Egypt “Not Ready” for Democracy: Notes on Authoritarianism, Climate Change, and America

(Note: the proprietor of this blog isn’t quite emotionally ready to handle the John Bolton appointment, except to say we’ve spent the week ruminating on the 15th anniversary of the one time Bolton unequivocably got his way.)


As we round into Egypt’s presidential election, in which Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is running essentially unopposed (his one opponent has endorsed him), the victor himself is lamenting his lack of worthy opposition.

“You are blaming me for something that I have nothing to do with,” Sisi said in the interview that was broadcasted across major Egyptian channels.

“I swear to God, I wished 1,2,3 or even 10 distinguished people (ran) and you choose,” he added.

“We are not ready, isn’t it a shame … we have more than 100 parties, nominate someone.”

Now, to be perfectly fair, without wanting to impugn on the credibility of al-Sisi, there were one or two other candidates, but they got busy or remembered they had a hair appointment this week or something.

Two prominent former military men made surprise announcements late last year and in January that they would run against Sisi, with indications from the street that their bids might be popular.

One of them, ex-military chief of staff Sami Anan, was arrested in January, accused of illegally running for public office, and remains detained. The other, former air force commander and prime minister Ahmed Shafik, also dropped his presidential bid.

Rights groups say authorities have cracked down on media ahead of the vote to silence criticism.

It’s clear that, at best, Sisi is “managing” this democracy, a la Putin, or really many of his predecessors in the Arab world. Most authoritarians still have to pretend that they are running elections, giving virtue its due with a smirking nod, but openly make it impossible to be challenged.

But it’s the way in which al-Sisi defends running unopposed that is interesting. He clearly says that Egypt is “not ready” to be democratic, not ready to have a healthy, flourishing election. That’s a common refrain among dictators, and to be sure, it is one with some credibility.

One region in which it was frequently used was central and east Africa. It was a favorite line of Yoweri Museveni, who said that his country would be torn apart by ethnic fighting if he allowed for elections. And, taking over, as he did, after the rotating horrors of Milton Obote and Idi Amin, he may have been correct.

It was also used by his neighbor, Paul Kagame, in Rwanda. Kagame didn’t believe that, after the genocide, Rwanda would be able to handle free and fair elections without some kind of bloody reprisal. And he may have been correct.

We’ve seen the flip side of this dynamic in Iraq, where the Bush administration was more interested in elections (with their purple-thumbed camera-ready grins) than in actually rebuilding. The smart set, myself included, inevitably intoned that “elections are the last step of a democracy, not the first.”

The problem is, when one man (and Indira Gandhi aside, it’s always a man) decides that only he is standing between his people and democracy’s blood-dimmed tide, it gets awfully hard to see a point to step down. After years of tarnishing his legacy, Kagame seems to letting go, finding his country ready. Museveni isn’t even pretending anymore, and his rule has largely degenerated into murderous pentecostal homophobia.

As for al-Sisi? Is he more of a Kagame or a Museveni? That’s actually a hard question to answer, because Egypt doesn’t have the terrors of an Amin or Hutu Power. They have the deadly clashes between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, and of course they have the stifling decades of military rule which oppressed and mutated the democratic impulse. But as is clear, those are all things which al-Sisi is guaranteeing.

In other words, he winkingly and self-righteously says that Egypt isn’t ready for democracy, while perpetuating the conditions that allow him, with a slight degree of correctness, to say that.

And it isn’t like Egpyt is going to flourish under al-Sisi. His austerity measures haven’t boosted the economy, and have instead made the poor even poorer (and as poor as Cairo is, the countryside is often at medieval levels of hand-to-mouth poverty). And it is going to get worse, as what made Egypt, this most ancient country, is shrinking.

Remember: it always comes down to water.

The Nile River is a bountiful source of water for Egypt, but threats to the waterway and explosive population growth are pushing the country toward severe water scarcity. Upstream of Egypt, Ethiopia is constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a project that Egypt fears could disrupt its water supply. Downstream, rising sea levels are encroaching on the Nile Delta, home to half the country’s population. Cairo, Egypt’s capital and largest city, lies at the heart of the imperiled delta.

The great, great people at Circle of Blue also point out some sobering statistics.

There’s a lot to unpack here, not least of which is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Again, this is a situation where a fairly arbitrary border could mean life or death, as people on one side, closer to the headwaters, can do what they like. This is where conflict and our future water wars start, something that impels authoritarian instincts. Who has time for democracy when our very water is at stake? That’s a pretty damn compelling question.

But of course, it isn’t “just” external, cross-border wars that increasing drought makes more likely. As arable land disappears, and more people movie into cities, they become enormous incubators of discontent. Ways of life are uprooted, and governments that don’t pay much attention to the concerns of their people are primed to face revolt.

This is what happened in Syria. It would be disingenuous to say that the civil war was caused entirely by climate change, but a worsening drought produced the kind of conditions that led to revolt. And that changed the world.

By now, reader, you may have noticed that all these conditions don’t just occur in the world’s warm places, in the poor places. They are all happening in the United States as well. We have vast problems with water infrastructure, and are entering an era of massive drought. A government that doesn’t react to that, and that indeed consistently works to make the lives of the poor and middle-class, and those of farmers and rural people, more miserable, is one that can erupt in violence.

We’ve already seen that in increasing doses. From Sutherland Springs to Parkland, from Austin to Oregon, from Chicago to Arizona, there is a raggedy howling madness, a wildness unleashed in the land. As our country begins to fray at the seams, the urge for authoritarianism could grow stronger and stronger.


And, needless to say. we have a President now who, in his own dimwitted, self-aggrandizing way, is nothing but authoritarian impulse. He’s surrounding himself with people who give into his every will, and the worst may be yet to come. He also is cosseted by a party with a reflexive hatred of elections, even if their attempts at stifling the vote have seen welcome setbacks this week.

But it is easy to see the outlines of a terrible future. A country shaking and uncertain due to the uprooting ravages of climate change, the scourge of overlapping drug epidemics, lowering standards of living, and unconquerable national contradictions. Random horrible violence becomes the way of the land. What can such a country do? What can elections do?

Or is the country “not ready” for democracy? Are the conditions right for authoritarianism?

It’s possible. That’s why the democratic impulse has to be enlarged and given sway. The smart set was wrong about elections: they aren’t the end-point of democracy. They aren’t the last step. They create the conditions for debate, for participation, for liveliness. They bring people to the street.

Elections don’t always work (see, for example, 11/08/16), and that same bustling process can increase division, and even pave the way for authoritarianism. But when authoritarians, be they al-Sisi or the governor of Wisconsin, say that a country isn’t ready, what they really mean is that they can’t control the outcome. And that’s something we should always encourage.

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