A new start: can Egypt handle democracy?

Protesters in Egypt want immediate democratic rule, but some in the West say the country's not ready, and real change must come more gradually.

For two weeks now, protesters in Egypt have been calling for a change of government. Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country since 1981, must leave immediately, they say, and a democratic government take his place.

But Mubarak hasn't left. Last week he claimed that he was ready to step down, but that if he abandoned office now, chaos would follow. On Saturday Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, agreed. Democracy would come, she said, 'but that takes some time. There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare.'

The commentator Melanie Phillips went further: 'the unhappy fact is,' she wrote, that 'the crucial infrastructure of the rule of law, independent judges and police, free press and so on that are the necessary precondition of democracy just don't exist.'

Why should democracy be so hard to achieve? When first invented by the ancient Athenians, it was beautifully simple. Citizens met in Athens to vote on new laws, serve as juries in trials or elect officials. The people had direct control over all aspects of the city-state.

Of course, what works for a single city might not work for a country of millions. In England, democracy evolved as a system where people elect a small number of individuals to speak for them in parliament. Whereas Athenian democracy was 'direct', British democracy is 'representative'.

A parliament of representatives can vote on laws but it can't govern a whole country on its own. Instead, in the UK at least, parliament chooses a leader to be the head of the government. That leader then chooses ministers to help govern, and those ministers are helped by thousands of politically independent civil servants.

Other groups are also important: judges, who apply the law; religious figures, with their influence over the people; generals, who command the loyalty of the army. In a working democracy, the powers of these groups are limited and separated, to prevent one group getting too much influence.

There are other ingredients too: a free press to hold the government to account; an independent police force; schools free from propaganda; companies that aren't dominated by government ministers.

Now or never?
Egypt has suffered authoritarian rule for decades and doubters argue that its key institutions have been deeply corrupted. Without good preparation, a new democratic state could crumble entirely.

But the young protesters in the streets of Cairo are impatient. 'Slow reform,' they say, is just code for 'more of the same.' This chance of democracy may be risky, but it must be taken now.

You Decide

  1. Is freedom possible without democracy?
  2. In the UK, we have a 'representative democracy.' But would 'direct democracy,' where anyone could vote on any question, be better? Why / why not?

Activities

  1. Imagine you were a protester in Egypt and write a letter to Hillary Clinton to try to persuade her that your country needs democracy without delay.
  2. Many democracies have rules set out in a constitution. Do some research into constitutions around the world and then draw up your own, for a new nation.

Some People Say...

“Democracy is over-rated.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Egypt already has elections. Doesn't that make it democratic?
No. Egypt's elections have not been free. Opposition parties have been banned. Voters have been intimidated. Vote counting has been manipulated. Without free elections, a country can't be democratic.
But if Egypt did have free elections then it would be?
It would be more democratic, yes, but only if elections stayed free. Countries normally ensure this through their constitution.
Their what?
A constitution is a set of rules that specifies things like how often elections happen and how long a president can serve for. It is the legal basis for a state.
Democracy sounds very problematic.
Indeed. Winston Churchill said: 'democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.'