The chaos in Egypt has brought forth pious praises of democracy. "So what if the Muslim Brotherhood seizes power," the pundits ask, "as long as there are democratic elections." But what is the virtue of democracy anyway?
Democracy is a tool. It is a means, not the end. During the Bush Administration, democracy was treated as an end. The embedded assumption was that the average Arab-Muslim wanted the same things we did. A condensed version of the American Dream with jobs and freedom for everyone. And when given a chance at a voting booth, tyranny and terrorism would blow away like smoke, as a liberated electorate would choose leaders who would give them these things.
That universalization of the American Dream is part of the immigration narrative. It's a powerfully appealing idea complicated by an uncomfortable reality. The reality that much of the rest of the world may not see things the way we do. They may want the same things, but they don't want the same way or on the same terms. Our narrative tangles material success with political freedom. Theirs associates material success with honor and public order. The American Dream is not the same thing as the Muslim Dream. The conflict is apparent in the Clash of Civilizations. If we use our democracy to protect the American Dream, they will use theirs to protect the Muslim Dream.
As a means, democracy is only a tool for distributing power. And even our own country is torn apart by deep divisions over how that power should be distributed. The entire ObamaCare debate, the gap between rights and entitlements, is a continuation of an ongoing 20th century debate over what the 'end' of government should be. Such debates are fairly rare outside of a handful of Western countries. The assumption throughout most of the world is that the role of government is to regulate everything for the benefit of the public. Even the current unrest in the Middle East is driven less by human rights, and more by frustration over the failure of regional governments to maintain low food and fuel prices. (It seems like quite a contrast when compared with the Tea Party, which protests to demand less regulation.)
Those for whom the distribution of power is a means not an end, will exploit democratic elections as a means, while still imposing authoritarian rule. Islamist movements have exploited populism to get to power, but their philosophy of power is not populist, it is still top-down rule. That is the problem with democracy, you do not need to believe it in order to make use of it. It is not a covenant or a philosophy, only a means to an end.
Like most tools, democracy is only as good as those who use it. The bloc vote undermines the distribution of power, and as common as it has become in the United States, it is far more common in tribal societies where families vote as they are told to by their leader. You can give people the vote, but you can't make them think for themselves. And the celebrations of democracy in the region have had less to do with the individual exercise of the franchise, than the power of the collective group the voter is there to support, the tribe and the religious faction. Not all Americans vote as individuals, but the individual vote is far rarer in the Muslim world, where the group identity has a way of smothering any inkling of individualism.
In such a system, parliaments boil down to glorified tribal councils. Their function has more to do with grandstanding, than legislating. The actual decisions are made behind the scenes by power brokers who solicit the support of the leading factions, and then give their marching orders to the legislators. Parliamentarians in the Muslim world deliver impassioned speeches, denounce each other and fight for their party. Rather than elected representatives, their role is to serve as the cheerleaders for the powerful families who make the actual decisions. You can witness that same sound and fury in Pakistan. Turkey or Russia, men who have no decision-making power working themselves into a lather to retain their place in the 'mafia' that actually runs the country.
What does democracy mean in such a system? A power shift. The general public can never rule and doesn't want to. What it wants is cheap food and fuel, jobs and security, and for things to be the way they were in their grandfather's time. When the government stops giving them those things, it will rise up long enough to replace it with another. It will still be a tyranny, but like almost every tyranny, it still needs public support to stay in power. The uprisings are a reminder that if people don't have food or money, they can always replace one government with another. Or at least die trying. Democratic elections allow them to accomplish this with a minimum of violence. That is one other virtue of democracy. But the end result is still tyranny.
The American system makes it very difficult for even democratic elections to undo Constitutional rights. But the Constitution of the Muslim world is the Koran. And it can only be temporarily repressed, not undone. It is always waiting around the corner, promising an answer to everything. The Koran is not that old by the standards of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism or Hinduism-- but it is still far older than Arab nationalism. It is younger than the tribes and the families, but older than their collective memory. The Koran with its narrative of tribalism in the service of Islam defines the Muslim, as much as the 4th of July with its narrative of armed independence against government authority defines the American. In times of turmoil, it is to Mohammed, and the Koran's narrative of him as a religious visionary fighting against a corrupt leadership, that the Muslim turns to. Is it the model that is embedded in his culture and will always be there in his politics.
The idea is simple enough. Hand over power to the right divinely chosen leader and sit back and watch society get put in proper order and the infidels cower. In societies with widespread illiteracy and deep rooted cynicism about politicians, the Islamists always seem like a good solution. Figuring out what political parties actually stand for is difficult, especially if you can barely read. But all the Islamists have to do is wave a copy of the Koran. Even if the average Egyptian has hardly read the Koran, he is for it. How could he not be for it, it is his religion. Given a choice between a tangle of Arab Socialist parties and the Koran, it's not much of a competition. The Socialists and the Islamists both promise family benefits, and the usual bread and circuses. But the Islamists also promise to restore morality and honor by putting everyone from independent women to Christians to Israel and America in their place. That's how the Koran spells a winning ticket.
Governments are defined by the values of their people. No tyranny that is completely at odds with the values of the people it rules over can remain in power for long. Alexander the Great was one of the first world conquerors to understand that. His generals did not just conquer, they integrated. Foreign kings could rule over countries, but only so long as they integrated into the values of the country they governed. A dynasty that failed to do so was doomed. Whether it was the line of Herod, the Holstein Czars or the Muhammad Alis of Egypt. Democracy accelerates the process by which unwanted rulers are removed, but does not profoundly change it, unless it is accompanied by the conscious exercise of representative rights by the electorate.
The Bush Administration was far too enchanted with democracy as an end, to realize that it was only a means. In the hands of a people who believe that all men are created equal, it can be a tool of ownership. But in the hands of those who only use it to protest or as a shovel to direct the flow of money to their group, it has no moral standing. It is not inherently any better than tyranny, only slightly different.