Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Egypt: Democracy and Details

As I write this, Egypt is being convulsed by huge demonstrations, by some accounts larger than those that brought down Hosni Mubarak, demanding the resignation of the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The Army has said it will step in if there is no resolution.

This presents a dilemma. Morsi is a fairly hard-core member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose dedication to democracy is suspect. Indeed, many say he has shown authoritarian tendencies. And the size of the opposition cannot be disputed. On he other hand, he is the first democratically elected president in Egypt's history.

I don't have a suggestion for the short run. But for the long run, let's look at how we got to this point. Before Morsi was elected he had to get through a primary where the top two finishers went on to the final election. Here's what the results looked like:

1. Morsi 5,553,097 (25.30 per cent)
2. Shafiq 5,210,978 (23.74 per cent)
3. Sabbahi 4,739,983 (21.60 per cent)
4. Abul-Fotouh 3,936,264 (17.93 per cent)
5. Moussa 2,407,837 (10.97 per cent)

Morsi was considered the most hard-line Islamist in the race. Shafiq was prime minister under Mubarak, and was thus considered a representative of the old, pre-Arab-Spring regime. Faced with that choice, people narrowly chose Morsi. But notice that both final-round candidates combined were the first choice of fewer than half the voters

Now suppose that instead of using a top-two primary, Egypt had used what is known as instant-runoff voting, known in Britain as alternative voting. Under this system, people state not only their first choice, but their second choice, third choice, etc. If nobody gets more than fifty percent of the first choice votes, then we go on to second choice votes, and so on.

How would this have worked in Egypt? We don't know for sure, but my guess is that people who voted for one of the more centrist candidates were likely to have voted for other centrist candidates for their second and third choices. So Sabbahi or Abul-Fotouh (probably not Moussa) could have ended up as president. This is how instant-runoff voting is supposed to work; the winner is supposed to be someone that represents the views of the majority.

I discussed the case of Egypt a year ago. My point then, as now, is that there's more than one way to pick a democratically elected president. (More than two, in fact.) It was clear then that it was unjustified to say, "See? When Arabs get democracy, they just vote for radical Islamists." It's even clearer now. And, boring as this topic may be, it matters.

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