Building Democracy Egypt, the Arab Spring, and What the West Forgot

A man demonstrates during the 2011 protests.

A man demonstrates during the 2011 protests.

The events in Egypt over the last few weeks have been, if nothing else, unsettling. Less than a year after an imperfect, but largely free election, the military has once again asserted control over the country. And, in contrast to the relatively bloodless affair that saw Mubarak step down from power, the recent crackdown has already cost hundreds of lives.

It’s hardly the first sign of trouble – many of us remember, for example, the deeply disturbing stories of sexual violence that came out of Tahrir Square during the revolution. And no one should be shocked that a military led by men with little experience in democracy is ill-equipped to oversee a democratic transition – if indeed that is what they intended or intend to do. Nor is it surprising that, with no governing experience, the Muslim Brotherhood lacked the political acumen to maneuver around the military, or that their secular opponents were unable to mobilize an effective political opposition. Sad, but not a surprise.

In truth, the entire ‘Arab Spring’ episode has been, at times, unsettling; sudden change usually is.

Over the last few years, as a wave of would-be democratic change has convulsed the Middle East, my mind has been drawn time and time again to a book written by Fareed Zakaria. Published in 2003, The Future of Freedom is an exploration of what it takes to build a democratic society. The rhetoric of the Arab Spring largely focused on the idea of popular sovereignty and the consent of the governed: people have a right to choose their leaders. For many, that principle captures the essence of democracy.

To oversimplify his argument, Zakaria pushes back against this. He contends – quite convincingly – that what most of us mean when we refer to ‘democracy’ is really the more narrow concept of ‘liberal democracy’. In this context, ‘liberal’ is used in the classical political science sense: a political system with strong protections for individual rights and autonomy. This, and not the simple act of holding free elections, is what we’re really championing when we celebrate ‘the democratic process’ or ‘democratic institutions’.

February 11, 2011: Egyptians celebrate the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power after 35 years of autocratic rule. Just today, reports indicate that Mubarak will be released from custody after a military coup deposed President Morsi.

February 11, 2011: Egyptians celebrate the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power after 35 years of autocratic rule. Just today, reports indicate that Mubarak will be released from custody after a military coup deposed President Morsi.

Presented this way, it’s hard to imagine what, if anything, might be novel or objectionable in Zakaria’s argument. But the rub is this: the West built democratic institutions before it introduced the vote, and our struggle to improve these institutions has mostly had to deal with lessening corruption and expanding the franchise. That is our history, that is what we know, and that is how we see the world. It’s why we don’t talk about ‘liberal democracy’; an ‘illiberal democracy’ sounds like an oxymoron in our collective ears.

But the rest of the world has a different history.

And what’s happening in Egypt today isn’t so different than what happened in Iraq a decade ago. Iraq exposed as fantasy the neo-conservative notion that you could export liberal democracy by exporting the formal institutions of the democratic state; Egypt is merely reaffirming that lesson. It’s also emphasizing that whether it’s through a top-down change of regime, like in Iraq, or through a bottom-up revolution, like in Egypt, liberal democracy must be a socially distributed process. In other words, if it isn’t organic it won’t work – and it takes time. Process matters, but culture interfaces with everything we do. Democracy is a social phenomenon, a way of doing. Welcome to sociology: the insight that the world is more complicated and fragile than we imagine.

(Of course, drawing equivalencies between Iraq and Egypt can get out of hand pretty quickly. There’s at least one important difference: the events in Iraq began with an American invasion, the events in Egypt did not.)

Anyone who claims they know how this story will end is wrong, because anyone who thinks that social change moves in one direction doesn’t understand the way the world works. The French Revolution was a bloody mess, and so was the English Civil War – but France and England found their way to liberal democracy after long years of struggle. For that matter, so have we (for the most part) after all our own troubles.

In time, Egypt might as well, or it might not – a short year after Mubarak’s ouster, it’s foolish to think we know how this story will end. Both the people who are ready to declare the failure of a democratic transition as well as the folks who want to call this little more than a speed bump need to slow down, take stock, and admit they don’t know.

Remember Voltaire: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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