Islam and Democracy After the Arab Spring

Since the uprisings of the Arab Spring in 2011, an Arab Winter of authoritarian backlash has swept across the Middle East. The setbacks in the Middle East have actually been part of a global phenomenon of authoritarian resurgence that has been marked by increased repression in Russia and China, as well as by setbacks to democracy in smaller countries like Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Thailand. But the authoritarian resurgence has been more pronounced in the Middle East than in other regions. Indeed, according to Freedom House, 12 of 18 countries in the Middle East are more repressive today than they were before the Arab Spring uprisings.

Egypt, the region’s largest and most important country, is not one of those 12 countries. But it, too, is arguably much more repressive than before the 2011 uprising. As the Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid has observed, “the level of repression under President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi surpasses that of President Hosni Mubarak and even his predecessors, in terms of the number of Egyptians killed, wounded, detained, and ‘disappeared’ since the military coup of July 3, 2013.” According to the El Nadeem Center in Cairo, last year 464 people disappeared in Egypt, as compared to 19 in 2010. Nearly 500 prison inmates died in custody in Egypt and nearly 700 cases of torture were reported. More than 41,000 people were detained in the first ten months that followed the 2013 military coup, many of them held without trial in vastly overcrowded prisons and police stations. In addition, 122 people were sentenced to death on May 16, including the well-known Georgetown scholar Emad Shahin.

I don’t believe that this repression will lead to a more stable situation in Egypt. In a recent article in The New York Times, the Egyptian lawyer Gamal Eid, writing about prosecution against himself and the human rights advocate Hossam Bahgat, called Egypt a “hollowed-out society.” Eid is on trial for founding a group committed to educating the Egyptian public about civil and human rights. In the court hearing a few days ago, the prosecution postponed a decision on Eid’s case but brought charges against four more activists, including Bahey Hassan of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Abdel Hafez Tayel, the head of the Egyptian Center for Right to Education. Eid believes that the government’s intention is to shut down all non-state institutions that are independent of the state security apparatus and, in the process, squash dissent.

It is a dangerous illusion to think that repressing independent civil society organizations will make Egypt more stable. As Eid notes, it will eliminate groups that can serve as mediators and relief valves in times of rising tension when the prospect of widespread unrest begins to escalate into nationwide conflict. It thus transforms the entire public sphere into a zero-sum game between the all-powerful state and vulnerable citizens whose rights are threatened. 

That’s a proven recipe for social explosion, not for working out and solving fundamental problems. As the Norwegian Nobel Committee recognized in giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet, Tunisia could not have resolved the deep ideological cleavages between secular and Islamist political forces without civil society intervening to broker a solution—groups representing human rights advocates, trade unions, lawyers, and business. As a general rule, civil society groups play the indispensable role connecting the state to society, and they can help achieve nonviolent solutions to political conflicts. But for them to play that role, they need space to function.  Take away that space and violent conflict of one form or another is almost inevitable.

Giving space to civil society is an essential precondition for achieving democracy, but it is insufficient in the absence of other reforms. The protests in Kasserine and other parts of western Tunisia last January, five years after the Jasmine Revolution, underline the sobering reality that it’s not enough to merely remove a dictator, even when that dictator is replaced by a democratically elected government. A democratic government has to govern effectively, and in Tunisia that means creating the conditions that can bring investment, genuine economic activity, and most of all—employment, especially for young people. It means both resisting and fighting corruption, establishing an independent court system, and taming and reforming unwieldy and unresponsive bureaucracies.

With respect to the case of Tunisia in particular, William Burns and Marwan Muasher were exactly right when they wrote in a recent Washington Post article that Tunisia and its international supporters need to establish a new framework for internal reform and international assistance. Time is of the essence. There must be dramatic, quick, and mutually reinforcing action taken in Tunis, Washington, and the capitals of Europe that stirs action, creates momentum, and inspires confidence among the Tunisian people.  Regrettably, though, the Western democracies are now so preoccupied with other problems that they may fail to seize the opportunity that now exists to help make democracy work in Tunisia and establish it as a model for Arab democracy. Failure in Tunisia, the first Arab democracy, will greatly dim the prospects for the Middle East’s democratic future and the political stability it nurtures. Urgent action is needed, but the sense of urgency is not shared by leaders in Europe and the United States.

Indeed, there is a very worrying tendency in the US today to give up on the Middle East and to turn away from the region. This tendency is on full display in Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic on “the Obama Doctrine” that outlines the President’s views on Syria and the region generally. Libya, according to Goldberg, proved to the President that “the Middle East was best avoided,” and the operative point in the summary of the President’s views is that “the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests.” That is the same short-sighted view that prevailed in Washington in the wake of the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988. The result was a calamitous civil war, the Taliban dictatorship, and ultimately the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We’ve also stood aside in Syria, and the result has been hundreds of thousands of innocent dead and a massive refugee crisis that has engulfed not just neighboring countries but Europe as well. 

The problem with the policy options offered by the President in The Atlantic article is that they seem to always suggest a false choice between going to war or standing passively on the sidelines. But the real choices are virtually always somewhere in between those extremes. They require weighing the risks of inaction as well as intervention of one kind or another; and they involve finding effective ways to work with other countries in ways that fit a coherent geopolitical strategy that uses all the policy tools at our disposal to address immediate threats as well as protect and advance our national interests.

It will be a tragic error if the US resigns itself to the notion that democracy cannot work in the Middle East. It not only sends the wrong message to the people of the region, but it will also signal that America’s leadership has yet again misread the realities and the possibilities and aspirations for change. The Journal of Democracy recently published a series of articles on the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring that peels away some of the layers to examine what we have learned, and where we are after five difficult and tumultuous years. One conclusion of this collection was that some of the sectors that many thought would be helpful during a period of democratic transition were actually problematic. The media, for example, served more to divide and polarize than to unite. And, as events developed it became apparent that many secular parties were internally autocratic and often too cozy with the state’s security apparatus. On the other hand, the danger to democracy posed by Islamist parties appears to have been exaggerated then and now. Survey data show that while Islamist parties dominated in the initial wave of elections after a political opening, they attracted fewer votes over time as voters soured on their poor performance in government. Perhaps, most encouraging were the findings of the Arab Barometer survey, which showed that despite the economic dislocations and security problems of the last five years, the support for democracy in the Middle East has held steady at 70 percent. Evidently the Arab people have not given up on democracy, even if many in the West have concluded that democracy in the Middle East is unrealistic, and that to promote it is destabilizing and therefore inconsistent with American interests.

It is true that the transition process in Egypt was flawed from the start, and that there is blame to go around—from the military and an ingrained and recalcitrant state bureaucracy that had no intention of allowing a genuine transition, to the over-reaching and illiberal Islamists, the fractious secular parties, and civil society which failed to make the transition from protest to politics. Nathan Brown has written eloquently about these problems, especially the failure of all participants in the process to appreciate the importance of consensus and compromise during the process of transition. Still, that doesn’t mean that lessons can’t be learned. Egyptian democrats who hope for a better future should be thinking very hard about what went wrong and how, if another opportunity for democracy opens up, they can start from a higher level of political maturity and achieve a better result. The Egyptian government will do what it can to keep such democrats isolated and atomized, which makes it especially important to maintain channels of communication linking them to other Arab democrats and to friends and support networks in the world’s democracies.

It is appropriate in any discussion of the Middle East’s future to consider the challenge of Islamic extremism and terrorism. The Middle East, indeed the entire civilized world, is at a perilous moment of historic proportions. ISIS and other extremists have succeeded in creating an ominously polarized political, social, and cultural climate, what Samuel Huntington once called a “clash of civilizations.” There are populists in Europe and in the United States who have resorted to confrontation and new lows of demagoguery in their pursuit of political gain in ways that appeal to our worst fears and instincts. This hysteria serves no interests but those of the jihadists because what the extremists fear is not confrontation with the West but losing the hearts and minds of mainstream Muslims around the world. This is something we must understand.

A new UN report, responding to so-called “violent extremism” in Africa, emphasizes the ideological nature of the struggle, meaning its political, intellectual, and religious dimensions. Indeed, the report suggests there is a battle of ideas taking place among Muslims. The Cold War also had a fundamental ideological dimension, and institutions like the Congress for Cultural Freedom were created to fight communism at that level. But the battle with Islam today is different. The Cold War was fought over the Marxist idea and the system of totalitarian communism that originated in the West that appealed to a large number of Western intellectuals as an alternative to the idea of democratic pluralism. 

But the struggle over the future of Islam is not taking place within the West or between the West and Islam. Rather, it is a battle over the identity and future of the vastly diverse Muslim world (which also includes Muslim minorities in Europe and North America and in scores of other countries that are not part of traditional Muslim-majority countries and regions) and must be fought within that world. The leaders of that battle need to be Muslim religious figures and educators, intellectuals and activists, workers and entrepreneurs, young people and especially women—Muslims who do not reject the modern world but have a vision of success and achievement within it. Far from being our enemies, such leaders and activists within the Muslim world are the most important friends and allies we have in the battle against Islamic extremism. Since they’re fighting for the future of their own religion and culture, it’s a struggle that they must lead and wage. But we must do what we can to help them, basing our support upon values we share with them of human dignity, social justice, and democratic rights. At stake is nothing less than the future of our common human civilization.

This article is based on remarks delivered by Carl Gershman, the President of the National Endowment for Democracy, at the conference on “Democratization, Authoritarianism, and Radicalization: Exploring the Connections” sponsored by The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy on April 21, 2016, in Washington, D.C.


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