Stephen M. Walt

How to get the world’s elites to encourage democracy

Suppose you were a member of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. You don’t really want to run the country openly anymore, and turning it over to some sort of civilian rule would be ok with you. But you’ve gotten pretty rich over the past couple of decades and you’re worried the secularists or ...

MIGUEL GUTIERREZ/AFP/Getty Images
MIGUEL GUTIERREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Suppose you were a member of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. You don’t really want to run the country openly anymore, and turning it over to some sort of civilian rule would be ok with you. But you’ve gotten pretty rich over the past couple of decades and you’re worried the secularists or Islamists might create a genuine democracy, strip you of your power, and then take away all your money and leave you and your family destitute. Or worse. Similarly, what if you were a member of the Alawite ruling elite in Syria, closely tied to the Assad regime? You’re now facing the prospect of civil war, but giving the opposition any real share of power threatens your position and maybe your personal security. Alawites are only 12 percent of the population, after all, and there’s no guarantee that sharing power won’t ultimately put others in a position to persecute you. So compromise is inherently dangerous, and brutal repression starts to look like the only appealing option despite the costs and risks.

In these (and many other) cases, a central issue is the familiar problem of credible commitment. In order to convince unpopular rulers to leave power (or at least to give up a lot of their current privileges), you have to convince them that they are not signing their own death warrants or ensuring their own financial ruin. But it is difficult for a successor regime to guarantee that they won’t go after the old elites at some point in the future; they cannot "credibly commit" to leave the old rulers alone once they have the power to prosecute them. Just look where Hosni Mubarak is today: if he had known he was going to be in trial for his life, I’m betting he wouldn’t have left office so easily, or stayed in the country afterwards.

By the way, this is one issue where the so-called "Turkish model" is not so reassuring. Many people see the AKP government in Turkey as a successful illustration of moderate Islam, and one that has been economically successful, politically popular, and diplomatically innovative. All true. The AKP has also finally broken the back of the Turkish military, which dominated politics for decades (much to Turkey’s detriment). So far so good. But the AKP has used its position of power to wage a far-reaching (and almost certainly excessive) campaign against former military leaders (who have languished in jail for months without trials) and to take a number of worrisome steps to restrict press freedom. So if I were a member of the SCAF in Egypt, I wouldn’t find the "Turkish model" very appealing. Indeed, it’s more of a warning.

There’s no easy answer for this problem, although adopting constitutions that provide for various guarantees (including rule of law, judicial independence, property rights, etc.) and possibly even formal amnesties might be one possible avenue. My own view is that entrenched elites need to reassured that their immediate privileges won’t be dramatically curtailed, even if they give up a lot of political power. In essence, current rulers need to believe that they will be able to live out their lives in reasonable comfort, and that their immediate families won’t be ruined. The state can tax the hell out of their ill-gotten gains, however, so that the great-grandchildren don’t get much, but by then it won’t matter. The downside is that you’re in effect letting the current elites get away with something, for the sake of the greater good.

The best analogy I can think of for this process is the long, slow decline of the English landed aristocracy. Beginning in the early 19th century, the gradual expansion of the franchise and the rise of the middle class gradually led to a curtailing of noble privilege and political power. But the aristocrats weren’t dragged to guillotine or have their estates confiscated, they just got a little weaker and a little less rich, on average, with each successive generation. But this ensured that the nobility didn’t try to dig in its heels and stop the process completely, which would have created a far greater risk of a major explosion.

I think this process needs to happen a bit more quickly in the cases discussed above, but if the forces of change try to overturn the existing order in its entirety and destroy the current elites, then they are likely to face far more resistance. But as I said at the outset, it’s hard to make pledges of restraint completely credible, which is why I expect the process to be pretty bumpy in the months and years ahead.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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