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Perils Of A Quick Transition To Democracy

Alon Ben-Meir - August 22, 2013

What is currently happening in Egypt should not come as a surprise to anyone who has even cursory knowledge of the Arab world from historical, cultural, religious and political perspectives.

The Arab Spring has not come one day too soon to lift the Arab populace from decades of servitude, subjugation and suppression by despots.

The idea, however, that once a dictator is overthrown the rush to a democracy will provide the people with all that they have been yearning for, is a fallacy that inescapably ushers in disastrous consequences, as witnessed in Egypt.

The West, led by the United States, is partly to blame for what is happening in Egypt, the continuing carnage in Iraq, the unending violence in Libya and what might still be in store for Syria’s calamitous civil war.

The West seems to have forgotten how many centuries it took, how many wars (including America’s civil war) have occurred, how many millions of people have perished and how much destruction has been inflicted to reach the democratic political order they currently enjoy.

Democracy was not then and it is not now to be taken for granted as if it were a natural development of political processes. Democracy is not a pill that, once swallowed, changes human behavior overnight and infuses the mind with a deep sense of freedom immune from outside challenges.

Democracy is a long and tedious process that takes decades to mature even under the best of circumstances.

From the days of their inceptions, in the wake of World Wars I and II, not a single Arab state has experienced any form of democratic governance. Kings and Emirs were arbitrarily installed by colonial powers; national boundaries were randomly drawn irrespective of sects, races and ethnicities.

The seeds of popular discontent were planted then and further nurtured by sectarian, tribal and ethnic rivalries, while dictators and kings ruthlessly used every tool available to divide and conquer in order to secure their hold on power.

The state and its resources became the private holdings of families, many of whom continue to this day, passing their fortunes and power from one generation to the next. They treat their citizens as subjects living at the mercy of their rulers and daring to challenge the authorities would be at their own peril.

For the West to think that once a dictator is deposed by popular demand it can push for democracy starting with general elections and haphazardly write new constitutions is nothing but a recipe for continuing upheavals and bloodshed.

While the West has the moral responsibility to support the march to freedom and provide the guidance to transition to a new political order, it requires more than an instinctive leap to democratic governance.

What is needed is a political process that paves the way for the establishment of a democratic form of government based on a carefully thought-out constitution to safeguard the rights of every individual and with a built-in political mechanism to ensure full adherence to these rights.

By pushing for early elections, any fool could have predicted the results. The Islamic parties, be they in Tunisia, Egypt or other Arab states, have been diligently preparing to capture power. They are patient and disciplined, with extensive social networks, organizational skills and resources to help the poor that no secular political party could match.

Whereas these Islamic parties operated under the watchful eyes of the authorities, using religion and the mosque to promulgate their mission without challenging the government, secular parties needed the public arena to promote their political agenda, which governments have forbidden or systematically stifled.

In Egypt, there is hardly any secular party with a clear political ideology of which the public is fully aware and in a position to evaluate and compare to the political agendas of other parties, be they Islamic or secular.

It was a given that the MB in Egypt would win the elections. However free and fair these elections might have been, they did not represent the wishes of the majority of the people.

Simply put, other political parties were suppressed under the previous dictatorial regimes; they lacked the organizational and political skills and failed to present a political agenda that would address the people’s grievances.

What is absurd is that while the US has been witnessing the unfolding events in Egypt over the past 30 months, the Obama administration is now making precisely the same mistake again by pushing for early elections and writing, in a hurry, a new constitution.

Due to globalization and the technological and information revolutions, the Arab states do not need the decades or centuries that it took the West to develop a functioning democracy. That said, a transition to democracy still requires time and it cannot, for political convenience, be artificially accelerated.

The US should encourage and use its considerable leverage on the Egyptian military and the current civilian authority to seek an inclusive transitional government that represents all segments of the population for at least four years.

This minimum transitional period is necessary to allow for the development of democratic institutions, institutionalization of free press and freedom of speech while developing the culture of advice and consent.

To be sure, no democratic form of government can be accomplished, let alone sustained, by rushing for quick fixes under the banner of democratic reforms.

Although the MB has thus far refused to participate, the party will sooner than later have to choose between continuing resistance and being forced to go underground, or becoming a part of the new political process. The MB is not suicidal and knows that there is no future for the movement if they remain politically excluded.

The transitional government should be composed of respected and skilled bureaucrats, experts respected in their fields, known for their commitment to the national interest and ready to dedicate their time and energy for the future of their country.

Such a government would then chose legal scholars representing all segments of the population to assume the task of writing a new constitution that enshrines human rights, including political and religious freedoms.

The different political parties, old and new, would develop their platforms and present them to the public, allowing the people to choose intelligently and freely the party of their choice.

The idea here is that regardless of the continuing violent conflicts and diametrically opposing views, the message from the West must remain the same: a representative and inclusive transitional government should govern for at least four years to be followed by general elections based on the new constitution.

The army will remain the custodian for national security and relinquish its internal security functions once a new government is elected.

No one can suggest that this is an easy path free of hurdles and can easily be realized. But the US must have a consistent message and avoid being seen as hypocritical in dealing with the inevitable continuing upheavals engulfing various Arab states.

The US could have used its leverage on the Egyptian military following the fall of Mubarak to form an inclusive transitional government (including the Brotherhood) for at least four years. In so doing the US might have been able to dramatically change the political landscape and avoid the unfolding violent conflict and instability.

Sadly, the West (led by the US) is about to commit the same mistake again and deprive once more young Arab youth the opportunity to grow and flourish under sustainable democratic governance.


  1. Posted August 22, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I appreciate the thesis and perceptive, empathetic assessment of the transition to democracy, and its breakdown in Egypt.

    On one point I disagree. I was in Cairo three times in the last two years with many contacts among liberal secular Egyptians who were deeply immersed in the national political culture. None
    anticipated the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially as reinforced by the showing of the Salafi parties. The liberal commitment to inclusive democracy was based on two assumptions: that the MB would not gain more than 30% of parliamentary seats; that the MB would keep its pledge not to field a candidate for the presidency.

    When these two assumptions proved to be mistaken, an implicit alliance began to form between the fulool remnant of the Mubarak regime and the urban secular anti-Mubarak and leftist youth. Their strategy was not to build electoral strength but to create a crisis of governability, coupled with a crisis of legitimacy, and in the process draw the military onto their side based on a pro-order consensus.

    In this sense, the problems of the quick transition that you analyze so well need, in my view, to be coupled with the problems of the secular/Islamic divide in the ME.

    Forgive the length of this comment.

  2. Isam Kamel
    Posted August 22, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    this is a reasonable analysis.

  3. Posted August 24, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Interesting, Alon, that clarity emerges regarding not just Obama as Amateur, or ideological, whichever applies, but that there is an obvious and long-time problem with America as “superpower,” understanding its role and responsibilities, in the case under discussion, hegemon in the Middle East. And the “unintended consequences” (to borrow the famous Gates/Mullen excuse to do nothing) of taking an ideological, rather than realpolitik approach to foreign policy. How much blood by “collateral damage” due to America’s “good intentions?”

    And will Israel become one of America’s “unintended consequences?”

    If I sound angry and frustrated, I am.

    Your “four-year” plan is what would be necessary to provide a transition from autocracy to at least the beginnings of “liberal democracy.” And were the US what Japan was several decades ago, patient and not demanding immediate gratification, then that would be an excellent start. As we both are aware, American policy has two failings: ideology (which I term the “dogma (or gospel) of Democracy”) and lack of patience. And so it stumbles from one self-created disaster to the next: 1979 and Iran; 2003 and Iraq; 2011 and Egypt; 2013 and Syria.

    Coincidentally I also submitted an article to JPost several days ago, “Obama and America’s dogma of “Democracy,”” and another article describing the same US ineptitude appeared yesterday in Israel Hayom which I recommend: “America’s march of folly in the Middle East.”

    I follow your articles regularly, Alon, although until recently have been totally occupied in writing my own book, on the Jewish Problem. Just completing the final draft and so had presence of mind to return to Israel and the “special relationship” and, so, your article.

    Keep up the good fight!

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