Monday, February 14, 2011

The Danger of Premature Elections

by Efraim Cohen

Even though some commentators seek to minimize the possibility of a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt by asserting that they are only a "small minority" of the electorate (estimates range from 7% to upwards of 30%), in a recent interview, President Obama was at pains to emphasize that, "The Muslim Brotherhood is one faction in Egypt. They don't have majority support," as if to guarantee that they would not wield undue power in any new Egyptian government.

This is dangerously naïve. One need remember the Lebanese experience, where Hezbollah, representing a sizeable but not a majority portion of the electorate, became king-maker and, ultimately, ruling party after "losing" the June 2009 election. Here's the sadly ironic observation of one American newspaper days after the election: "An anti-Syrian coalition defeated Hezbollah in Lebanon's parliamentary election on Sunday in a blow to Syria and Iran and a boost to the United States. 'Congratulations to Lebanon, congratulations to democracy, congratulations to freedom,' the coalition's leader Saad al-Hariri said in a victory speech at his mansion in Beirut."

Although we all hope that the upheaval in Egypt can lead to a relatively peaceful transition of power, we must not be lulled into a false sense of security even if the first election appears to be free, fair and open. The true test of a democracy – one which Israel and the U.S. passed a long time ago – is whether there is a second election that is equally free.

With the recent stunning developments in Egypt, we must remember one fundamental truth: Elections are not the first step toward democracy, they are the final step. Elections may accomplish nothing unless a society already has in place stable institutions to support a representative, participatory government. These institutions include an independent judiciary, freedom of expression (both press and speech), respect for the rule of law and a knowledgeable electorate. Above all, there must be general agreement by all election participants that losers will accept the will of the people rather than seek to overturn the results through violence.

It is extremely risky to force elections on the basis of an artificial timetable. In some cases, a premature election can be as bad as no election at all; lending a veneer of legitimacy to groups or individuals whose ultimate goal is to overthrow the democratic process. Hamas's repressive regime in Gaza shows what can happen when a party not committed to orderly democracy and the rule of law is allowed to participate in an election without proper safeguards rather than being marginalized and excluded from the process.

During my time in the Coalition Provisional Authority's Governance Office in Iraq, we provided democracy training to set the stage for a successful election. We met with groups of Iraqis in every province to explain the fundamentals of a democratic society and help them build community, civil rights, and professional organizations. Other sections of the CPA worked to create a professional judiciary and police force.

The Coalition rushed to schedule an election in Iraq as soon as possible after completion of the initial stages of the war in 2003-04. They believed the oft-repeated assertion that Iraq had a tradition of democracy that had been subverted only temporarily by Saddam Hussein's autocratic regime. What was forgotten was that the majority of Iraqis had not been born the last time a truly free election had taken place. Today, regarding Egyptian democratic traditions, we hear the same assertion that ignores a similar history over the past half-century.

Despite the Governance Office's concerted efforts that led to that first post-Saddam Hussein election, the future of Iraqi democracy is far from certain. There are some hopeful signs but, nearly seven years later, it remains to be seen whether Iraq will develop into a fully functioning free society or sink back into repression and internecine violence.

There is too much at stake to repeat these mistakes in Egypt.

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Efraim Cohen

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