Is it even possible to peacefully transition to democracy, and can the UN do anything to help

Iraq, Syria, Libya, Zimbabwe, Egypt. I think we can all agree that these countries have had a less than perfect transition from either dictatorship or colonial rule to democracy. The “Arab Spring” saw great hopes that previously authoritarian states might find a non-violent way to become democracies. So far, most of these hopes remain unfulfilled. Syria shows us how truly horribly it can go wrong when the existing power refuses to give up without a fight, but what about Egypt. Mubarak didn’t exactly go willingly but at least he didn’t precipitate a civil war. He left the army in charge and, seemingly, all parties wanting to peacefully create a genuine democracy. Although there is still hope that it may end well in Egypt, the path is already more twisted and bloody than everyone hoped. See this article from the Telegraph to remind yourself of the sequence of recent events, and this one from the BBC that goes back a bit further.

I am very, very far from being an expert but hey, fools rush in and all that. I think that the process in Egypt had one very basic flaw, and thinking about, and expanding on, that flaw, has led me to some thoughts about the UN might be able to offer some practical help in similar circumstances in the future. As I said, I am speaking from some ignorance, so I would welcome comments on whether this has any merit or is just naïve and stupid.

The basic mistake I think was to have the elections BEFORE writing the constitution.

With no constitution, people tend to vote defensively, they vote whoever they think will protect them, they vote for whoever Mubarak didn’t like, they vote for whoever is relatively well organised. So whoever wins the election gets power and, again because there is no constitution, they go about making changes to try to keep themselves in power by rigging the system so that either there is no next election, or they are the only party with a chance to win.

This is the “one man – one vote – once” system favoured by many, including the Nazis.

If, however, the constitution is drawn up by all the interested parties before the elections then they all know that they may not be in power after the elections, so they have a powerful, selfish, interest in designing a constitution which will limit the power of those who win and protect the interests of minorities, because they might be one. So whoever wins the election, because there is a constitution, will find it harder to rig the system, so they will try to do the right thing by the country, because they want to win the next election too. It’s rather like a political version of the phylosophical idea of the “Veil of Ignorance”

I discussed these ideas with my son, and he pointed out that you need more than a constitution for a stable democracy. Independent judiciary, free press, some kind of civil service etc. etc. That got me thinking . . . . This might seem like a digression but stick with me.

When there is a natural disaster the international teams that go in to help are much more effective than they used to be because they are basically professionals. They have learned lessons from previous disasters and are not forced to re-invent the wheel every time. Because they are so professional, the local people are not suspicious of them and they are much more successful than they used to be.

I think the UN should put together a team of experts to help countries which are trying to become democracies. This team could be called in by the various interested parties to help and advise on the transition. All the parties would have to agree, with this “Democracy Squad”, the remit and timescales and agree to abide by their rulings. A bit like agreeing prior to taking a dispute to arbitration.

The team could act as a kind of temporary government and civil service which can keep the country functioning but which, because of it’s very nature, could be trusted by the local population, not try to grab and retain power. Crucially it could have the power needed to keep day-to-day society functioning while the constitution and other institutions of democracy are created. In many cases the path to democracy fails because of failures in the economy which lead people to rush to put power in the hands of anyone who promises to give them work and food.

This of course would cost an enormous amount of money, but lets be honest, the  costs when it all goes wrong are greater both in treasure and lives.

Ok it’s all a bit half-baked but I honestly think that if something along these lines had been available Egypt would not have elected the Muslim Brotherhood and things might be very different there today.

And I think the Egyptians might have welcomed it.

Please let me know what you think.

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