The collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire in Eastern Europe created a real-world laboratory for spawning democracy. U.S. and Western advisors were sent to these countries to explain how to create electoral democracies. With its Sunday vote in favor of quick elections, Egypt is about to embark on what many hope will be its road to electoral democracy.
The results of the great wave of democratizations in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe appear encouraging at first glance. Fifteen of the twenty one countries today are classified by Freedom House as “free” or “partially free.” Two of these, Ukraine and Kirgizia, may lose this ranking in the near future. In any case, these statistics suggest an encouraging three-quarters probability of success in Egypt.
Upon closer examination, the picture is less encouraging. The countries that successfully democratized had characteristics that Egypt clearly lacks: They had a democratic tradition from the recent past (Hungary, Czech Republic, and Latvia), most of them were invited to become members of NATO or the European Union, or they had strong pro-democracy leaders (Poland, Lithuania).
The “unfree” countries, like Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, look more like Egypt: They lack a recent democratic past. There is no pro-democracy leader who can symbolize the hopes of democracy to the nation like Walesa in Poland, Yeltsin (in his prime) in Russia, Havel in the Czech Republic, or Brazauskas in Lithuania. Surely El Baradei cannot serve this role. Instead of pro-democracy leaders they have anti-democratic leaders from the old regime. They lack viable pro-democracy parties or even political parties in general. The parties that have formed are mouthpieces of the leading elite; their role is to preserve the status quo.
Much is being made in the press about the importance of the two-term limit for the president in Sunday’s referendum. Experience in the “unfree” “new democracies” is that constitutional terms limits can be gotten around. There can always be a “popular call” for the leader to be made leader for life, or a crony can fill the job while the real leader operates behind the scenes.
Egypt will likely follow Russia’s example: Mubarak’s National Democratic Party will play the role of the decaying Russian Communist Party – a significant vote getter but not a real challenger. The political party of the Muslim Brotherhood will be the well-organized “party of power” (what is now Putin’s United Russia). The pro-democracy forces will play the role of the liberal Yabloko party, which will be gradually marginalized.
This is not an outcome democracy advocates welcome, but it is the most likely.