As the ‘Arab Spring’ falters in Egypt, mechanisms to support democracy are more critical than ever

November 18, 2013

Sally Painter is  a member of the Board of the Truman National Security Project and co-founder and COO of Blue Star Strategies.

Egypt, a powerhouse of the Middle East and a long-time US ally under Mubarak’s rule, has served as a potent example of both the promise and peril of the so-called “Arab Spring.” Few in the West could fail to appreciate the courage and dedication of millions of Egyptians – many of them of a younger generation – who congregated in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo to demand a greater voice in the political life of their country.

Yet the developments since those heady days of 2011 have only underscored that a key part of democracy-building is what happens when the protests come in from off the streets and engage in the hard work of platform building, electioneering, and, eventually, governing. Egypt’s passionate but disorganized secularists were no match for the discipline of the Muslim Brotherhood. Likewise, Egypt’s factionalized society and looming economic challenges seemed to overwhelm the inexperienced President Morsi.

Now, the revolution has come full circle, with former President Morsi deposed by the head of the army and standing trial this week for his alleged role in inciting violence. The example of Egypt demonstrates that the need for sustained efforts to support transitional democracies and to develop ongoing dialogues for peace building in conflicted societies has never been greater.
This is a particular challenge for European foreign policy, given the EU’s determination to support young democracies in its extended neighborhood. Under its European Neighborhood Policy, the continent seeks to engage the young democracies on its perimeter, including Egypt as well countries such as Ukraine and Serbia whose polities are still struggling to reconcile their past conflicts.

The EU engages with these countries not only in the realm of economic development and trade, but also in supporting the strengthening of institutions and political processes. What we are learning is that these areas, especially when it comes to the strengthening of the private sector, aren’t separate at all.

These efforts have led to the creation in 2013 of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED), an organization largely modeled after the highly influential National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in the United States. The EED, like the NED, will channel donor money to struggling civil society actors in precarious democracies.

The Endowment will deliver support to a collection of countries as diverse as Morocco, Syria, and Azerbaijan – and those are only the beginning. It will partner with many different types of civil society beneficiaries, from political parties, to journalists, to NGOs.

There are, however, ongoing challenges for the EU in this area. Specifically, there is a growing disconnect between short term, emergency-response “conflict resolution”, and longer-term initiatives to build enduring and transparent institutions and systems of good governance. In Egypt, this means the difference between ending the standoff between the military and the Brotherhood, and constructing long term institutions that build national consensus.
Then there is the role of economic development in fostering democratic transitions – and the accompanying importance of private sector engagement with the process. In the early stages of democratic opening, there can be an expectation that more open societies will automatically mean growth and prosperity. In fact, the uncertainty of these periods can lead to falling investment and economic stagnation, which then erodes popular support for democracy. With poorly defined rules of the game, some of the worst aspects of capitalism can rise to the fore, including cronyism, corruption, and monopolistic practices.

Thus, democracy efforts must engage the private sector to encourage critical investments and create much-needed jobs. Values of entrepreneurship and innovation take time to instill themselves. Especially in the precarious early stages, people must see that democracy can deliver the goods.

There is also a danger in an approach that focuses too much on one challenge at the expense of a broader view of democratic – and economic – development. This is the argument of Mara Hernandez of Partners for Democratic Change International (PDCI), a global partnership of twenty independent, local organizations in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East that work to promote civil society, good governance, and conflict management.

Rather, according to Hernandez, what is needed is to see democracy as an “open-ended project” that incorporates both short term “fire fighting” as well as long-term sustainability measures. Importantly, such a framework must recognize the symbiotic relationship between these realms – that is, that ad hoc stabilization efforts can produce the necessary stability for the beginnings of institutional development, while the creation of those institutions themselves can reduce conflicts down the road and thus mitigate the need for temporary conflict resolution mechanisms.

This is surely no easy task. But the examples of Egypt and other countries from Libya to Ukraine demonstrate that initial enthusiasm for democracy isn’t enough. To truly help build young institutions, democracy allies in Europe and elsewhere must recognize the importance of laying the long-term foundations for success.