The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

What passes as sage advice in Washington

The mind-boggling stupidity of neo-cons is on display again in this recent piece by Michael Rubin, arguing that the US should impose the kind of electoral system Egypt should use. After warning of the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood and what happened after the Iranian revolution, Rubin writes:

It's against this backdrop that the White House should use its leverage to ensure not only free elections, but also those which ensure the checks and balances necessary for democracy. 

Egypt experts agree the Brotherhood has a natural constituency of only 25 percent of the population but, at the same time, acknowledge it is the best organized party in the new Egypt. 

If Egypt holds elections according to a winner-takes-all system (as in the United States), the Brotherhood might leverage its minority support to achieve a dominating grip on government. 

However, if Egypt adopts proportional representation, then even the most fractious and disorganized secular leaders can form a coalition after elections to quarantine or balance populists whose commitment to democracy is tactical and fleeting.

Likewise, the White House should demand that Egypt embrace open lists. Corrupt politicians should not hide behind unconditional American aid. Nor should American tax payers help fund any country afraid to allow international dignitaries to observe elections.

The problems with this:

  • Rubin is apparently unaware that the electoral system has already been decided.
  • He is also unaware that the electoral system will be partly proportional.
  • He obviously has no knowledge of Egyptian electoral politics, or the problems with PR systems more generally, if he thinks that they would necessarily encourage more liberal governments. Firstly, a lot of Egypt's electoral districts will be dominated by patrician rather than ideological forces. This type of local politics would be diluted by a PR system. Secondly, a glance at Israeli politics will tell you that PR systems can empower radicals: just look at the stranglehold that Shas and pro-settler parties have had on successive coalition governments there.
  • If a PR system was chosen, there is no guarantee that secularists would be able to form a governing coalition.
  • Rubin also has apparently no idea that the US telling Egyptians what electoral system they should use would neither be very effective nor really help liberals if done in their name. In fact, I'm pretty sure they would be aghast.

As you see in a lot of analysis from the neo-conservative side of the spectrum, this argument is really not about Egypt. It's about finding a new angle from which to bash the Obama administration. If this is all that interests the American Enterprise Institute, where Rubin has a perch, fine. But we should not ever take it seriously as a think tank.