Now the Hard Part for Egypt

Many thousands of Egyptians, fed up with 30 years of oppressive rule, successfully called for Mubarak's resignation. Their rhetoric is all about Democracy. If their focus remains only on Mubarak, however, they're unlikely to end up with anything resembling real democracy. It is easy for an oppressed group to see the removal of their oppressor as the key to their salvation. While this may be a necessary condition, however, it is unlikely to be a sufficient one. Nor is simple "majority rule" alone likely to permanently improve their lot. While preliminary reports of the attitudes expressed by demonstrators are encouraging, unless other institutions are in established and new norms of civic behavior are operative, the version of democracy that Egypt may end up with may resemble that which we have seen in numerous countries elsewhere in Africa: "One Man, One Vote, One Time."

The clamor for Mubarak's resignation was certainly understandable enough, given the police state operatus he ran for 30 years in office. The exclusive focus on his persona, however, ignores the need for Egypt to develop other institutions and norms conducive to a lasting democracy. First and foremost among these are:

1) A Free Press. Only with a free, unencumbered press is any democratic vote meaningful. If one side has a monopoly on the dissemination of information then the "democratic" result is meaningless. In the 21st century, a free press also implies an unencumbered internet, including uncensored search engines to make information freely available, and social networking sites to permit and facilitate free association. These new technologies tend to empower the powerless and even out disproportionate resources.

". . . were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
--Thomas Jefferson

The important, and oft-forgotten, thing about a free press is that its real import is not to provide special status to reporters, but rather to ensure that citizens will receive information uncensored. Restrictions on the press deprive citizens of information. And without access to information, elections can be meaningless.

In Egypt, Both the western free press and Al Jazeera had significant presence and the Mubarak regime tried to intimidate each.

2) Freedom of Association. Unless groups are free to organize, corral support and demonstrate publicly, it is impossible for informed consensus to emerge. It is not reasonable to expect all citizens to reach independent conclusions about political events on their own. We all have lives to live and a finite ability to assimilate information. Thoughtful political consensus should be based on input from groups whose perspectives we share and whose judgments we trust. That requires that we be free to associate with like-minded citizens and take collective action. And, as noted above, in the twenty-first century, this also means unencumbered access to social networking sitesIt is no accident that both free press and freedom of association were both embodied in our own First Amendment. It was first for a reason; these rights are the cornerstone of any democracy.

One of the first things the Mubarak regime did when threatened was to close down the internet. The cat was out of the bag, by then: Googler Wael Ghonim credited the Internet with giving Egyptian protesters the tools they needed to organize their movement.

3) An Independent Judiciary with a Constitutional Mandate.

The law represents a social contract that we make with one another. Among other things, adherence to principles of law means that we agree that we will abide by principles which we have established in advance. In this social contract, we also agree that even majorities must be subject to these agreements. We also agree that that some elements of this prior agreement are so central to our beliefs and our freedoms, that we will constrain even majorities from changing these "rules of the game" (these are Constitutional provisions, rather than mere laws). Part of the social contract in a truly functioning democracy is that all citizens have rights and that even unpopular minorities get all of these same rights. Another core principle requires that criminal sanctions can only be applied in instances where something was against the law at the time an act was committed, not after the fact (thus our own Constitution clearly states that there shall be no ex post facto law). But enraged majorities, even in democracies, wish to violate these principles all the time when they strongly disapprove of the actions of some individual or group. Only an independent judiciary with a mandate to adhere consistently to clearly defined rules (Constitutional mandates) beyond the reach of government can be trusted to withstand the demands of sometimes enraged majorities.

Under Mubarak, there was no genuinely independent judiciary.

4) Limited Power. Constraints on governmental power, even when supported by clear majorities are a central tenet of our own Constitution that has been replicated in democratic constitutions throughout the world. Constraints on majority rule are not undemocratic, they are central to the operation of civil society. For this reason, our own founding fathers were not terribly concerned about the extent to which the majority would have rights. Majorities, by their very nature, can always count on the lion's share of rights. Such constraints will, of course, not keep majorities from complaining that "minorities have all the rights". While this is oft asserted, it is rarely, if ever, actually true. Our founding fathers, Madison in particular, were rightly concerned about The Tyranny of the Majority. As a result, much of our Constitution was designed to craft appropriate constraints on the extent to which majorities may impose their will upon minorities. Without such constraints, a majority rule system can be as oppressive as a dictatorship.

The Mubarak regime attempted to rule without notions of constrained power.

Of course, these are structural devices. Over the long-term there are many social norms which improve the odds for functioning democracies. A more highly educated public is desirable for this and other reasons, as is social mobility, and some degree of social equality. But these attributes are byproducts of democracy, as much, if not more than, they are prerequisites for democracy. A genuine functioning democracy is only partially about majority rule. A single fair election does not ensure a functioning democracy. Africa, in particular, is filled with countries that had reasonably fair elections--once. "One Man, One Vote, One Time," is not democracy. True democracy is only achieved when that first elected regime so adheres to the rules of the game that it voluntary cedes power to a subsequent democratically elected opponent. There are no permanent majorities in any real democracy.

Lessons for Americans, too
. Before we Americans get too smug about the perfection of our own system, we should consider the extent to which some of these core democratic institutions have come under assault in recent years. Calls for the press to "be more patriotic" or to "take the American side" in conflicts are meant to intimidate and constrain our rights to receive information free of government dictated spin. Likewise diatribes against "legislating by unelected judges" are nothing less than attacks on the independence of the judiciary. And calls to curtail the rights of even noxious persons go to the heart of our democratic principles. All of these have been heard in recent years. If we are to keep our own democracy intact, these calls should be recognized for what they are: threats to our own democratic institutions.

Prognosis for Egypt: What to Watch for Now
. While the clamor for Mubarak's resignation were understandable, if political reform in Egypt ends there, prospects for democracy in Egypt will be bleak. The caretakers of the transition are the military. The thing to watch for are key institutional reforms. Release of political prisoners would be a good start. Then look to whether the press begins to operate independently of government control: do they regularly and freely criticize the regime? And look for the revocation of the blank check "emergency rule" which permits almost unlimited and unconstrained government action. It the military intent is to produce a democratic system in Egypt, these could and should begin almost immediately.

The choice of individual leaders then becomes important primarily to the extent to which those ultimately chosen to lead Egypt are inclined to help nurture institutional arrangements such as a free press, an independent judiciary, free association, a belief in limited government power and constraints upon majority rule. This can happen. Following an even worse regime, Mandela and Tutu did much to begin this process in South Africa. Without the development of such institutions and norms, however, the likely outcome will be the eventual replacement of one demagogue with another. Ask any Iranian.