transformed these ancient structures: primary education has become ever more universal and higher education ever more common; the economy has become dependent on individual creativity; knowledge has spread; and communications have become more dynamic. We have, not least, become hostile to inherited power. This makes most autocracies fragile.
The most powerful reason for believing in democracyâ€™s future, however, is that it responds to something deep within us. As the economist Albert Hirschman wrote: humans desire â€œvoiceâ€ in institutions that govern their affairs in addition to the chance of â€œexitâ€ from them. Aristotle told us that â€œman is by nature a political animalâ€ . Liberated from the pressures of day-to-day survival, we, as human beings, seek government accountable to ourselves.
These are, I believe, universal human desires. The idea that they would prove eternally alien to particular cultures has long seemed quite implausible. Alas, western powers have often thwarted this aspiration. Some westerners still believe this is what the west should seek to do now in Egypt. This seems not just morally wrong, but lethally short-sighted: democracies may be unpredictable; the despotisms we support breed enduring hatreds.
Yet, however strong the global move towards democracy and however universal the aspiration, can democracy emerge in Egypt?
Scepticism is not unreasonable. As my colleague, Gideon Rachman notes, the stability of democracy goes hand in hand with economic advance. The richer the country, the more educated its people, except where wealth comes mainly from resource rents. Again, the higher the proportion of the desperately poor, the greater the likelihood of a successful electoral appeal by ultimately ruinous populists. Finally, the poorer the country, the smaller the resources at the disposal of any democratic government with which to protect itself against its foes.
Furthermore, democracy is, in practice, merely a tamed civil war. To work, it must be constrained by rules and underpinned by norms. The latter include freedom of expression and acceptance of the legitimacy of oneâ€™s opponents.
True, Egypt is a relatively poor country with a sizeable proportion of the population illiterate. Yet its gross domestic product per head, at purchasing power parity, is almost double Indiaâ€™s and 50 per cent higher than Indonesiaâ€™s. This does not suggest that democracy is, in any sense, inconceivable. Egypt does have a well-organised Islamist movement. But does this have to be deeply anti-democratic? This must be put to the test. Remember that Catholicism, too, was once widely thought incompatible with successful democratic government.
Consider, above all, the upside from establishing even a tolerably successful democracy in much the biggest Arab country. The west has made countless mistakes, and worse than mistakes, in the Arab world. This is an opportunity to provide the help Egypt will need as it steers towards a democratic future. At the least, western leaders can discourage any tendency in the military towards renewing the grim cycle of military despotism, while also encouraging it to protect the democracy against suppression by any of the participants in the new politics.
I am not, I hope, unreasonably naive. I do not believe the triumph of democracy is inevitable in the world or in Egypt. While the modern economy does create opportunities for political opening, it also puts far more potent tools of repression than ever before in the hands of the state. Democracy has indeed progressed. Yet its victory is not assured. At the same time, I wonder if the Chinese communist party believes that their ancient state will remain exempt. People may for a while accept autocracy as the price of stability and prosperity. But humans want to be treated with dignity. Egypt is, I hope, not the last time they succeed.
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