Egypt’s Winding Road to Democracy

Anti-Morsi Protest in Cairo

Anti-Morsi protest in Cairo, Egypt, August 2012. Photo credit: Gigi Ibrahim (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

The recent fall of Egypt’s democratically-elected civilian government is in line with the experiences of many other transitional states attempting to move from authoritarian to democratic rule. As with Egypt’s false start of 2012–2013, transitional states frequently revert back to authoritarian regimes.

In the period between World Wars I and II, over half of the world’s democracies regressed to non-democratic forms of government. After a notable period of decolonization in the mid-twentieth century, the world experienced what Samuel Huntington referred to as another “reverse wave” of democratization in the 1960s. The latter wave of reversals was particularly notable in Africa. Likewise the “third wave of democratization” (from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s) was followed by some notable setbacks, particularly in the post-Soviet region.

The drive for political freedom in the Arab world—possibly including the emergence of liberal democracies—will likely be a generational struggle. The over-reach of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, and a general lack of rule of law—in which the military, courts, and masses are all complicit—do not spell the end of democratic aspirations in this key Arab state.

Humans beings, after all, do learn lessons and recast their behaviors and beliefs. In the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s contempt for political compromise and respect for the rule of law, Egyptians must grapple with what to do with a political party that has limited respect for democracy. The military’s ouster of Morsi was distasteful, at best. Perhaps it was the least bad path for Egypt’s future.

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A Clash of Civilizations?

Almost 10 years ago, Samuel Huntington published one of the most influential articles of the post-Cold War era. “The clash of civilizations” thesis asserted that broad-based cultural differences – especially between the Islamic world and the West – would define geopolitical competition after the demise of the Soviet Union. The events of last week predictability bring reconsiderations of Huntington’s grand thesis.

While the Osama bin Ladins of the world have sought to generate a clash of civilizations, most have not supported this idea. In many respects, the most difficult conflicts since 1991 have been within states and not between them. Even in the realm of international relations, states have hardly acted in concert as civilizational blocs. Here Exhibit A is the sharp, sustained discord over the 2003 decision to invade Iraq; NATO members were deeply divided in the UN Security Council and beyond. Within the “Islamic civilization,” too, significant divides exist along regional and sectarian lines.

Even so, the “film” Muslim Innocence has sparked intense, sometimes violent protests across most of the Islamic world. Key countries – Sunni majority and Shiite majority – have witnessed protests. These include: Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The geographic scope, and the rapid spread of these protests is indicative of a strong sense of pan-Islamic identity that many Muslims share. Samuel Huntington was not completely shooting from the hip on the idea of an “Islamic civilization.”

That is not to say that the former Harvard professor’s grand thesis has sprung back to life. No, what is arguably most important is the reality of illiberal democracy in many of these majority Muslim countries. Indeed, it is possible to have some level of political competition and accountability without broad-based civil liberties. In recent days, the restrictive views on freedom of speech and religion have been on full display. Though it is uncomfortable, liberal democracies defend the right of fringe groups to make outrageous statements. It is not at all clear that the Arab spring revolutions (or other democratic transitions in the Islamic world) are headed towards liberal democracy. Even if this true, this does not amount to a geopolitical clash of civilizations.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.