For Egypt, Are Elections the Way Forward?

Sa’ada Abu Bakr wrote the following essay.

The people of Egypt are standing at an historic crossroad. But to hear other people tell it, Egyptians are travelling down the highway to democracy. They’ve been stalled for decades but now their engines are revving and they are all but on their way to western style democracy. First stop: free and fair elections.

To all those who died and sacrificed, it would be a disservice to commence this trip without fully examining the destination and any and all alternatives. Required reading before you embark on this journey is Animal Farm by George Orwell. Moral: If new people are put into any version of the same system, no matter how reformed, you will eventually end up with the same results. The problems may be to a lesser degree, more benign, but you will not have the freedom for which people died.

As an American who dabbled in local politics, consider this my postcard from Destination: Democracy. I don’t wish you were here. Sure, I have a vote; I have a voice, but it is not heard. If you have a voice which you can’t use, are you in a worse position than one who can use their voice, unheard? What is the difference?

“Although Bahrain has a parliamentary system, many Shias feel elections have only served to co-opt them into the political system and did not improve their access to government jobs and services.” (AlJazeera News, 2-12-11)

So, apparently, no difference. Free elections only encourage those who would, to achieve power, do and say anything, those with no scruples, the lowest of our low. Anyone who says they want to run for a political office should be immediately disqualified from politics. The process of running for office does not appeal to anyone who is, at heart, a good honest person. Isn’t that who we need now, good honest people?

There should never be a political class, a group of people who make their living as politicians. The political class is insulated, protected from the very people whom they are supposed to represent. How then, can politicians represent people?

Is there another way, a different road to take? First, decide what your destination is. For the voices of the people to be heard. For the will of the people to be enacted. To be free; to rule ourselves.

Well, it’s clear that free democratic elections won’t get you there. I suggest the direct route. Fill all political offices by lottery. It works for jury duty. I haven’t heard of that system being corrupt, beyond people trying to get undeserved exemptions. It works for military duty except, again, people trying to get exempted.

The people of Egypt could vote on the framework of the system. Who is included in the pool? How often can people from the same family be eligible for duty? Should eligibility for national positions rotate geographically?

During a term officers should receive a stipend equal to 200% of their salary from the previous year. They should continue to live in their house amongst their neighbors. It should be seen as a simple matter of changing jobs . Then after they have served a term or two they will go back to their old job.

Enough! of political intrigue and manipulation. Enough! of corporate interests instead of those of the people. Enough! of rule by the rich for the rich. Politicians are a scourge and they do not represent people. We the people should start to begin to represent and rule ourselves. In this age of crowdsourcing we know that we can create, we can collaborate. Yes, WE can. Not ‘we can get him elected to change things’; WE can make change.

If you don’t take this opportunity to now try something new you will regret it. For the highway to democracy is actually a ring road. Eventually you will end up where you started and you will see your grandchildren in Tahrir Square. But, they will go home unsuccessful, unheard. Because, they will live in a democracy and they will have a vote.

19 Responses

  1. First of all, welcome to the blog. I’m happy to see proposals like this trying to bring to bear sortition to deal with pressing issues of the day.

    Second, the following seems very relevant to your proposal…

    Third, I think we need to be careful about what’s wrong with representative democracy right now, and what sortition would bring to the table. This is especially true if you think that elections still have a place in a democratic society. (Opinion seems to run both ways on this blog.) You are quite correct to point to the sham democracies that can be found in several Middle Eastern countries. Egypt itself had one for years. But it’s easy to imagine a “sham sortition” system. Just as Mubarak ensured elections always went his way by methods both crude (banning parties he didn’t like) and subtle (well-timed patronage for key interests), so could one imagine a dictator who controlled a sortition-based political system (by controlling who gets into the random draw, bribing people who are selected, etc.). This is pretty close to what happened in Florence under the Medici, who continued to employ sortition long past the point that any hope of democracy had died.

    And so if we’re going to make the strongest case for sortition, we need to be able to show why elections might not solve the problem even with obvious reforms (all parties can participate, everyone has the right to vote, the ballots are counted fairly, equitable access to the media and to campaign finance, etc.). We also need to be able to show how a sortition-based system could be protected from corruption from the same sources that might corrupt a system of elections. These are difficult questions, but well worth our time to answer.


  2. Sa’ada, I’d like to suggest that the choice that will be made by Egyptians will depend not only on their capacity to reason, but their values. Is the revolution a sign that the Egyptians are finished with authoritarian regimes, or just with Mubarak’s authoritarian regime? Put another way, do they value independence, really, or merely independence from Mubarak?

    I think time will show us what they value most. I believe this is pretty much the same the world over. I believe the reason we collectively accept sham-democracy in the U.S. is that we do not sufficiently value the alternative of true democracy.


  3. Peter,

    Interesting link – it seems the developments in Egypt are inspiring a search for democracy (as opposed to electorcracy).

    I agree with your comments, but I would just point out that talking about “sham democracies in the Middle East” gives the wrong impression that Western systems provide true democracies. I would use the term “sham electoral systems” to describe systems like Mubarak’s, and reserve “sham democracy” to describe the Western systems – i.e., systems that are reasonably ideal electoral systems, but which are still (necessarily) oligarchical.


  4. Greg,

    I don’t think either the Egyptians wanted Mubarak (or dictators in general) or that Americans want to be ruled by an elected oligarchy. Majorities everywhere want government for the people by the people – it is just that getting there is difficult since setting up a democratic system on a large scale is not trivial and since there are powerful minorities who want to be in charge.


  5. Wonderful insight and essay. I’m going to press with this one as a succinct one page flyer and give one to everybody I can. On the backside will be Dr. Ward’s list of outdated things of the past that he covers in ELUSIVE – elections, voting, yard signs, campaign nonsense, political parties, etc. hdh


  6. Tom Atlee’s post described very nicely what sortition can do:

    “If Egypt’s 21st century revolutionaries want their revolution to turn the world, they will make this supposed weakness — their inclusive diversity — into the greatest strength of their emergent democracy. They will cherish, develop and institutionalize their cross-section diversity AS a political platform AND AS the principle underlying their new forms of democratic leadership.”

    and what it can’t:

    “We certainly don’t need to choose our public officials by lot”

    the point being that an allotted chamber can embody diversity, whereas a single public appointment (Minister of Whatever) cannot. Whilst it’s true that if you add up all allotted ministerial appointments they would be more diverse than at present; nevertheless the Minister of Whatever would still be a single person, the only difference being that she would not have had to demonstrate any prior competence for the post.

    So why don’t we all combine behind Tom’s proposal for an additional allotted chamber (AC) as a way of overseeing government activity. Who knows the generals (and their American paymasters) might even like it, as diversity is the best way of ensuring that a single radical group cannot monopolise power. Such a group would need to have very real constitutional powers, including dismissing government ministers, investigating corruption, vetoing legislative proposals, approving budgets and approving (or otherwise) the decision to go to war. Isn’t that enough for starters?

    I do think there is a serious opportunity at hand and it would be a shame to blow it by trying to claim that sortition is the only show in town.


  7. > Majorities everywhere want government for the people by the people – it is just that getting there is difficult since setting up a democratic system on a large scale is not trivial and since there are powerful minorities who want to be in charge.

    I’m a bit more pessimistic here. Majorities everywhere would want government for the people by the people, if they were well-informed and had a little time to think about it. It seems to be the case that large minorities – even a combined majority, possibly – believe that those other groups can’t be trusted with a hand on the wheel.


  8. @Yoram,
    “I don’t think either the Egyptians wanted Mubarak (or dictators in general) or that Americans want to be ruled by an elected oligarchy.”

    Well, it’s obvious that the Egyptians no longer want Mubarak. At least the Egyptians of 2011 don’t want Mubarak 2011. But it’s far less clear that they won’t settle for some other autocrat, theocrat, timocrat or the like. And, if they do, the reason won’t be merely due to their lack of knowledge of what real sortition-based democracy is, or that there are forces that want to rule. It will also be that they do not collectively value independence sufficiently to do what it takes to be independent.

    That’s clearly the case for all other sham-democracies around the planet to include us. We in the US remain under the thumb of our sham-democracy not just because sham-democracy is difficult to overcome or that oligarchs will do anything to remain in power. Certainly there is that, but there are also many among us who willfully collude with the powers that be in order to escape the burdens of being free from their authority. Many among us just do not sufficiently value true independence from authority — and while perhaps claiming otherwise — run in terror from the prospect of being free. Until this is addressed, societies will continue to bow before autocrats and idols of all shapes and sizes and pedigrees.

    We are not well served to lay the blame for what ails modern society solely on those in power. The people are inextricably connected to the problem of their own freedom.


  9. Greg,

    It seems to me you are blaming the victims here and at least partially excusing the oppressors. If we take your approach at face value, we would have to conclude that Europeans (who enjoy a relatively high degree of political freedom) are more active in seeking freedom than, say, the Chinese are or the Egyptians and Tunisians were until recently. I don’t think there is any reason to think this is the case.


  10. “We are not well served to lay the blame for what ails modern society solely on those in power. The people are inextricably connected to the problem of their own freedom.”

    Agreed. Oakeshott wrote a gloomy essay on this, entitled The Masses in Representative Democracy.


  11. “t seems to me you are blaming the victims here and at least partially excusing the oppressors.”

    I am saying the matter is not as simple as black and white. There are myriad factors that might explain the differences you point to between Europe, China, etc. All of the factors worthy of considering are not external to the human beings in those societies.

    “Oakeshott wrote a gloomy essay on this…”

    I am not familiar with Oakeshott, but to see the point need not go much beyond Hannah Arendt’s and Erich Fromm’s classic accounts of socialized evil and its cause(s).


  12. Great has some key things to say on all this..see especially Snider’s foundation paper and also Tholerus and Palme on electronic democracy. The former reminds us that sortition also results in a gulf beteween the deliberative body and the people served. The latter suggests that a mechanism for reclaiming direct vote on key issues might provide a check on that. To which I would add that complete transparency is key..not just full disclosure but a “leg book” that provides clear on line information in plain english about all legislation before the governing body by topic with email access to each bill’s sponsor. It is much harder to fix a broken democracy, like ours. canada’s the Uk’s than it is is to learn from history and build a new model with checks and balances against the outside influences of a global plutonomy. Egypt could do that but may not have the chance as the failed democracies push them to form parties and hold elections. This discussion somehow has to be brought to the people of Egypt so that they know there are possibilities fora truly new democacy that acn truly serve and stay conneceted with and responsive to the people. And to Tom and all of you who care enough to continue this conversation..many thanks.


  13. > The former reminds us that sortition also results in a gulf between the deliberative body and the people served.

    A gulf must exist – this is the gulf between those who are in the difficult-to-reach position of being able to make an informed and considered decision on a particular topic and the large majority who is not. There are probably cases where plebiscites are useful, but this should be made on a substantive case by case basis, not as an artificial public relations attempt to deceive people into thinking that by voting (whether for candidates or for specific proposals) they are determining public policy.


  14. From Tholerus and Palme:

    “The representative system could be extended with a method where anyone can propose an issue, and where such proposals go through a screening process based on similar methods as the final vote.”

    That’s an interesting idea. Perhaps this form of open access for legislative proposals would mean that the final decision could be safely left to the (allotted) deliberative body. Thus the final vote would be considered, whereas the initial open-access process would be subject to (unconsidered) electronic voting on the basis of universal suffrage. Hopefully this would help bridge the gap that Snider refers to.


  15. Which is the foundational Snyder paper that you refer to and is it on the iSolon site?


  16. First Keith..loved your essay on the Citizen’s are a clear thinker and a powerful wonderful that you have brought your voice and your wisdom to this discussion. Yes Snider’s Paper is on their web site(’t get a link to paste in from it their site scroll all the way down to the publications list after the Jury Project..titel begins “I f Angels “. Well worth reading..very thoughtful..


  17. That’s very kind. I couldn’t find the paper on the iSolon site, but googled up his 2009 APSA paper, “If Men Were Angels”. Is that the one?


  18. yes, keith..that’s the one..wonderful paper and fascinating that theCitizen’s Assemblies in Canada, created by sorition, to create a referendum for electoral reform did not receive popular support for any of their refernda. The very process of deliberation creates a gulf so even sortion requires some mechnaism to keep everyone on board and informed, at least on issues of great concern to them. A fuller discussion on my blog here at posterous.


  19. […] the Indignados, the Occupy Wall Street movement, etc. Back in February, Sa’ada Abu Bakr suggested sortition to the Egyptian revolutionaries. In June, the Greek activists in Syntagma Square were using […]


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