Wednesday, July 17, 2013

One of my favorite Middle East journalists is Jonathan Spyer, an intrepid, clearheaded Israeli who has not only ventured behind rebel lines in Syria, but has returned to write surprisingly non-breathless dispatches about it.  I was therefore a bit surprised--but only a bit--by his puzzlement over the empirical fact that liberal democratic movements in the Arab world are consistently incapable of competing for political power with the two dominant forces in Arab politics:  militaries and Islamists:
“In the Middle East, it is the regimes or the Islamists; there is no third way.”...[B]ut I do not quite understand why. After all, the throngs of young people that we have witnessed in recent days in the streets of Egypt are not a mirage. No more were the young civil society activists who began the uprising in Syria, or the sophisticated liberals and reformers in Egypt. What are the factors which time and time again prevent the emergence of a muscular, representative, civilian and secular politics in the Arab world?
Spyer displays here a very common misunderstanding:  that "representative, civilian and secular politics" is naturally "muscular", unless suppressed by "factors" that "prevent" its "emergence".  In fact, it is not the absence of democracy that requires an explanation:  the very idea of democratic government--indeed, even the idea that governments ought to be accountable to their citizens, the principle on which elective, representative democracy is based--was simply unheard-of until a couple of centuries ago.  Until then--and even to this day, in many places--it was universally taken for granted that governments are, should be and always would be selected and maintained by force of might or apparent divine sanction, and their power to impose laws unlimited, except perhaps by greater might or holier divine sanction. 

Democracy is thus perhaps best thought of less as a political movement than as a kind of technology:  a collection of non-obvious principles, practices and processes that enable a society to impose accountability on its own government.  And like many technologies--say, the automobile--it needs both a broad supporting infrastructure and a widespread understanding of its use and maintenance in order to permeate a society.  One would never pause to wonder why automobiles weren't ubiquitous in those societies that haven't yet developed both the physical infrastructure to support them and the intellectual infrastructure to use and maintain them.  Likewise, one shouldn't be surprised at the lack of "muscular" democratic politics in countries--like those of the Arab world--that haven't yet created either the supporting institutions or the consensus understandings that make a working democracy possible. 

It is therefore heartening and necessary--though obviously far from sufficient--to see protestors overthrowing governments in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Syria.  Although such proto-democratic actions are far from authentic democracy--no doubt many of the protestors in those countries actually have little understanding of it, and even less sympathy for it--they nevertheless represent a slightly broadening public embrace of a weak version of the important democratic principle of popular sovereignty.  And while full-fledged democracy may be unlikely to blossom any time soon in those countries--the path from the French Revolution to representative democracy took nearly a century, after all--every such step brings them closer to the day when democratic ideas are as natural and obvious to their populations as they are to the citizens of Western democracies.

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