Every now and then, I come across forceful comments about “the world failing to provide the necessary support to such and such emergent democracy” or “depriving such and such people from their democratic aspirations.” It’s never easy to read these comments. The practicalities of “democracy building” are far more intricate and elusive than making statements about it, and “the world” can be powerless, even useless, in that process.
I just returned from a year spent in Cairo. I arrived when Egyptians had already been sitting in Tahrir Square for a month with a list of strict democratic demands, and I left the country a few days after Mohamed Morsi took power as the “first democratically-elected Egyptian president.” I admit that I’m not an expert on democracy building, but I can tell one thing from my Egyptian experience: transitioning into a democracy is a long and tedious struggle, and it consists of more than pouring money over countries.
Western governments have been providing funding to several organizations in many countries to strengthen civil society, which, in theory, would facilitate a subsequent transition to democracy. However, as far as reality goes, if a powerful institution is not willing to participate in the effort for change, there will be no such change in any given country. It takes only one institution to derail the process; that’s what happened with Egypt.
After Mubarak left office, people, especially Egyptians, assumed that life would get better. They were wrong. The dictator, in whatever shape he comes, is only one player in the game, and although he is a significant bad guy, the dirty work really lies in destroying the system he created. In Egypt, the military junta that took over after Mubarak initially positioned itself as the revolution’s bodyguard. It categorically refused any foreign involvement, and in December 2011, after forbidding the presence of international elections monitors, it went as far as arresting and prosecuting members of the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute for mingling into Egyptian internal affairs. Meanwhile, the junta started to show that it would not give away any of it enormous powers, hindering plans of “building an Egyptian democracy” to this day.
There’s nothing anyone could do about it, not even the United States, who provide a substantial yearly aid package to the Egyptian military for keeping in good terms with Israel. Rhetoric had turned futile, and concrete actions were impossible to execute, or were against too many countries’ best interests. That was it: in a couple of moves, the military had successfully turned “the world” from active participants to passive spectators. The result today is a “democratically-elected” president with little to no legislative powers. Democracy is far from being the talk of the town—how to put food on the table is Egyptians’ real priority.
Many agree that their revolution has brought little positive and more difficulties. Some even dare to think that life under Mubarak was actually better. So when people talk about “the world” failing to answer the call of others’ democratic dreams, I point to Egypt: building a democracy requires more than talks and foreign aid.