By Kehkashan Dadwani, MPIA 2014

According to American values and the US National Security Strategy (see page 37), the US supports the spread of democracy and has dedicated itself to assisting all new and fragile democracies. The US has also made it clear that we will support any peoples who are seeking democracy. This can be explained by American policy maker’s general acceptance of the democratic peace theory as factual and effective, resulting in policies that are aimed at assisting democratic development worldwide. The rhetoric paints a nice picture, but where is the contingency plan for assessing the potential for “backsliding”? ”Backsliding” occurs when a democracy transforms into an autocracy. While I may not personally support the fervor with which the US advocates for the spread of democracy, if policy makers insist on allocating resources to help opposition movements or facilitate the removal of authoritarian leaders, then it is important to keep a close eye on their development in order to protect our interests.

It is important to note that once a democracy is established, the US commitment must continue. According to Jay Ulfelder and Michael Lustik’s article ”Modelling Transitions To and From Democracy”, democracies face the risk of “backsliding” primarily in the first 15 years of existence. Okay. So we have a rough time parameter. I would add a few years in either direction to cover any outliers, so the first 20 years of existence is a reliable time span during which democracies are the most susceptible to regime upheaval. It is during this time that the US should be looking for any signs that the currents of change are churning.

The next concern is what to look for: what second image characteristics put a democracy on the short list? According to Jay Ulfelder (see here and here) democracies fail when domestic organizations, such as major political parties or military forces, decide that state power is a means for furthering their parochial interests rather than those of the nation and have the capabilities of seizing and holding such power. If these factors are found to be manifest, several situations could play out. This could include a “military coup, an opposition-led rebellion, or consolidation of incumbent advantage“. A consolidation of incumbent advantage refers to the abuse of power by elected leaders, which could include fixing elections or restricting civil rights.

The US can use this information to 1) identify what states are at risk, 2) be proactive in helping democratic governments address any rising tensions with such domestic organizations, and 3) be better prepared for the fallout if a democracy begins to fail.

In Ulfelder’s article he evaluates the rising risk of “backsliding” that exists in South Africa. He mentions that similar situations have played out in places like Ukraine and Mali, among others. In Ukraine we saw an instance of a consolidation of incumbent advantage, with the incarceration of ex-Prime Minister Yulio Tymoshenko and the limitation of media freedom, while in March of this year Mali we saw a coup against democratically elected leaders.

At this very moment, we can look at Egypt. President Mohammed Morsi’s actions have provided a telling case study of how elected leaders pose a risk to democracy when they abuse traditional democratic powers. Eric Trager’s article in the Wall Street Journal points out that Morsi has “issued a sweeping constitutional declaration” that, in essence, gives him complete executive and legislative power in addition to the authority to choose the writers of a new constitution. This is a blatant and unapologetic move away from democracy.

So the question I pose to you is: what can the US do? What should we do? Does America have an obligation to pressure Morsi into being more democratic? My perspective falls in line with Trager’s, in that I think that we absolutely must communicate that we do not condone Morsi’s abuse of power and, furthermore, that Egypt has an obligation to abide by democratic norms in both domestic and international affairs. This might effectively be promulgated through the withholding of aid, although we can only control so much after the fact. Perhaps, had we looked more proactively at the situation in Egypt utilizing Ulfelder’s telltale characteristics of at-risk democracies, the US would have been able to dissuade Morsi from adopting such distinctly un-democratic policies.