Don’t Fear the Revolution

During the fall of 2011 I wrote on the possibilities of Muslim democracy following the Arab Spring for The Citizen, UGA’s journal of political science and international affairs (usually only for faculty, but I was fortunate enough to be asked to write a piece). I go back and take a look with each turn in Egypt’s political fate, from electing the Muslim Brotherhood, to drafting a constitution, to marshal law. I based my predictions on previous democratic transitions across the world, on Egypt’s demography, on political science theories, and on the naturally slow process of building stable democratic institutions. So far I think my predictions are holding up.

Published in The Citizen

January 2012

The fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on February 12 has left many doubts about the possibility of Arab or Middle Eastern democracy. There are lingering doubts that sharia law is compatible with a modern secular notion of liberal democracy.

Amidst the uncertainty of chaos and upheaval, it becomes difficult to keep track of facts. Some (we might call them the “Clash of Civilizations” crowd) will claim outright that democracy is impossible in Muslim or Arab countries, that their entire culture and way of life is incompatible with liberal values. Others might point to the Islamic Republic of Iran, another instance of a popular Middle Eastern revolution overthrowing a U.S.-backed despot: in that case, the ouster of the Shah in 1980. That revolution emphasized the “Islamic” part far heavier than the “Republic” part, with dangerous ramifications for the region and the world.

Though there is certainly reason for continued concern, history and statistics reveal fierce glimmers of hope. First, we can point to democratic successes in other regions thought to be incompatible with liberal democracy. Second, we should acknowledge that, contrary to popular belief, democracy has already proven very successful in a growing number of Muslim nations. Next, a look at Egypt’s demographics reveals a relatively homogenous population with little, if any, potential for ethnic sectarianism. Furthermore, fears of the rise of the radical Muslim Brotherhood can be allayed by evidence from previously radical parties moderating themselves for mainstream vote-getting: indeed, Fareed Zakaria recently described the gathering clouds of radicalism as merely the “storm before the calm.” Lastly, the fact that there was little foreign influence in the Egyptian revolution may be its most promising feature, and proof that the dissent was purely and inherently “of the people.”

The Rise of Confucian Democracy

When asking whether democracy can flourish in the Arab world we can look to the Confucian-oriented Asian world for guidance. For years, scholars had believed that democracy was incompatible with the rigorously defined personal relationships permeating Confucianism. Here was a culture that valued harmony, co-existence, and each person performing his or her specific function as part of a cohesive whole. Freedom and individual rights, while laudable in the West since the Enlightenment, appear to the classical Confucian mind as greedy, selfish, and adversarial. Capitalist competition seems unpalatable to a culture in which individuals subvert personal goals in the name of a collective good. Yet, seemingly against the odds, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have all emerged as viable Asian democracies. These “Asian Tigers” are so successful that scholars now point to Confucianism as a key determinant of their success. They de-emphasize Confucianism’s façade of restraining democracy, and focus on the underlying Confucian work ethic as the primary reason for the region’s capitalist success. The lesson is inevitably that a culture cannot be defined as definitively for or against democracy. Rather, there are democratic elements and there are anti-democratic elements, and as nations adapt themselves for entry into the global liberal order, we’ll increasingly see the democratic elements straining to the see the light of day. There is little reason to believe there cannot be a rise of Muslim democracy just as there was a rise of Confucian democracy decades ago

Muslim Democracy Success Stories

A misconception in the scholarly and popular mind imagines democracy to be absent in predominantly Muslim countries. By most measures of democracy, however, there are four majority-Muslim nations with strong records of success: Indonesia, Mali, Sierra Leone, and Turkey (Lebanon in the 1970s is another oft-cited example). And there’s a strong bench of emerging players waiting to enter the game and prove themselves: Bangladesh, Burkino Faso, and Malaysia, among others. In fact, a 2003 study by Columbia political scientists Alfred Stepan and Graeme E. Robertson that, among the poorest nations on Earth, Muslim countries have a stronger democratic record than Christian nations, outperforming democratic expectations more often than their brothers of the book. Looking at the world’s 15 Muslim-majority nations with per capita GDP less than $1,500 (extremely impoverished), the Stepan and Robertson study noted that no less than five of these nations (33%) had “moderately robust” scores on Freedom House’s democracy and rights scales. Conversely, of the world’s 22 majority-Christian nations mired in extreme poverty, just seven (30%) had comparable Freedom House scores.

Ethnic Fractures

The recent U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has shot holes in many people’s expectations of democracy in Muslim countries. Yet this has much less to do with Islam itself than it does with ethnicity and sect. Ethnic and sectarian violence has plagued Iraq and Afghanistan for years, in ways similar, perhaps, to the strife between Protestants and Catholics in Europe. Afghanistan’s three major ethnic groups (Pashtun 38%, Tajik 25%, Hazara 19%) have been showcases for tribal loyalty at the expense of national unity. Iraq’s 65%-35% Shia-Sunni split has been a similar cause for violence. However, Egypt identifies ethnically as 99.6% Egyptian, and religiously as overwhelmingly Sunni, with only a few thousands of Shia in a nation of 82 million. In case after case, ethnic homogeneity has been vital to building trust and stability in emerging democracies, and modern Egypt has this lucky stroke of history and demography.

Moderation Theory

A growing body of scholarship suggests that democracy has an inherent ability to “tame” radical and revolutionary groups. Radical groups simply have no incentive to remain radical. To be viable players in a democracy, they must seek big-tent coalitions. Gunes Tezcur states in his 2010 study Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey that a “key assumption of this theoretical framework is that vote maximization entails developing ‘centrist’ political platforms.” The trend has repeatedly played out through history, and the July 25th issue of Time reported on this very phenomenon in Egypt: “Under the circumstances, you might expect the Islamists to be reveling in their ascendency, seeing it as an endorsement of their extreme views. They’re doing no such thing. Instead they are herding toward the political center, adopting positions that would be entirely familiar to Republican and Democrats.” In fact, a top Muslim Brotherhood leader even said, “We can no longer be the party that says ‘down with this’ and ‘down with that.’ The thing we stood against is gone, so we have to re-examine what we stand for.”

Imposing Democracy

Egypt already has major advantages in that its seeds of democracy were not sown by foreign occupiers in the Iraqi case or by sharia-based reformers in Iran. Yet, although the Egyptian uprising was youthful and non-religious, it still faces a stiff test in formulating a new constitution, an equally relevant case of a potentially too-abrupt switch to popular rule. In his 1997 Foreign Affairs essay, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Fareed Zakaria mentions how a bloc of French-speaking West African countries all disastrously ratified new multi-party democratic constitutions in a six month period during 1990. In particular, the Sierra Leonean case led to a bloody, decade-long civil war. Self-imposition of democracy can be just as harmful as foreign imposition. Time also highlights this concern in Egypt, with many advocates for democracy none too thrilled about the fast-approaching fall elections, and actually favoring writing a constitution first: “the liberals are showing themselves to be poor democrats. Several prominent liberals…have launched a signature campaign to force postponement of the parliamentary elections and get an unelected panel of experts to first remake the constitution.” Trends echoing through history, from the ancient Greeks to the 1789 American Constitution, have highlighted this peculiar idea that anti-democratic beginnings might be the best way to preserve democracy for future generations.

The File on Donilon’s Desk

In February, President Obama’s National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon, directed his staff to review recent popular uprisings that have toppled governments, searching for lessons applicable in Egypt.  The six-inch thick file now sitting on his desk, which his senior staff compiled, is the emerging blueprint for American policy in the post-Arab Spring world. Many of the theories mentioned above are sitting in that file on Donilon’s desk. When advising the President on American policy in the region, Donilon would be wise to acknowledge the successes of Confucian democracy, to use Egypt’s charmed demographics to his advantage, and to hedge his bets that radical Islamists will have to moderate themselves to be electorally successful.

However, two major problems present themselves to the American policymaker. First, the policymaking time frame is dramatically shorter than the scholar’s. While the Arab street and the American public may clamor for a Western-style democracy now, Zakaria’s “illiberal democracy” teaches us that democracy must grow organically with the nation. We cannot forget that the great clarion call of American democracy, that all men are created equal, was not truly realized until 200 years after the words were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Democracy takes time.

Secondly, the American policymaker should realize, as Stanford’s great scholar of democratic transitions, Larry Diamond, tells us, that if we want “secular” to no longer be a dirty word in the Muslim world, then “Islamist” must no longer be a dirty word to us. We should accept center-right Muslim parties who base policies on Muslim values, without going so far as to enact sharia law. Just as Christian Democrats are a major feature of European politics and many American Republicans actively court evangelicals, Diamond argues that an acceptance of moderate Islamic democrats should be a major facet of a “policy of principled engagement.”

We live at a time of great uncertainty in the Arab world. If we approach the situation, however, with a clear view of the world and as students of history, there is little reason for us to fear the revolution.

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