We are living at a time when tensions within societies seem far more disruptive and inhumane than the rivalries of sovereign states that have in the past fueled international wars. More provocatively, we may be living at a historical moment when democracy as the government of choice gives rise to horrifying spectacles of violence and abuse. These difficulties with the practice of democracy are indirectly, and with a heavy dose of irony, legitimizing moderate forms of authoritarian government. After years of assuming that ‘democracy’ was ‘the least bad form of government’ for every national setting, there are ample reasons to raise doubts. Such an admission is made reluctantly.
There is no doubt that authoritarian forms of rule generally constrain the freedom of everyone, and especially the politically inclined. Beyond this, there is a kind of stagnant cultural atmosphere that often accompanies autocracy, but not always. Consider Elizabethan England, with Shakespeare and his cohort of contemporary literary giants. There have been critical moments of crisis in the past when society’s most respected thinkers blamed democracy for the political failings. In ancient Greece, the cradle of Western democracy, Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides came to prefer non-democratic forms of government, more fearful of the politics of the mob than that led Athens into imprudent and costly foreign adventures.
Of course, there are times when the established order is fearful of democracy even in countries that pride themselves on their democratic character. Influential voices in the United States were raised during the latter stages of the Vietnam War in opposition to what were perceived by conservatives to be the excesses of democracy. Infamously, Samuel Huntington in an essay published by the influential Trilateral Commission compared the anti-war movement in the United States to the canine disorder known as ‘distemper,’ clearly expressing the view that the people should leave the matter of war and peace in the hands of the government.
It was only twenty years ago that the collapse of the Soviet Union was hailed throughout the West as an ideological triumph of liberal democracy over autocratic socialism. Prospects for world peace during this interval in the 1990s were directly linked to the spread of democracy, while such other reformist projects as the strengthening of the UN or respecting international law were put aside. European and American universities were then much taken with the theory and practice of ‘democratic peace,’ documenting and exploring its central claim that democracies never go to war against one another. If such a thesis is sustained, it has significant policy implications. It would follow, then, that if more and more countries become ‘democratic’, the zone of peaceful international relations becomes enlarged. This encouraging byproduct of democracy for sovereign states was reinforced by the internal experience of the European Union, which while nurturing democracy established a culture of peace in what had for centuries been the world’s worst war zone.
In the post-9/11 period, the Bush presidency embraced ‘democracy promotion’ as a major component of a neoconservative foreign policy for the United States in the Middle East. Skepticism about the nature of such an endorsement of democracy was widespread, especially in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Harsh criticism was directed against the U.S. government’s self-appointed role as the agent of democratization in the region. By basing democracy promotion on military intervention, as in relation to Iraq, the American approach was completely discredited. The supposed anti-authoritarian interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have not implanted democracy, but rather corruption, chaos, and persisting violent conflict. Beyond this disillusioning experience, foreign leaders and world public opinion rejected Washington’s arrogant insistence that it provided the world with the best political model of legitimate government.
Despite this pushback, there remains an almost universal acceptance of the desirability of democracy as the only acceptable political scenario. Of course, there were profound disagreements when it comes to specific cases. There were some partial exceptions to the embrace democracy. For instance, there was support in the Middle East for monarchies as sources of stability and unity, but even these monarchs purported to be ‘democratic’ in their outlook unless directly challenged. Democracies maintained their reputation by protecting citizen from abuse by the state, by empowering the people to confer authority on the national government, generally by way of elections, and through a governing process that was respectful of the rule of law and human rights.
Issues during the last decade in the Middle East have brought these issues to the fore: the Green Revolution against theocratic democracy in Iran, the secular rejection of majoritarian democracy in Turkey, and the various transitional scenarios that have unfolded in the Arab countries, especially Egypt, after the anti-authoritarian uprisings of 2011. The torments of the region, especially connected with the colonialist aftermath of the Ottoman Empire, followed by an American hegemonic regime tempered by the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, and aggravated since the middle of the last century by the emergence of Israel, along with the ensuing conflict with the dispossessed Palestinian people, have made the struggle for what might be called ‘good governance’ a losing battle, at least until 2011. Against such a background, it was only natural that the democratizing moment labeled ‘the Arab Spring’ generated such excitement throughout the region, and indeed in the world. Two years later, in light of developments in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere, it is an occasion that calls for sympathetic reflection.
Recently, there has reemerged in the region the explosive idea that the citizenry enjoys an ultimate right to hold governments accountable, and if the government misplays its hand too badly, then it can be removed from power even without awaiting of elections, and without relying on formal impeachment procedures. What makes this populist veto so controversial in recent experience is its tendency to enter a coalition with the most regressive elements of the governmental bureaucracy, especially the armed forces, police, and intelligence bureaucracies. Such coalitions are on their surface odd, bringing together the spontaneous rising of the people with the most coercive elements of state power.
The self-legitimizing claim heard in Tahrir Square 2013 was that only a military coup could save the revolution of 2011, but critics would draw a sharp distinction between the earlier populist uprising against a hated dictator and this latter movement orchestrated from above to dislodge from power a democratically elected leadership.
The Arab Upheavals
The great movements of revolt in the Arab world in 2011 were justly celebrated as exhibiting an unexpected surge of brave anti-authoritarian populist politics that achieved relatively bloodless triumphs in Tunisia and Egypt, and shook the foundations of authoritarian rule throughout the region. Democracy seemed to be on the march in a region that had been written off by most Western experts as incapable of any form of governance that was not authoritarian, which was not displeasing so long as the oil flowed, Israel was secure, and radical tendencies kept in check. Arab political culture was interpreted through an Orientalizing lens that presupposed political passivity and elite corruption backed up, as necessary, by a militarized state. In the background was the fear that if the people were able to give voice to their preferences, the end result might be the spread of Iranian style Islamism.
It is a sad commentary on the state of the world that only two years later, a gloomy political atmosphere is creating severe doubts about the workability of democracy, and not only in the Arab world, but more widely. What has emerged is the realization that deep cleavages exist in the political culture that give rise to crises of legitimacy and governability that can be managed, if at all, only by the application of brute force. These conflicts are destroying the prospects of effective and humane government in a series of countries throughout the world.
The dramatic and bloody atrocities in Egypt since the military takeover on July 3rd have brought these realities to the forefront of global political consciousness. But Egypt is not alone in experiencing toxic fallout from crises of polarization pitting antagonistic religious, ethnic, and political forces against one another is ‘winner take all’ struggles. Daily sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ia in Iraq make it evident that has after an anguishing decade of occupation the American crusade to liberate the country from dictatorship has failed miserably. Instead of a fledgling democracy, America has left behind a legacy of chaos, the threat of civil war, and a growing belief that only a new authoritarianism can bring stability to the country. Turkey, too, is enduring the destabilizing impact of polarization, which has persisted in the face of eleven years of extraordinary AKP success and energetic leadership periodically endorsed by the voting public: strengthening the political institutions, weakening the military, improving the economy, and greatly enhancing the international standing of the country. Polarization should not be treated as just a Middle Eastern problem. The United States, too, is increasingly afflicted by a polarizing struggle between its two main political parties that has made democratic government that humanely serves the citizenry or the national public good a thing of the past. Of course, this robust de-democratizing trend in America owes much to the monetizing machinations of Wall Street and the spinning of 9/11 as a continuing security challenge that requires the government to view everyone, everywhere, including its own citizens, as potential terrorist suspects.
The nature of polarization is diverse and complex, reflecting context. It can be socially constructed around the split between religion and secularism as in Egypt or Turkey or in relation to divisions internal to a religion as in Iraq or as between classes, ethnicities, political parties. In the concreteness of history, each case of polarization has its own defining set of circumstances, often highlighting minority fears of discrimination and marginalization, class warfare, ethnic and religious rivalry (e.g. Kurdish self-determination). Also, as in the Middle East, polarization is not just a domestic phenomenon. Polarization is being manipulated by powerful external political actors, to what extent is unknowable. It is revealing that in the demonstrations in Cairo during the past month both pro- and anti-Morsi protesters have been chanting anti-American slogans.
Egypt and Turkey
The circumstances of polarization in Egypt and Turkey, although vastly different, share the experience of Islamic oriented political forces emerging from the shadow land of society after years of marginalization, and in Egypt’s case brutal suppression. In both countries, the armed forces had long played an important role in keeping the state under the control of secular elites who served Western strategic and neoliberal economic interests. Up to now, despite periodic trials and tribulations, Turkey seems to have solved the riddle of modernity much more persuasively than Egypt.
In both countries, electoral politics mandated radical power shifts unacceptable to displaced secular elites. Opposition forces in the two countries, after enjoying decades of power and influence, suddenly saw themselves displaced by democratic means with no credible prospect of regaining political dominance by success in future elections, having ceded power and influence to those who had previously been subjugated and exploited. Those displaced were unwilling to accept their diminished role, including this lowered status in relation to societal forces whose values were scorned as anti-modern and threatening to preferred life styles that were identified with ‘freedom.’ They complained bitterly, organized feverishly, and mobilized energetically to cancel the verdict of the political majority by whatever means possible. Recourse to extra-democratic means to regain power, wealth, and influence seemed to many, although not all, the only viable political option, but it had to be done in such a way that it seemed to be a ‘democratic’ outcry of the citizenry against the state. Of course, the state has its own share of responsibility for the traumas of polarization. The elected leadership over-reacts; it acts on worst case scenarios; it adopts paranoid styles of addressing opposition grievances and contributes to a downward spiral of distrust and animosity. The media, either to accentuate the drama of conflict or because is itself often partisan, tends to heighten tensions, creating a fatalist atmosphere of ‘no return’ for which the only possible solution is ‘us’ or ‘them,’ that is, the mentality of war that is an anathema for democracy in which the losers at any given moment still have a large stake in the viability and success of the governing process. When that faith in the justice of the system is shattered democracy cannot generate good governance.
The Politics of Polarization
The opposition waits for some mistake by the governing leadership to launch its campaign of escalating demands. Polarization intensifies. The opposition is unwilling to treat the verdict of free elections as the final word on the entitlement to govern. At first, such unwillingness is exhibited by extreme alienation and embittered fears. Later on, as opportunities for obstruction arise, this unwillingness is translated into political action, and if it gathers enough momentum, the desired crises of legitimacy and governability bring a country to the brink of collapse. Much depends on material conditions. If the economy is doing reasonably well, calmer heads usually prevail, which may help explain why the impact of severe polarization has been so much greater in Egypt than Turkey. Morsi has succumbed to the challenge, while Erdogan has survived. Reverse the economic conditions, and the political outcomes might also be reversed.
The Egyptian experience also reflects the extraordinary sequence of recent happenings. The Tahrir Square upheavals of January 25th came after 30 years of Mubarak rule. A political vacuum was created by the removal of Mubarak that was quickly filled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAP), but accompanied by a promise that a transition to democracy was the consensus goal binding all Egyptians, and once reached the generals would retire from the political scene. The popular sentiment then favored an inclusive democracy, which in 2011, was a coded way of saying that the Muslim Brotherhood should henceforth participate in the political process, competing for power. There were from the beginning anxieties about this prospect in the anti-Mubarak ranks, and the Brotherhood seemed sensitive to secular and Coptic concerns even pledging that it had no intention of competing for the presidency of Egypt. All seemed well and good, with popular expectations wrongly assuming that the next president of Egypt would be a familiar secular figure, a renegade member of the fuloul, that is, a former beneficiary of the regime who joined the anti-Mubarak forces during the uprising. In the spring of 2011, the expectations were that Amr Moussa (former Secretary General of the Arab League) would be elected president and that the Muslim Brotherhood would function as a strong, but minority, force in the Egyptian parliament. As the parliament would draft a new constitution for the country, this was likely to be the first show of strength between the two major poles of Egyptian political opinion.
Several unforeseen developments made this initial set of expectations about Egypt’s political future unrealizable. Above all, the Muslim Brotherhood was far more successful in the parliamentary elections than had been anticipated. These results stoked the fears of the secularists and Copts, especially when account was taken of the previously unappreciated political strength of several Salafi parties that had not previously competed for governmental influence. Religiously oriented political parties won more than 70% of the contested seats, creating control over the constitution-making process. This situation was further stressed when the Brotherhood withdrew its pledge not to seek control of the government by fielding a candidate for the presidency. The whole transition process after January 2011 was presided over by administrative entities answerable to SCAP. Several popular candidates were disqualified, and a two-stage presidential election was organized in 2012 in which Mohamed Morsi narrowly defeated Ahmed Shafik in the runoff election between the two top candidates, the last Mubarak prime minister, epitomizing the persisting influence. In a sense, the electoral choice given to the Egyptian people involved none of the front rank Egyptian revolutionary forces that were responsible for the overthrow of Mubarak or representing the ideals that animated those who filled Tahrir Square in the revolutionary days of January 2011. The Brotherhood supported the anti-Mubarak movement only belatedly when its victory was in sight, and was not ideologically inclined to support inclusive democratization, while Shafik, epitomizing the fuloul resurgent remnant of Mubarakism, never supported the upheaval, and did not even pretend to be a democrat, promising instead to restore law and order, which would supposedly lead to economic recovery.
It was during the single year of Morsi’s presidency that the politics of extreme polarization took center stage. It is widely agreed that Morsi was neither experienced nor adept as a political leader in what was a very challenging situation even if polarization had not been present to aggravate the situation. The Egyptian people anxiously expected the new leadership to restore economic normalcy rapidly after the recent period of prolonged disorder and decline. He was a disappointment, even to many of those who had voted for him, in all of these regards.
It was also expected that Morsi would immediately signal a strong commitment to social justice and to addressing the plight of Egyptian unemployed youth and subsistence masses, but no such promise was forthcoming. In fairness, it seemed doubtful that anyone could have succeeded in fulfilling the role of president of Egypt in a manner that would have satisfied the majority of Egyptians. The challenges were too obdurate, the citizenry too impatient, and the old Mubarak bureaucracy remained strategically in place and determined to resist the tidal wave of change to the extent that their positions allowed. Mubarak and some close advisors had fallen, but the judiciary, the armed forces, and the Ministry of Interior were fuloul activist strongholds. In effect, the old secularized elites were still powerful, unaccountable, and capable of obstructing the elected government reflecting the political will of the Egyptian majority. Morsi, a candidate with mediocre credentials, was elected to the presidency with an ominously narrow margin, and to make matters worse he inherited a mission impossible.
The Authoritarian Temptation
What was surprising, and disturbing, was the degree to which the protest movement so quickly and submissively linked the future of Egypt to the good faith and prudent judgment of the armed forces. All protest forces received in exchange was the forcible removal of Morsi, the renewal of a suppressive approach to the Brotherhood, and some rather worthless reassurances about the short-term nature of military rule. General Adel-Fattah el-Sisi from the start made it clear that he was in charge, although designating an interim president, Adly Mansour, the recently chief judge of the Supreme Constitutional Court, a longtime Mubarak careerist. Mansour has appointed a new prime minister who selected a cabinet, supposedly consisting of technocrats, who will serve until a new government is elected. Already, several members of this civilian gloss on a military takeover of the governing process in Egypt have registered complaints about the excessive force being used against pro-Morsi demonstrations.
“Better Mubarakism than Morsiism” was the underlying sentiment relied upon to fan the flames of discontent throughout the country, climaxing with the petition campaign organized by Tamarod that led to the June 30th demonstrations of millions, underpinned in the final days by a Sisi ultimatum from the armed forces that led to the detention and arrest of Morsi and the rise to political dominance of a menacing figure, General Adel-Fattah el-Sisi, who has led a military coup that talks of compromise and inclusive democracy while acting to criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood and its leadership, using lethal violence against those who peacefully refuse to fall into line. This military leadership is already responsible for the deliberate slaughter of Morsi loyalists in coldblooded tactics designed to terrorize the Muslim Brotherhood and warn the Egyptian people that further opposition will not be tolerated.
I am not suggesting that such a return to authoritarianism in this form is better for Egypt than the democracy established by Morsi, or favored by such secular liberals as Mohamed ElBaradei, who is now serving as Deputy Prime Minister. Unfortunately, this challenge directed at a freely elected democracy by a massive popular mobilization to be effective required an alliance with the coercive elements drawn from the deep state. Such a dependency relationship involved a Faustian Bargain, getting rid of the hated Morsi presidency, but doing so with an eyes closed acceptance of state terror: large-scale shooting of unarmed pro-Morsi demonstrators, double standards dramatized by General Sisi’s call to the anti-Morsi forces to give him a mandate to crush the Brotherhood by coming into the streets aggressively and massively. Egypt is well along a path that leads to demonic autocratic rule that will be needed to keep the Brotherhood from preventing the reestablishment of order. General Sisi’s coup will be written off as a failure if there continues to be substantial street challenges and bloody incidents, which would surely interfere with restoring the kind of economic stability that Egypt desperately needs in coming months if it is to escape the dire destiny of being ‘a failed state.’ The legitimating test for the Sisi coup is ‘order’ not ‘democracy,’ and so the authoritarian ethos prevails; yet if this means a continuing series of atrocities, it will surely lead to yet another crisis of legitimacy for the country likely to provoke yet another crisis of governability.
The controversial side of my argument is that Egypt currently lacks the political preconditions for the establishment of democracy, and in such circumstances, the premature attempt to democratize the political life of the country leads not only to disappointment, but to political regression. At this stage, Egypt will be fortunate if it can return to the relatively stable authoritarianism of the Mubarak dictatorship. Because of changed expectations, and the unlawful displacement of the Morsi leadership, it has now become respectable for the Tamarod, self-appointed guardians of the Tahrir Square revolution to support the ‘cleansing’ the Muslim Brotherhood. It is sad to take note of these noxious odors of fascism and genocide contaminating the political atmosphere in Egypt.
The very different experience in Iraq, too, suggests that ill-advised moves to install democracy can unleash polarization in a destructive form. Despite his crimes, polarization had been kept in check during the authoritarian rule of Saddam Hussein. The attempted transition to democracy was deeply compromised by coinciding with the American occupation and proconsular rule. It produced sectarian polarization in such drastic forms that it will likely either lead to a new authoritarianism that is even more oppressive than what Saddam Hussein had imposed or resolved by a civil war in which the victor rules with an iron hand and the loser is relegated to the silent margins of Iraqi political life.
In the post-colonial world, it is up to the people of each country to shape their own destiny (realizing the ethos of self-determination), and outsiders should rarely interfere, however terrible the civil strife. Hopefully, the peoples of the Middle East will learn from these polarization experiences to be wary of entrusting the future of their country to the vagaries of majoritarian democracy, but also resistant to moves by politically displaced minorities to plot their return to power by a reliance on anti-democratic tactics, coalitions with the military, and the complicity of the deep state. There is no single template. Turkey, although threatened by polarization, has been able so far to contain its most dire threats to political democracy. Egypt has not been so lucky. For simplistic comparison, Turkey has had the benefits of a largely evolutionary process that allows for a democratic political culture to take hold at the societal and governmental levels. Egypt has, in contrast, experienced abrupt changes in a setting of widespread economic distress, and a form of polarization that denied all legitimacy to the antagonist, transforming the armed forces from foe to friend of the opposition because it was the enemy of their enemy. If this is the predictable outcome of moves to establish democracy, then authoritarian leadership may not be the worst of all possible worlds in every circumstance. It depends on context. In the Middle East, this may require a comparison of the risks of democratization with the costs of authoritarianism, and this may depend on the degree and nature of polarization.