Foreign Policy Blogs

Accountability in Egypt

The turmoil in Egypt raises endless questions about accountability. To name a few: Is it possible for a dictator to be accountable to his people? What responsibility do Egypt’s allies have for holding him accountable? Are the massive public demonstrations currently on display doing any more for accountability than the previous status quo?

Any leadership that cannot be peacefully turned over by the population is inherently unaccountable. Citizens should always have the ability to vote for their preferred leaders and reject those who they do not favor. Even some elected leaders who remain in office too long can begin to become unaccountable, as inertia and a lack of viable alternatives keep them in office as their energy and skill begin to diminish. One might think not only of Hugo Chavez but, arguably, Michael Bloomberg.

On the other hand, there are things that an unelected (or elected through rigged polls) leader can do to increase accountability. Consultations with civil society and the general public, maintaining transparency in governmental processes, and a fair judicial system won’t replace free and fair elections, but they will improve the ability of the population to effect some change. The problem is that most “benign dictators” believe that they are doing these things to a greater extent than they are. Don’t we all want to believe that on balance we are doing the right thing?

Egypt’s allies, and especially the United States, are walking through a minefield at the moment. Hosni Mubarak is still in power (as of this writing), so they have a difficult time saying outright that he is in the wrong. This clearly is a failure to hold him accountable. But much as human rights activists would like things to be otherwise, the primary concern of the White House and the State Department is not to maintain maximum accountability in the world. Their job is to maintain security and prosperity for the American people, and sometimes that requires a little authoritarianism here and there. It is certainly right to pressure the Obama administration to promote human rights and condemn the excesses of the Mubarak regime, but the reality is that that is only one of many considerations they have to grapple with. Clearly we cannot rely on foreign leaders to hold governments accountable; that is why true democracy, even when it brings unsavory types to power, is better than benign dictatorship.

Lastly, it is tempting to see the current demonstrations as the Egyptian people finally seizing the opportunity to hold their government accountable. They are expressing the grievances that were never before heeded, and they are attempting to effect the change that they could not achieve through the ballot box. But violent protests that bring a country to a halt – closing businesses, leaving people to hide in their homes – are not a means for ensuring that the voices of the population as a whole are clearly expressed to those in power. The demonstrations are the voice of the most aggrieved, the most daring, perhaps the most violent, but not necessarily a representative majority. The Egyptian people may have had no choice but to take to the streets, and we can hope that their efforts are not in vain. But that does not mean that a new leader in Egypt will mark a boost in accountability.