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Egypt and the Meaning of Democracy

by John Spritzler

August 18, 2013

In light of recent events in Egypt, what does "democracy" really mean? By most accounts, the election in Egypt that installed the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi in office as president was as fair as they come. Jimmy Carter said so and virtually nobody asserts the contrary.  At the time of the election and for a short time after it, the Egyptian military claimed to be in support of the laws under which Morsi came to power, and it recognized Morsi as the legitimate president of Egypt. Everybody praised Egypt's embrace of "democracy." Few thought to ask what "democracy" actually means.

In light of recent events--the military's violent overthrow of the Morsi government and violent suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood's attempt to regain what they had won at the ballot box fair and square--it is a good time to rethink what "democracy" means in the real world.

As events in Egypt demonstrate, "democracy" is not a system of government that enables citizens of a nation to peaceably resolve all conflicts. The conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military leaders is an example of what I call a fundamental conflict, meaning a conflict that can only be resolved by force including violence or the credible threat of violence. When the conflict is fundamental, then--by definition--it is one such that neither side will accept defeat until it is forcibly defeated by violent force or the credible threat of it.

If a person claims that a nation is democratic in the sense of enjoying a form of government that enables its citizens to resolve fundamental conflicts peaceably, then that person is very mistaken. No such government in the real world (as opposed to text books and theory) can do that.

The most important conflicts are fundamental conflicts. The conflict between those who want economic equality versus those who want economic inequality is a fundamental conflict. The conflict between those who want a monarch or dictator or a theocracy or a Communist Party to rule versus those who want ordinary people to have the real say in society is a fundamental conflict. The conflict between the American slave-based Confederacy and the Federal government was a fundamental conflict, which was made evident by the fact that it was only resolved by a Civil War, despite the existence of the U.S. Constitution, with its elected Congress and President, being fully functional at the time.

Just because a conflict is fundamental, however, does not mean that one side represents the angels and the other side the devil. I believe that if the Egyptian military leaders had unfettered power or if the Muslim Brotherhood had unfettered power, life in either case would not be very good for ordinary Egyptians, because neither side in this conflict seems to be for economic equality.

When we talk about democracy (without the quotation marks, i.e. real world democracy) we need to understand what it means. Democracy is widely, though wrongly, understood to mean a government that has two properties: #1) it gives all citizens of a nation an equal say in decision-making with no higher power able to over-rule them and #2) it enables citizens of a nation to resolve all conflicts peaceably.

Leaders of "democratic" nations often argue that the first property is fulfilled by allowing all citizens to have one and only one vote. In reality, of course, citizens on the losing side of a fundamental conflict that is resolved, in reality, by force, do not obtain in the voting booth a real say in the outcome of this conflict because the outcome is not decided by counting votes but by which side brings to bear greater force against the other.

To make it seem as if the second property (resolving all conflicts peaceably) holds true, these "democracy" leaders need to hide from view the violence that they employ to ensure that, in all fundamental conflicts, their side prevails over the other side. The best way to hide this violence from view is to avoid using violence by relying instead on just the credible threat of violence. In the most stable "democracies," such as that in the United States, the ruling class is able to rely almost exclusively on the credible threat of violence against its citizens rather than actual violence. The occasional times when the rulers must rely on actual violence (such as in clearing out the Occupy Wall Street encampments around the United States) must be disguised to appear to have as its purpose merely protecting "public safety" or "law and order" so that people don't see it for what it actually is--violence to defeat the opposing side in a fundamental conflict of values and goals.

If there can be, in the real world, no form of government that truly has the two properties that are widely misunderstood to be the defining properties of a democratic government (an equal say for all and peaceable resolution of all conflicts), and if governments that claim to be a democracy are in fact only fake democracies (i.e.,  quote democracy unquote), then what defines a genuine democracy?

A real world, genuine, democracy is a government in which people who share fundamental values and goals (and only such people) exercise power in society in a way that enables them (and only them) to have an equal say in decision-making, and in which they (and only they) peaceably resolve non-fundamental conflicts among them (and only them.) A democracy, in this realistic sense of the word, is, among other things, a way that people with shared fundamental values and goals can cooperate to use force or the credible threat of force against those with contrary fundamental values and goals, in order to ensure that their side prevails in such conflicts.

If we don't understand what real world democracy means, we will be forever fooled, hoodwinked and manipulated by those who know very well the difference between real and fake democracy, and who advertise their fake "democracy" as democracy.

Those of us who want to shape society by the values of equality and mutual aid have shared fundamental values and goals; we need to create our democracy to shape the world by our values, and prevent those with contrary values and goals from defeating us. Democracy is for us, not for our enemies.

Related articles are: A Misunderstanding about Democracy and Thinking about Revolution.

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