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The Rise of Elected Autocrats Threatens Democracy

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
January 24, 2014


In mid-January millions of Egyptians voted in a referendum on their constitution. The newly revised document won resoundingly, with 98.1 percent voting yes, according to the nation's election commission. Egyptian leaders, and some outside observers, lauded the vote as a tremendous victory for the country's democratic transition.

In reality it was scarcely an exercise in Jeffersonian democracy. Before the referendum, security forces rounded up—and in some cases beat up—hundreds of activists who had called for a no vote. The opposition Muslim Brotherhood, whose leader Mohamed Mursi was deposed as Egypt's president by the military last summer, boycotted the referendum. Less than 40 percent of Egyptians bothered to show up at polling stations, since they'd had no input in drafting the new constitution, which basically reestablishes military rule indefinitely.

Sadly, Egypt isn't an outlier: Last year was perhaps the worst for democracy in nearly two decades. The research organization Freedom House, known for its analyses of democratic trends and human rights, recently concluded that 2013 was a year of "gains, to be sure, but unfortunately many more setbacks in global democracy." Hopes for political liberalization also burned out in other parts of the Arab world, particularly Syria and Libya. And 2014 isn't looking any better, what with turmoil in Thailand, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Turkey, Ukraine, and Brazil.

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