Feb 5, 2011

Arab States, Revolution, and the Viability of Democracy

The protests against Mubarak's regime, at first pitting protesters against police, the army in the midst but on the side, then giving way to clashes between looters and citizens protecting museums, churches and mosques, followed by bloody confrontations between pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak crowds, then peaceful gatherings again. . .  and next week who knows what -- this is one of those situations where the West, composed of societies long governed by liberal-democratic (in the broad sense), largely secular, principally civilian regimes, becomes conflicted over who to support, what outcome they would like to see and to promote in Egypt -- and indeed in the broader revolution ongoing in the Arab world -- this round of a revolution whose rallying cry is Democracy, or at least democratic elections, starting in Tunisia, then taking roots in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria.

The protests call for and aim at change of regime, and the protesters have good cause.  One devil's bargains western governments entered into or inherited from previous administrations has been maintaining or at least turning a relatively blind eye to autocratic and repressive regimes throughout the Arab world.  Why?  A host of different reasons, trade-offs, decisions, precedents.  There's already enough bloggers weighing in daily about the many aspects of the unfolding Egyptian situation -- and its broader implications -- aspects including its backdated history, so I don't intend to delve into that in detail, except where that history impinges on a question I think many in the West would like to ask, but are afraid to vocalize, perhaps for fear of its implications, perhaps worried whether it might not sound racist:  Can Arab states realistically move towards functioning, sutainable democracies?

The current Egyptian situation is both implicated product of previous answers, and question, like a never-healed wound, opened anew.  The protesters are drawn from and represent a broad spectrum of Egyptian society, united in opposition to the non-democratic Mubarak regime. They call for his resignation, and after years of repression and non-democratic politics, they want democracy.  That means elections, debates, parties, jockeying for power, competing ideals and programs, participation by citizens in broadly shaping their future, their society, their government.  Democratization holds out promises -- but not assurances -- of accountability, responsibility, representation, and along with it presumably prosperity, respect for at least some set of rights, opportunities to speak and not be silenced.

But, Egyptian civil society, the tissue of non-government groups, associations, movements, organizations, in which citizens come together, pool their voices and practice their interests, has long been moribund under the weight of the Mubarak regime.  The face of the fear of the West in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood.  As one of the few longstanding, cohesive, disciplined opposition groups, with support among some portions of the citizenry, in any genuinely democratic elections, they would seem poised, if not for outright success, at least for taking many of the seats at the table in whatever coalition succeeds the present regime.  In Gaza, it was Hamas, in Lebanon, Hezbollah.  The ongoing experiment with democratic governance in post-invasion Iraq has far from certain outcomes, and provides a cautionary picture.

Committed, ideologically strong Islamist organizations of a variety of sorts -- often hostile to or wary of each other -- could engage in the sort of politics made possible in fledgling democracies whose legitimacy remains an open question, regimes of people unused to, inexperienced with, and uncommitted to a political ideal derived from the West.  While using the apparatus of constitutional democratic  government, insisting on respect and protection for their rights, wielding the political power votes grant them, consolidating whatever gains they make politically, they would undermine the process and the regime, aiming ultimately at imposing one version or another of Sharia, or perhaps even more ambitiously at constituting a new Caliphate.  Democracy would become merely a temporary breeding ground for Islamic totalitarian regimes.

My own view is that there is a real danger in Islamic totalitarian movements (as a scholar of fascism and other totalitarian ideologies, that's the term I have settled on in preference to alternatives like Islamo-fascism -- I do think that one key similarity is that Islamic totalitarianism, like Fascism, Integral Nationalism, and National Socialism is not simply a rejection of the versions of modernity conceived of in liberal democracies but involve alternative conceptions of modernity).  But, the ball is rolling, and propping up the present system of non-participatory, unpopular, autocratic regimes in the Arab world as a bulwark against Islamic totalitarianism is no longer tenable.

This, I think, is one of those moments in history where events cascade, and something new has the opportunity to emerge on the world-historical scene.  There are risks -- nothing is determined, nothing is a sure bet, particularly when it comes to that most volatile of regimes, democracy, the one about which it was quipped: Democracy is the worst regime, except for all the others . . . . Democracy, we ought to remember -- as Plato somewhat sourly pointed out -- is the motley, multi-colored regime, the poikile politeia, which contains threads of the other regimes and the types of people who embody or advocate them.  The fear of the West is that Egyptian (or other new Arab) democracy will turn out instead like the coat of many colors that provoked the stronger, jealous, unscrupulous to wrest it away (and throw Joseph the Dreamer into the cistern).

There are really two key critical questions that have to be asked.  First, after years of repressive non-democratic rule, and given the attractiveness of non-democratic and well-entrenched Islamic totalitarian movements to at least significant portions of the population, if Arab states move towards genuinely democratic regimes, can those regimes be sustained, can the political process move away from simple power politics and toward some shared conception of common good which includes the stability of that very democracy?  A second question is whether there is enough of a civil society to sustain and support a new political democracy?  I think these are critical questions, because my views on the prospects for developing democracies is one considerably influenced  by Aristotle, J.S. Mill, and Alexis De Tocqueville -- the latter two of which get labeled by the oxymoronic term "conservative liberals".

There are two paradoxes concerning democracies.  One is that they are highly liable to transform into non-democratic regimes, particularly when rival factions are motivated not merely by interest or ambition but by long-brewing and ready-for-manipulation passions of fear, hatred, or rage (reflected poignantly in one recent report), or by ideological divisions, rivalrous conceptions of good and evil, justice and injustice.

What lends democracies staying power is habituation, the people becoming accustomed to it as a way of life, and -- for at least some of the citizens -- learning by doing how to participate in it, how to come to terms peaceably with bitter opponents.  Aristotle and Mill both stressed these dynamics, the latter calling attention to the significance of a marketplace of ideas, where open debate could occur. De Tocqueville made it very explicit how a robust civil society could provide such a needed training ground for the kinds of activities, habits, attitudes, assumptions, that while not absolutely necessary for a democracy, certainly contribute to its health.

The other paradox is that states that have been ruled by non-democratic regimes tend to drive out or dampen the very things needed for a  healthy democracy.  This is what has been asserted of Egypt, and whether that is truly the case or not will have to be seen.  I am guardedly optimistic about the prospects for a shift to viable democracies in the Arab world for four main reasons -- going beyond the recent and interesting Pew polling which found support for democracy among the Egyptian population .

First, democratic elections are taking place in some Arab states -- admittedly, at times marked by violence -- and the experiments with popular governance continue there, providing a model, or at least signifying a possibility to those under autocratic rule.  Second, the diversity of the protesters -- not all or even principally Islamists  -- is a sign that many different types of people want to have a vote, to say  their piece, to participate, engage in the political process, seeing it at least at the present as a badly needed good of which they have been deprived.  Third, while conditions in the Arab states differ considerably, there is something like a public sphere, a marketplace of ideas, a trans-state Arab civil society, in which Al Jazeera plays a role, as do the very social networks the Egyptian government rightly saw as a threat --  is it robust, well-established?  no, but it is growing, and if it can be turned against an autocratic Mubarak government, it could also be turned against any Islamic regime.  Fourth, Egyptians locking arms to protect museums from opportunists who take advantage of chaos and unrest, some Egyptian Christians and Muslims doing likewise to protect each others churches and mosques -- these are signs of a solidarity and decency that can help sustain democracy

So, can Arab states realistically move towards functioning, sustainable  democracies?  Yes. Granted, it will be difficult, less to establish democracies than to sustain them.  But, there are reasons to be hopeful, to encourage the members of those states and societies to work out what democracy will mean for them -- for at the very essence of democracy, whether in Western or Arab states is ongoing contestation as well as agreement about what it means, requires, and entails.