The Future of Democracy in the Middle East: Islamist and Illiberal

Across the region, power struggles mask a more fundamental divide over the meaning of the modern nation-state.
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A man atttends a 2012 protest in Tahrir Square. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

After the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, a debate raged among Egyptians and Tunisians over the very nature of their societies. How much of the ongoing “Islamization” was imposed and manufactured, and how much of it was an “authentic” representation of society? Without the stifling yoke of dictatorship, some reasoned, Arabs would finally be able to express their true sentiments without fear of persecution.

The ensuing—and increasingly charged—debate over the role of religion in public life put Western analysts and policymakers in the uncomfortable position of having to prioritize some values they hold dear over others. In the Western experience, democracy and liberalism usually went hand in hand, to the extent that “democracy” in popular usage became shorthand for liberal democracy. Liberalism preceded democracy, allowing the latter to flourish. As the political scientists Richard Rose and Doh Chull Shin point out, “Countries in the first wave [of democracy], such as Britain and Sweden, initially became modern states, establishing the rule of law, institutions of civil society, and horizontal accountability to aristocratic parliaments. Democratization followed in Britain as the government became accountable to members of parliament elected by a franchise that gradually broadened until universal suffrage was achieved.” In contrast, they write, “third-wave democracies have begun democratization backwards.”

Getting democracy backwards has led to the rise of “illiberal democracies,” a distinctly modern creation that Fareed Zakaria documents in his book The Future of Freedom. Zakaria seeks to disentangle liberalism and democracy, arguing that democratization is, in fact, “directly related” to illiberalism. On the other hand, “constitutional liberalism,” as he terms it, is a political system “marked not only by free and fair elections but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.” “This bundle of freedoms,” he goes on, “has nothing intrinsically to do with democracy.”

An injured protester carries a poster of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi during clashes in Cairo, in July 2013. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Michael Signer makes a similar argument in his book charting the rise of “demagogues,” who accumulate popularity and power through the ballot box. Like Zakaria, Signer acknowledges the inherent tensions between liberalism and democracy, noting that early generations of Americans were particularly attuned to these threats. He writes, for instance, about Elbridge Gerry, a representative from Massachusetts who declared that “allowing ordinary Americans to vote for the president was madness.” Drawing on such examples, Signer argues that “at its simplest level, democracy is a political system that grants power based on what large groups of people want.” And what these large groups want may not be good for constitutional liberalism, which is more about the ends of democracy rather than the means.

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The emergence of illiberal democracy in the developing world saw democratically elected leaders using popular mandates to infringe upon basic liberties. Elections were still largely free and fair, and opposition parties were fractious but viable. But ruling parties, seeing their opponents more as enemies than competitors, sought to restrict media freedoms and pack state bureaucracies with loyalists. They used their control of the democratic process to rig the system to their advantage. In some cases, as in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, a cult of personality became central to the consolidation of illiberal democracy. Sometimes it bordered on self-parody, taking the form of highway billboards announcing that “Chávez is the people.”

Illiberal democracy has risen to prominence in part because Western Europe’s careful sequencing of liberalism first and democracy later is no longer tenable—and hasn’t been for some time. Knowing that democracy, or something resembling it, is within reach, citizens have no interest in waiting indefinitely for something their leaders say they aren’t ready for. Democracy has become such an uncontested, normative good that the arguments of Zakaria seem decidedly out of step with the times. Zakaria argues, for instance, that “the absence of free and fair elections should be viewed as one flaw, not the definition of tyranny…. It is important that governments be judged by yardsticks related to constitutional liberalism.” Interestingly, he points to countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Jordan, and Morocco as models. “Despite the limited political choice they offer,” he writes, “[they] provide a better environment for life, liberty, and happiness of citizens than do … the illiberal democracies of Venezuela, Russia, or Ghana.”

The phenomenon of Islamists seeking, or being in, power forces us to rethink the relationship between liberalism and democracy. Illiberal democracy under Islamist rule is different from the Venezuelan or Russian varieties for a number of reasons. In the latter cases, illiberal democracy is not intrinsically linked to the respective ideologies of Hugo Chávez or Vladimir Putin. Their illiberalism is largely a byproduct of a more basic, naked desire to consolidate power. In the case of Islamists, however, their illiberalism is a product of their Islamism, particularly in the social arena. For Islamists, illiberal democracy is not an unfortunate fact of life but something to believe in and aspire to. Although they may struggle to define what exactly it entails, Islamist parties have a distinctive intellectual and ideological “project.” This is why they are Islamist.

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Under autocracy, leaders can more easily insulate themselves from the popular will. Islamists, to the extent they are tolerated, are so busy with mere survival that ideological demands are pushed to the side and postponed. They counsel patience, telling over-exuberant followers to wait, that the application of sharia is simply not possible now. Democracy, for both the secular and Islamist opposition, becomes the overarching imperative, because, without it, nothing else can really happen. Repression brings them together, giving them a shared enemy and a shared goal—toppling the dictator.

Girls walk the street in Tunis dressed in, from left to right, the Salafi, Palestinian, and Tunisian flags during the second anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution. (Anis Mili/Reuters)

After their revolutions succeed, Islamists, liberals, and leftists find that they have less reason to work together. At best, they become bitter adversaries but agree to resolve their differences within the democratic process. Other times, they become implacable enemies in a zero-sum battle, one that can descend into political violence and military intervention. Either way, both sides become consumed by a struggle for the spoils of revolution, including, most importantly, control of the state and its resources. Sometimes, then, it is about power. But underlying the battle for power is a more fundamental ideological divide over the very meaning of the modern nation-state. Before the uprisings, most Arabs hadn’t really had this conversation. The intellectual and political elites who did, did so in the abstract. None of them were going to be in power any time soon; it was a debate for their children or their grandchildren after them. But with the Arab revolutions, the essential questions of identity and ideology, of God and religion, of the conception of the good, assumed a newfound urgency.

In short, democratization does not necessarily have a moderating effect on Islamist parties, nor does it blunt the importance of ideology. There are no easy answers and, at some point, it may very well come down to a matter of faith. What if Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis, or Syrians decide, through democratic means, that they want to be illiberal? Is that a protected right? For its part, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is clear on the matter. A United Nations background note discusses the “red line”: “The right to culture is limited at the point at which it infringes on another human right. No right can be used at the expense or destruction of another, in accordance with international law.” For Western policymakers and Arab liberals alike, the notion that there should be supra-constitutional principles binding on all citizens seems self-evident. Liberal democracy depends upon the recognition of inalienable rights. But if Islamists do not consider themselves party to this consensus—and many do not—then the matter becomes a more basic one of colliding worldviews. This divide was evident in the contentious debates over first constitutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Egypt’s first post-revolution constitution, passed by referendum in December 2012, seemed to violate the UDHR or at least failed to offer sufficient rights protections in numerous instances, including on gender equality, freedom of expression, and freedom of conscience and religion.

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Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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