Really Existing Democracy

A few notes on the conflict in Egypt and the situation in Turkey

An Egyptian man walks in front of a wall sprayed with graffiti, depicting the ruling military council controlling the presidential elections as a puppet show, near Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo 16 May 2012 -

It goes without saying that the military coup against Morsi has been a disaster, the natural consequence of most military coups—just take a look at Turkey’s history for vindication. Reaction in the US has been more tepid this time around than when the Egyptian public’s ire was directed against Mubarek two years ago. People not only are upset with the military coup, but also upset with the massive protests in general calling for his resignation. This has been a common trend in 2013. While I’ve no way of gauging their political alliances, my guess is that most of these individuals would identify as conservative, but since I’ve no hard evidence to allege that, I’ll put it aside and get to the heart of the matter. Critics of the protests in Egypt, as well as in Turkey and Brazil, have largely repeated the mantra of using their democracies in order to change their governments. There were accusations that the old, secular, Turkish elite, which is said to be a minority, were attempting to push their will on the rest of the country who clearly elected Islamic-leaning Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or that Erdogan had done plenty of good for Turkey’s economy. State supporters posited that Brazilians shouldn’t be too upset with Dilma Rousseff, who has cleaned up a lot of corruption even though plenty of corruption remains. Similarly, people have disparaged the effort of regular Egyptians to oust the democratically elected Morsi, regardless of whether the economy has improved or if he has attempted to make Muslim Brotherhood beliefs a part of everyday life. Once and again  those who were unable to sympathize with the protests repeated the glories of democracy and derided the actions of citizens critical of their government and taking (sometimes violent) steps to force them to resign.

Where to start? First, Americans or Brits who put their faith in democracy can have little understanding of how it works on their home turf, much less in a third world country. We could divide the ideas into two camps: one is traditional democracy, where people contribute ideas and vote for officials to carry out those policies and are accountable to the public should they fail in their duties; the other is Really Existing Democracy, where the individual comes out twice in a decade, listens to soaring rhetoric from both sides, and casts a ballot with great disregard for their own interests or the interests of the general public. There are enough people in America content with the idea of Really Existing Democracy, that of pulling a lever every four years to vote for one guy whose policies aren’t terribly distinguishable from the other guy’s; assuming, of course, that you can distinguish what either of them feel about anything. Additionally, foreigners find it bizarre that there are only two electable parties in the US—if you want to go third party, you can, but unless you live in a solidly blue or red state, why bother? But for some reason Americans accept that Really Existing Democracy is traditional, true democracy; voting for the guy whose ideas you disagree with less, that true democracy isn’t where common people have an active role in forming policy and putting forth and supporting candidates who will follow through on public demands. Perhaps that’s why in the past two decades somewhere between 40-50% of registered voters choose to abstain; people understand that they’ve little to no role in forming policy.

So if that’s democracy in the most powerful country in the world, imagine how it must be in countries with rich histories of internal violence and political, economic, and/or militaristic pressure and meddling from outside forces. Turkey is not as interesting a case when it comes to election figures. AKP has garnered more and more votes in the last three elections (and, essentially, since its genesis), though it has never actually received a majority of votes—more votes than main opposition party CHP, no doubt, but overall more people voted for other parties collectively than AKP, and with high voter turnouts, something like 80%. Regardless, less than half the population elected this right-wing front, yet they have ruled the country in a way that disregards the half that didn’t. And not to criticize AKP supporters or allege that they’re dumb, but it is concerning that a large base of AKP supporters—particularly in the east—are illiterate. The average Turk has only completed a few years of schooling, to the point where they can’t read or can only read on a childlike level. Again, this isn’t a judgment thrown at AKP supporters; it is instead a condemnation of governments past and present that have done little to help educate their population, though part of me suspects they prefer it this way.

Additionally, the infamous Ergenekon trials ended recently, which saw 275 so-called ‘conspirators’ bent on overthrowing the government thrown in prison. While there may be some reason to believe that undemocratic officials within the military were planning or at least discussing a possible coup can’t be dismissed out of hand—especially given Turkey’s history—the investigation quickly bloomed into an intellectual witch hunt: academics, writers, lawyers, political opponents, and dissidents in general were also indicted and convicted. All of this, unsurprisingly, done behind closed doors, with the public unable to access courtrooms or evidence. Since the trials, Erdogan appointed people of his persuasion to take over the courts, the military, and the educational system; in essence removing some of the last shreds of the secular state and setting up a situation possibly more dangerous than what previously existed; generals loyal to Erdogan might be more predisposed to react harshly to the Turkish population in opposition to his rule the way the police force have acted as an arm of the state. But Erdogan doesn’t see it this way. An army that could conceivably depose him is threatening; an army that does his bidding—regardless of its effect on the population—is not. What’s more, AKP seems determined to threaten, intimidate, and punish those involved in Gezi Park protests. This isn’t just a hint; Erdogan has loudly and proudly announced it several times. The harshest critics of Occupy Wall Street thought participants worthless louses who wanted to feed off the government teat. That’s a far cry from the president (or prime minister) explicitly stating he would throw them in jail simply for organizing. The most worrisome plight of Gezi Park protesters and AKP opponents is the complete lack of a political party where they can put their faith. The reason main opposition party CHP lost in the early 2000s was because of the stagnation and poor human rights record, primarily against Kurds. While still popular, they’ve no credibility and would serve as a useless replacement. Other parties, such as nationalistic, right-wing MHP, are also fairly popular but out of sync with most Turks, and so the general populace is left with parties skewing in one way or another that’s disjointed with their beliefs. The Really Existing Democracy of Turkey is not dissimilar to that of the US; party officials tow their ideological line regardless of the population’s wishes.

Egypt is the case where the cries of democratically elected government are more hackneyed. The turnout for the general Egyptian elections was a dismal 54%, and the Muslim Brotherhood took 37% of the vote. Turnouts for the 2012 presidential election were lower: 51.85% (~26.5 million), of which Morsi received ~52% (13.2 million) of the vote. In essence, the democratically elected government and president defended by Westerners were essentially elected by a quarter of the population eligible to vote. But naturally the Really Existing Democracy lover would criticize those who didn’t vote as hating democracy or their country or, as I’ve so often heard it addressed to Americans who don’t vote, that if you don’t cast a ballot you’ve no right to complain about the outcome. I don’t understand why the refusal to mark a name on a ticket removes your right to criticize governmental inefficiencies. Not all third parties appear on every ballot in every state; so if you disagree with all the candidates you’re presented with (and it’s a relatively small number) why are you obligated to give support to someone whom you don’t? And Egypt’s low voter turnout is understandable given their election history. Under Mubarak, faux-elections generated no more than 30% turnout (such a figure is a high estimate), so it isn’t surprising that even given multiple options in what could be perceived as an open election Egyptians would be skeptical.

This isn’t to justify the military coup that took place. I was rather shocked when I found out, and of course worried despite the cheers of massive anti-Morsi protest groups. The ongoing conflict smells much worse than Mubarak’s deposing, where there were hundreds of casualties but far less support for the man in charge. Morsi received about twice as many votes in 2012 than Mubarak did in 2005, so this bigger base probably accounts for the fiercer resistance. In the end, though, Really Existing Democracy churned out a leader willing to enforce his party’s visions on the entire country even though a small portion of the population supported him. A disturbing trend currently running across the world is that of the elected leader neglecting the will of all those who oppose him, as though his ascendancy to power is proof enough that he is correct to do as he pleases.

This is, as I see it, Really Existing Democracy. If our role in our governments is to be nothing more than appearing out of the shadows once every few years to enable an individual or party to carry out policies contrary to the public will, why call this democracy? Why have faith that going to the ballot box will magically rectify the grievances people across the globe so rightfully pronounce?


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