A protestor throws a canister of tear gas during a demonstration in Cairo, Egypt on January 25, 2011
A protestor throws a canister of tear gas during a demonstration in Cairo, Egypt on January 25, 2011 // Nasser Nasser/AP

Democracy’s Future in the Middle East

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Even what may have seemed, in retrospect, like minor quibbles—over the particular wording of sharia clauses, for example—reflected fundamental divides over the boundaries, limits, and purpose of the nation-state. For liberals, certain rights and freedoms are, by definition, non-negotiable. They envision the state as a neutral arbiter. Meanwhile, even those Islamists who have little interest in legislating morality see the state as a promoter of a certain set of religious and moral values, through the soft power of the state machinery, the educational system, and the media. For them, these conservative values are not ideologically driven but represent a self-evident popular consensus around the role of religion in public life. The will of the people, particularly when it coincides with the will of God, takes precedence over any presumed international human-rights norms.

As much as Islamist groups moderated their rhetoric and practice from the 1970s through the 2011 uprisings, they did not become liberals (here, as ever, the distinction between being a “liberal” and a “democrat” is worth emphasizing). There was a time when the notion of “post-Islamism” gained popularity in academic circles. Turkish Islamism—which had ceased to be Islamist in any real sense—showed the way to a brave new future where Islamists would agree to work within the framework of secular democracy. However, such hopes, when applied to the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded groups, were misplaced.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to view Islamists as radicals bent on introducing a fundamentally new social order. Even the Brotherhood’s most controversial positions—such as its opposition to women and Christians becoming head of state—fell well within the region’s conservative mainstream. The irony of Islamist victories at the polls is that they did not announce a break with the past; they confirmed something that was already there and had been for some time. The goal of Islamists is the Islamization of society, in thought and practice, and in the standards that people hold themselves to. In some countries, like Egypt, the extent of Islamization on the societal level was striking well before Islamists even came to power; in other countries, Islamists were creating something from nearly nothing. In post-revolution Tunisia, the level of Islamization was remarkable, considering how much ground Islamists had to cover in such a short period of time. In Tunisia, Ennahda had been effectively eradicated in the early 1990s. After that, the group had no organized presence in the country, with its leaders in prison or in exile.

After the demise of strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, the changing character of society was immediately apparent, with a growing number of Tunisians dressing, speaking, and living differently. Mosque preachers, not accustomed to large crowds, reported rows of the devout lining up for prayer. It was almost as if the removal of a dictator allowed society to return to a more natural equilibrium. Certainly, the return of Ennahda members and leaders to Tunisia helped spur these changes, but the party’s quick return to prominence reflected a seemingly widespread desire to reconnect with the country’s Islamic roots. Just months after Rachid Ghannouchi and other leaders returned, triumphant, to Tunis in early 2011, they won by a landslide in the country’s first elections, with 37 percent of the popular vote and 41 percent of the seats. (The second largest party, the secular Congress for the Republic, won only 8.7 percent of the vote and 13 percent of the seats.)

Tunisia, with its sizable middle class, high level of literacy, and one of the region’s best educational systems, was thought to be less hospitable to the specter of religious politics. Ennahda’s success couldn’t simply be explained by superior organization, as the party could claim virtually no preexisting organizational structures. To be sure, Ennahda members proved far more effective at campaigning than their secular counterparts. They drew on the legitimacy of their decades in prison under the previous regime. But they also drew on a latent Islamization of attitudes and a popular predisposition toward the mixing of religion and politics.

Immediately after the revolutions, Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia were careful to portray themselves as responsible actors. This relative sobriety was in constant tension with their stated, and unstated, ambitions for their respective societies. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, spoke of a comprehensive “civilizational” project. While this vague aspiration, embodied in the Brotherhood’s so-called Renaissance Project, had technocratic reform components, it also sought something more transformational. This part was less defined, in part because the Brotherhood had not given it the careful thought it deserved. Or perhaps, for them, it was so self-evident that it needn’t be detailed in a program. Within the framework of democracy, they hoped to offer a spiritual and philosophical alternative to Western liberalism. For Islamists as well as their liberal opponents, it was a question—one that was intensely personal—of how societies would be ordered. Any moral project could be counted on to intrude on private conduct and personal freedoms, on the very choices that citizens made, or didn’t make, on a daily basis.

In their original guise, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements believed in a bottom-up approach, beginning with the individual. The virtuous individual would marry a virtuous wife and, together, they would raise a virtuous family. Those families, in turn, would transform culture and society. Once society was transformed, the leaders and politicians would follow. No one was quite sure exactly what this looked like in practice—it had never actually been done before.

Taking the long view, the struggle for and within political Islam is not just important for understanding the evolution of Arab societies; it is important for what it can tell us about how beliefs and ideology are mediated and altered by the political process. At the end of history, Francis Fukuyama wrote, “the state that emerges … is liberal insofar as it recognizes and protects through a system of law man’s universal right to freedom, and democratic insofar as it exists only with the consent of the governed.” But what Fukuyama failed to grapple with is whether a state could claim the latter without enjoying the former. The question here is whether the democratic process, in the long run, will blunt the ideological pretensions of Islamist groups, forcing them to move to the center, back into the confines of the liberal democratic consensus.

In the modern period, religiously based states are rare. The few that do exist, or have existed, do not have a good track record. Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are the obvious examples, but they are of limited value in making sense of Islamism after the Arab Spring. None of them were democratic. Although they enjoyed various degrees of popular support, there was no, in Fukuyama’s words, real consent of the governed. In contrast, Islamist parties today are interested in fashioning religiously oriented states through democratic means and maintaining them through democratic means. They took this to levels of near self-parody in Egypt, where elections became a sort of crutch. Whenever the Brotherhood faced a crisis, its immediate instinct was to call for elections, thinking that electoral legitimacy would stabilize Egypt and solidify its rule. (It didn’t.)

Throughout the 20th century, alternative ideologies, such as socialism, communism, and Christian Democracy, all attempted to secure power through the ballot box. But these were movements with built-in limitations. Islamist groups, particularly insular and secretive ones like the Brotherhood, are divisive for other reasons, but they do not struggle with the same limitations. The vast majority of Arabs have no a priori ideological opposition to Islamism as such. Most, after all, support a prominent role for Islam and Islamic law in political life. On the other hand, the natural constituencies of socialists and Christian Democrats—workers and social conservatives, respectively—were inherently limited. To win elections, these movements needed to de-emphasize ideology and move to the center, where presumably the median voter would be found. This is how democratization produced ideological moderation, leading many analysts to assume that the same process might tame Islamist parties.

* * *

Where it is allowed to proceed, democratization will reorient political life in Arab societies. But how? In a country like Tunisia, the center of Arab politics shifted to the right. In Egypt, it shifted to the right before retreating in the face of mounting opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists more generally.

Some “liberal” Islamists have made the case that religion should no longer be such a divisive issue. During his insurgent campaign for president, former Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh explained it this way to a Salafi television channel: “Today those who call themselves liberals or leftists, this is just a political name, but most of them understand and respect Islamic values. They support the sharia and are no longer against it.” In a creative attempt at redefinition, Abul Futouh noted that all Muslims are, by definition, Salafi, in the sense that they are loyal to the Salaf, the earliest, most pious generations of Muslims. He seemed to be saying: We are all, in effect, Islamists, so why fight over it?

Abul Futouh, for all his purported liberalism, believed that the Egyptian people (and perhaps all Muslim-majority populations) had a natural inclination toward Islam. Here, the tensions between liberalism and majoritarianism became more evident. When I asked Abul Futouh in 2006 what Islamists would do if parliament passed an “un-Islamic” law, he dismissed the concern: “Parliament won’t grant rights to gays because that goes against the prevailing culture of society, and if [members of parliament] did that, they’d lose the next election,” he said. “Whether you are a communist, socialist, or whatever, you can’t go against the prevailing culture. There is already a built-in respect for sharia.”

Over the course of my interviews in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia—both before and after the Arab Spring—this particular sentiment was repeated so often that it began to sound like a cliche: freedom and Islamization were not opposed but rather went hand in hand. As Salem Falahat, the former general overseer of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, once told me, “If they have the opportunity to think and choose, [the Arab and Muslim people] will choose Islam. Every time freedom expands among them, they choose Islam.” In other words, Islam didn’t need to be enforced. The people, to the extent they needed to, would enforce it themselves—through the binding nature of the democratic process.

This notion has a long pedigree in Islamic thought: The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said, “My umma [community] will not agree on an error.” Depending on where exactly you stand on the political spectrum, this sort of belief in the wisdom of crowds is either reassuring and somewhat banal or mildly frightening. It either hints at a new conservative consensus or at an exclusionary politics that has little space for liberal dissent.


This post is adapted from Shadi Hamid’s new bookTemptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, published by Oxford University Press.

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