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Don’t over- estimate democracy

12 July 2013

THE continuing crisis in Egypt has triggered the usual silly comments to the effect that the Arab nations cannot cope with democracy. Strong-man leadership is what they expect, and so the army's taking over is a return to the natural status quo.

Those who make such comments are likely to go on to praise the Sultan of Oman for the clean streets of Muscat and gentle hospitality of the Omanis, which they ascribe to the benefits of benign dictatorship. Such views are condescending: the Arab Spring started in a demand for genuine participation in government.

But what the demonstrators in Tahrir Square do not seem to have reckoned with is that there is an inevitable downside to democratic government. Democracy does sometimes come up with the "wrong" answers, as Egyptians have discovered after their brief 12-month experiment.

This should be no surprise. Even in mature democracies such as our own, there are limits to what any democratic government can achieve. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas, and no one is going to vote for constant austerity, unemployment, and rising prices. When democratic governments try to push through such policies, people come out on the streets. Freedom of speech, freedom to demonstrate, and a free press are part of the democratic package.

There are other problems, too. Our oppositional democracy falls down badly when it comes to any kind of long-term planning. In EU countries, democracy is limited by the need to have stable EU-wide institutions, which are, as our Eurosceptics constantly complain, inherently undemocratic. American democracy, for all its virtues, requires candidates who are rich, as well as media-savvy, well dressed, and with a full head of hair. Those who trumpet the moral virtues of Western democracy should be aware that we all live in glass houses.

Democracy is vulnerable to those who participate in it. This is why it cannot work without educated voters, wide participation, and rational argument. In Egypt, those who support the Muslim Brotherhood are among the poorest, least educated, and most devout of the population. They are not especially concerned about press freedom or human rights; their needs are more basic.

Our democracy suffers from different problems - indifference and cynicism. Party membership is at an all-time low. We are quick to spot corruption, and slow to appreciate political virtue. So we need to be careful about claims that democracy represents the best of all political systems. As C. S. Lewis once said, it can claim only to be the least bad.

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