Is Democracy the Solution for the Middle East?
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


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The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi has been declared the winner of the presidential election in Egypt, the largest Arab nation and the one that sets the political tone in the region. Any other decision by the country’s election committee would have set off mass demonstrations in Cairo, irrespective of the actual election results.

Morsi most likely did win more votes than his rival, especially considering that the Islamists earlier won an outright majority in parliament. But a situation in which political activists are willing to recognize only one election outcome, with any other result seen as cause for another revolution, suggests a highly idiosyncratic interpretation of democracy.

Cairo is in the grip of a growing power struggle. The parliament was dissolved several days before the second round of the presidential election likely because the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) knew it had no choice but to recognize the Brotherhood candidate as president. Instead it has sought to curtail the Islamists’ domination. Since the country has not yet adopted a new constitution, the battle will shift to the legal realm – the structure of the political system in Egypt, the balance of power, and other issues.

Egypt’s political future has been debated since the start of the Arab Spring last year. A popular view was that it would follow in the wake of Turkey’s Kemalism: a tough military government with a pro-modernization agenda that would teach society discipline and subsequently promote pluralist democracy. After all, the military in Egypt has always been a privileged and highly respected institution.

But a closer look shows that the conditions that led to the Arab Spring are fundamentally different from those in which Kemal Ataturk reformed Turkey.

Ataturk launched his project after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. He sought to instill in Turkey a Western-leaning secular nationalism. That model worked successfully throughout the 20th century. Turkey even joined NATO after WWII, fearing possible Soviet expansion. As the country became more liberal, the military expanded the boundaries of democracy and softened its interference in civilian affairs. For example, the first coup, in 1960, ended in the execution of the prime minister for treason, whereas during the fourth and last military coup in 1997 the Islamist head of government was simply forced to resign.

The Justice and Development Party led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a landslide victory in the 2002 election, capping a long period of political evolution. By that time, authoritarian rule was falling out of favor across the globe. It also exhausted its potential in Turkey: the country could only develop in new political conditions. The military played a big role in Turkey, preparing it for a smooth transition to democracy within several decades. Turkey was the first country that forced the West to recognize that democracy is not limited to classical liberal principles and a pro-Western geopolitical orientation, as confirmed by election results in the Arab world, where only a minority voted for liberal candidates.

However, such gradual transformation is unlikely in Egypt or any other Arab country. Egypt’s generals do not believe the country has the luxury of an evolutionary transformation; results are needed immediately. The reason is not only that political processes develop much faster now than a century ago. Kemal Ataturk began from scratch, creating a new state with fundamentally new underlying principles, and Kemalist officers initiated revolutionary, progressive change. Discarding the past, Ataturk was given a lease on the future, at least the foreseeable future.

But the SCAF generals cannot simply discard the burden of the old regime, and even the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak has not helped. The energy of social renewal is associated with the Islamists, which alone seem able to offer a new, though vague, vision of the future. The military is generally associated with persecution and reactionary politics. Even if they take the risk of interfering in the process to explain that positive change cannot happen overnight and that those that promise it are liars, they will not be believed. Besides, many SCAF members have been personally implicated in the sins and vices of the Mubarak regime, for which the former president has been sentenced to life in prison.

On the other hand, Egyptian generals have been acting intelligently. Knowing that their opportunities are limited and that a coup would provoke social unrest, while removing themselves as a factor would have catastrophic consequences for the nation, the military has decided to act as socio-political regulators. They manipulated the election results – recognizing the presidential outcome and adjusting the parliamentary outcome – in order to ease social tensions and move the fight onto the legal battlefield. It was the only correct decision in an over-stimulated and distressed country where an inexperienced elite is trying to snatch power amid regional chaos.

The main task for all Arab Spring countries is to create a stable and effective government. The illusion that they only need to overthrow their dictators and introduce democracy to solve all their problems – a theory promoted by American neocons – has been shattered. One hates to think about the possible consequences of the upcoming free elections in Libya. As for Syria, the resignation of Bashar Assad, which is rapidly becoming inevitable, will not help.

If Syria’s Sunni majority, which had been kept out of power for decades, takes over, it may clamp down on the minorities, which they regard as the dictator’s accomplices. Syria, which is a multi-ethnic and multi-faith country, needs a carefully balanced system of government similar to Lebanese confessionalism, in which the highest offices are divided proportionately among representatives from the nation’s various religious communities. At the least, this model could ensure equilibrium.

However, the current developments in Syria suggest it will most likely emulate a much darker chapter from Lebanon’s recent history – the bloody and destructive civil war of the 1980s, which turned the “Switzerland of the East” into a symbol of human recklessness.

| RIA Novosti