Samuel Huntington and Egypt

by Stanley Kurtz

From Samuel Huntington’s 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations:

As the relative power of other civilizations increases, the appeal of Western culture fades and non-Western people’s have increasing confidence in and commitment to their indigenous cultures. The central problem in the relations between the West and the rest is, consequently, the discordance between the West’s–particularly America’s–efforts to promote a universal Western culture and its declining ability to do so. (183)

During the 1970′s and 1980′s over thirty countries shifted from authoritarian to democratic political systems….Democratization was most successful in countries where Christian and Western influences were strong….These transitions and the collapse of the Soviet Union generated in the West, particularly in the United States, the belief that a global democratic revolution was underway and that in short order Western concepts of human rights and Western forms of political democracy would prevail throughout the world. Promoting this spread of democracy hence became a high priority goal for Westerners….The greatest resistance to Western democratization efforts, however, came from Islam and Asia. This resistance was rooted in the broader movements of cultural assertiveness embodied in the Islamic Resurgence and the Asian affirmation. (193)

In the post-Cold War world the choice can be the more difficult one between the friendly tyrant and an unfriendly democracy. The West’s easy assumption that democratically elected governments will be cooperative and pro-Western need not hold true in non-Western societies where electoral competition can bring anti-Western nationalists and fundamentalists to power….As Western leaders realize that democratic processes in non-Western societies often produce governments unfriendly to the West, they both attempt to influence those elections and lose their enthusiasm for promoting democracy in those societies. (198)

While Huntington worried about civilizational conflict, he did not believe we were in the midst of a full-scale clash with the Muslim world in 1996, or even after September 11, 2001. Huntington’s fear was that overly-ambitious efforts to promote democracy and Western culture abroad would actually help to create such a clash.

The Bush administration’s retreat from democracy promotion after 2005 can be seen as an example of the loss of enthusiasm for this policy, as predicted by Huntington. The strength of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the electoral victory of Hamas, and other similar prospects scared the Bush administration off of its policy, for good reason. Of course, many see Bush’s retreat on democratization as a mistake that has helped to force us into our current unpalatable choice between a dictator and Islamists. As I see it, however, the forces militating against authentic liberal democracy in Egyptian society are too deeply rooted to have been overcome through a continuation of Bush’s democratization policy. That argument will undoubtedly continue.

The revolution in Egypt has launched a new American wave of enthusiasm for democracy abroad. I predict this enthusiasm will cool over the coming months and years as we see what the change has wrought. Recent developments in Turkey and Pakistan, each of which sparked earlier waves of optimism in the West, have not been encouraging. These things evolve slowly, but the direction seems clearly to be along the lines predicted by Huntington. Think of Lebanon as well.

Egypt may hold for now. The best resolution would be a good amount of de facto control by the miliary mixed with a bit of slow-motion democratic reform. Yet the door is now open to the gradual expansion of Islamist power in Egypt. A fairly rapid and total Islamist takeover with knock-on effects throughout the region is at least a possibility. That really would mean a full-scale civilizational clash. With luck and care, we’ll avert that worst-case outcome for a time. Yet the medium-term prospects are not encouraging.

Broadly speaking, I’m sympathetic with Huntington, although I think that over the very long term, authentic democratization is more possible than Huntington would have granted. I gave my take on the Huntington-Fukuyama debate post-9/11 in “The Future of History.” If Egypt falls to the Islamists, it will be time for another assessment.