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The current of events is flowing fiercely along the Nile River these days.

The ripples started this January when 98% of Southern Sudan’s residents voted to remain independent from Sudan and form their own country. Southern Sudan will officially join the community of nations in July, 2011. It will take work to build this new nation (the U.N. reports that a 15-year-old girl there has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school), but the future seems full of possibility.

From Southern Sudan, the ripples flowed north to Egypt – where we have all witness the 18-day revolution that changed the face of the Middle East, and the world.

This Friday, however, the current flows full circle to the Nile’s source – Uganda. Starting February 18, Ugandans will go to the polls to elect their President. Polls suggest that current President Yoweri Museveni will likely be re-elected to another five-year term. If he succeeds and completes the term, his tenure will reach 30 years. Museveni still enjoys considerable support from those that appreciate the stability he brought to much of the country after Idi Amin’s reign of terror. However, 3.5 million new citizens have been registered since the last elections in 2006, and 90% of these new voters are between the ages of 18-23. These young voters are more likely to be fed up with President Museveni’s increasing corruption and apparent desire to remain president-for-life.

Among other things, I will be watching to see how Uganda’s judiciary and military are able to serve as an impartial force to ensure that the elections are free and fair. As we saw in Egypt, the independence of these institutions in the face of an authoritarian executive is perhaps the most important factor in democratic transition.

Whether it begins this week or in five years, let us hope that this generation of Ugandans gets the opportunity to lead a genuine democratic transition to a post-Museveni era marked by peace and increasing prosperity. They deserve it.

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There is talk these days from across the political spectrum, spurred by the events in Egypt, about ‘real democracy’.

Appearing on Sunday talk shows last weekend, Secretary of State Clinton called for transition in Egypt to “real democracy, not a democracy for six months or a year and then evolving into essentially a military dictatorship or so-called democracy”.

Echoing this, conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer wrote this week, “Our paramount moral and strategic interest in Egypt is real democracy in which power does not devolve to those who believe in one man, one vote, one time.”

Ironically, for more than a generation many leading political theorists have defined democracy exactly that way – one man, one vote, one time.

In 1991, writing about democracy’s “third wave”, Samuel Huntington stated unambiguously, “Elections, open, free, and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inesescapable sine qua non.”

Perhaps the Egyptian experience, coupled with democratic movements currently underway in Tunisia, Yemen, South Sudan, possibly next month in Uganda, and elsewhere represent a paradigm shift in our thinking about democracy.

During the first half of the 20th century, democratic success meant securing government of the people. Nationalistic and independence movements across Latin America, Africa, and Asia worked to expel colonial powers and secure a sovereignty of their own.

The second half of the 20th century saw a global preoccupation with elections – as exemplified by Huntington. Governments in the former colonies headed by foreign puppets, hereditary kings, or populist revolutionaries were rejected. Government by the people in the form of popular elections became the goal.

But, we have learned over the past few decades that elections, however important, do not in themselves bring about a democratic society. “Suppose the election is declared free and fair,” the late Richard Holbrooke reportedly said on the eve of the 1996 elections in Bosnia, “and those elected are fascists, racists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to peace. That is the dilemna.”

Elections can be rigged explicitly through corruption and violence, or implicitly by co-opting or dividing potential opposition, stoking fears amongst disempowered voters, and appealing to foreign powers’ desire for stability. What’s more, regular elections can be quite consistent with the persistence of deplorable and deteriorating living conditions within the society.

Underlying the current calls for real democracy is an argument that democracies ought to also be for the people. Real democracies not only feature local control and regular elections. They are also home to governments that measure all activities against their ability, or likelihood, to elevate the condition of life enjoyed by the citizenry. These governments do not always have the capacity or luck needed to succeed, but they are committed to the continuous attempt.

Different leaders may have different ideas on how to proceed (i.e. rely exclusively on the private sector in hopes of a trickle-down; provide basic welfare to guarantee minimum social justice; forge a middle ground through regulation and public/private partnerships; focus on austerity; cultivate foreign aid; build a large military to provide safety; maintain a small military to save money; prevent immigration to put existing citizens first; promote immigration to encourage diversity, economic development, and innovation; and so on, and so forth).

In other words, in a real democracy, governments and politicians are only legitimate when their proposals are presented with the justification that they will improve the lives of those they govern. Anyone without this goal in mind is beyond the pale and without merit.

In one week we observe Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In one month, on March 4, we will commemorate the 150th anniversary of his inauguration. Perhaps it is fitting that the man who memorialized democracy as government of the people, by the people, and for the people in his speech at Gettysburg provide the historical backdrop for the new birth of freedom seemingly underway in our world today.

As I watch events unfold in Egypt, I can’t help but think of Uganda. At the surface, the parallels between Presidents Mubarak and Museveni are plain to see. Both are war heroes that brought stability to much of their country. Both forged strong ties with the West and leveraged this support to consolidate their own power domestically. Both have remained in power for 25+ years. And, for some reason, both made the decision to circle their wagons around their own survival rather than prepare their country for peaceful democratic transition.

It is puzzling to me why so many leaders decide not to take the high road. I am less familiar with the Egyptian case, but I know that President Museveni could still cement a positive legacy for himself in the eyes of mankind by stepping down and putting all his energy into leading his country through a peaceful and democratic transition. But, instead, he insists on forcing his countrymen to choose between his corrupt stability or the uncertainty of populist revolt. Why not ride off into the sunset and become a Cincinnatus or Washington? He could live well; books would be written about him; he’d probably win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course, the reason for Mubarak and Museveni’s calculation probably lies in an under-appreciation for what is being asked of them. In the United States, we look fondly upon George Washington’s virtuous decision to step down from power. But, we often fail to appreciate that this decision was made without the fear that a democratic transition would result in fundamental social change in the country. Slavery and marginalization of native peoples ensured that any transition of power would occur within a limited pluralism. In other words, there was no risk that the country would go from Mubarak to the Muslim Brotherhood or from Ankole to Acholi. Thus, by bracketing the voices of a large swath of the populace, there was less at stake for the United States in building the institution of democratic transition.

I wonder, if African slaves and native peoples had the vote in Washington’s time, would things have been the same? Would Washington really have stepped down so honorably if a free and fair election risked bringing to power an entirely different social group prepared to take the country in a drastically different direction? An even more interesting question is, would the elites around Washington – Addams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, etc. – have allowed Washington to step down? Or would they, like the elites around Mubarak and Museveni, have encouraged him to hold on to power and cultivate aid from donor countries to decrease dependency on local voice? Perhaps some of them would have worried privately that a Native American president might replace private property rights with communal tenure, or an African American president would implement a land-reform agenda to break-up enormous plantations. These founders, in turn, might have to flee back to Britain, or in exile to France or Spain. Of course, we will never know the answers to these questions, but it is interesting to consider them.

The American democratic experiment has been conducted gradually, incorporating new variables over time. We created democratic institutions while controlling for slavery; we industrialized while controlling for harsh labor practices and gender inequity; we promoted global democracy while propping up dictators from time to time.

The United States is a force for good and the world’s most successful democracy. But, the road to this point was long and full of litter.

The truth about the American experience ought not give the autocrats of the world an excuse for their spinelessness. But it ought to give us pause. As we ask nation-builders across the world to democratize in one, two, or even three generations, we should make it clear that we aren’t asking them to catch up to or emulate us, but to do that which we weren’t able to do ourselves.

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