It was only a few months that I expounded on the dangers of assuming that where democracy is concerned, "more" necessarily means "better." What I hadn't foreseen at the time was that events in the Middle East would so thoroughly vindicate my skepticism about the supposedly inerrant wisdom of "the people", especially when all segments of a society are given a voice in equal proportion to their numbers, however ignorant, illiterate and subservient to religious superstition each such voter may be.
To the dismay of the secular liberal forces behind February’s overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, Islamist parties dominated the first phase of the Egyptian election, according to provisional results.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, as expected, emerged with the largest share with 36.6 per cent of the vote. Defying expectations, the far more funadamentalist al-eNour - the “Party of Light” - emerged in second place with 24.4 per cent. It is backed by Egypt’s growing community of Salafists, adherents of one of the most puritanical strains of Islam.
With the moderately Islamist al-Wesat winning 4.3 per cent of the vote, religious parties are just shy of a two-thirds majority that would give them the power to draft a new constitution without reference to secular rivals, which made a poor showing.
A secular, urban middle class, tired of the authoritarian corruption of the ruling elite, overthrows the old regime, only to find that what replaces it is far more tyrannical than what came before: if this reminds you in an unnerving way of the Shah's Iran, then you are far from being alone in your thoughts.
Call me cynical, but as far as I'm concerned, the only real surprise in all of this is that anyone but the naive and the historically unaware should have expected any different; if one gives an equal vote to each and every person in a country in which fully 80% of the population still mentally resides in the world of the Ottomans, what else can one expect other than an embrace of theocracy?
A mistake too many western politicians and opinionators make in advocating democracy in other parts of the world is to forget that the move to a universal franchise in their own countries was a piecemeal affair, often extending over the course of several centuries; for instance, the roots of democracy in England, which has enjoyed the stablest and longest parliamentary rule of all major states in Europe, can be traced back as far as 1265, through the efforts of Simon de Montfort, through the English civil wars of the 17th century, followed by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, succeeded in the 19th century by the 1832 Reform Act which led to the elimination of rotten boroughs. Only with the 1867 Reform Act was the right to vote extended to all urban males with an income of £10 a year, with those in the countryside having to wait until 1884 to enjoy the same privilege, and not until 1918 was the property qualification abolished altogether. Of course, women were not fully able to vote even then, and members of the hereditary aristocracy continued to enjoy the right to sit in the House of Lords right up until 1999, and even now 92 of the hereditary peers remain in Parliament's upper chamber ...
On reading all of the above, it ought to be apparent to everyone that the United Kingdom has never in its history "enjoyed" [sic] the sort of unalloyed democracy that is expected for every developing country attempting to make a transition from outright despotism, and it ought to be equally obvious that despite this supposed disadvantage, British citizens have known far more liberty, and for far longer, than the subjects of most other countries boasting in theory of a more comprehensive democracy; if we accept that the purpose of representative government is about more than merely allowing majorities the scope to oppressive minorities unhindered, then there is no question that the gradualist British approach has been gloriously successful.
All that I have said about Britain applies equally well to its daughter states in other parts of the world: Australia, Canada, New Zealand and (with certain qualifications*) the United States. All of these countries possessed ruling classes with a democratic tradition directly extending upon the British parliamentary heritage, and in none of them was the right to vote initially extended to all regardless of income. As "unfair" as this might have been in a technical sense, it meant that those who initially held the reigns of power in those countries were held accountable only by those who shared their commitment to rule of law and individual liberty, and their young states could not be wrecked by the actions of demagogues playing upon the fears and hopes of the ignorant. With time the culture of rule by law and representative government percolated down to ever broader portions of these societies, and when these new voices were given access to the ballot box, they had enough respect for the workings of their political systems not to wish to have them overthrown.
To buttress my arguments, I suggest we turn now to the experiences of continental European states such as France and Germany, neither of which experienced an Anglo-Saxon style gradual progression towards democracy as we currently recognize it. In France the consequence was more than 150 years of volatility and instability, with swings from monarchy to mob rule, to Napoleonic caesarism, back to monarchy, to an interval of parliamentary rule, then back again to more caesarism under Napoleon, followed by 3 different republics.
In Germany, the switch was from a toothless, potemkin "democracy" under the close administration of Otto von Bismarck, to the jingoism of Kaiser Wilhelm II, to the anarchy of Weimar, right into the genocidal arms of a certain ex-corporal with a funny mustache ... Only with total defeat and a partition of the country into two portions effectively under the occupation of foreign superpowers did one part of Germany finally come to absorb democratic principles in more than a superficial way, and the democratic bonafides of the other portion of the Bundesrepublik remain doubtful to this day.
As long-winded as all of the preceding might have been, the point I've been trying to get at is simple enough to state: it does not suffice for a state to adopt all of the trappings of representative democracy if the people of said state do not possess the neccessary attitudes required to sustain it, otherwise the result will very likely be "One man, one vote, one time". You cannot expect a villager who cannot even sign his own name, and who believes that the words of the local Imam are all he needs to order his entire existence, to understand why infidels in the big city should be allowed the freedom to make utterances he considers blasphemous. In the long run, all of Egypt's citizens would likely have been better off had these elections been restricted to the educated urban classes, and I imagine that these people will soon be the very ones begging for the preservation of military rule in the face of the Islamist alternative - which no doubt suits the Egyptian generals just fine ...
PS: I recall that Fareed Zakaria made similar arguments for gradual liberalization several years ago, in his famous article "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy". As he put it, what ought to matter is constitutional liberalism, rather than the fetishization of the casting of votes at regular intervals, however meaningless the process.
*The United States is a special case because of the ugly legacy of slavery. Other former British colonies benefited from slavery, but in none of the rest did so large a proportion of the population struggle so tenaciously to preserve the vicious institution as in the USA. The legacy of this struggle is why it is so hard to make the argument for gradualism in the atmosphere of American foreign policy: the memory of "Jim Crow" and the abuse of voting tests remains fresh in people's minds, and anything bearing even a superficial resemblance to that is therefore politically poisonous.