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Arab Spring: From Bad to Worse


No one can predict the long-term outcome of the so-called Arab Spring with assurance. Up to now, that uncertainty has protected democratizing optimists, who argue that the Middle East’s internal turmoil, and accompanying set-backs to American interests in the short and medium term, will be balanced out by democratic evolution over time.

In effect, the optimists’ core scenario — which envisions Islamist parties tamed and transformed into peaceful liberal democrats by multi-decade entanglement in the constraints of electoral politics–protects the democratizing vision from disconfirmation. No matter how bad things look for Western interests today, optimists can say that this is actually part of the plan. Only through the rough and tumble of bickering and necessary compromise over constitutions, elections, and day-to-day legislative politics can a genuinely liberal democracy emerge, we are told. If Islamists or renascent Arab nationalists get elected and rule poorly–taking their countries to war, trampling minority rights, or running their economies into the ground–eventually they will suffer at the ballot box, thus bringing a slow but steady trend toward liberalization and peace. This has been the apparently disconfirmable argument-in-the-face-of-adversity of those who look upon the so-called Arab Spring with hope.

It may still be impossible to see the future with certainty, but Joshua Kurlantzick’s just-published overview of the emerging world-wide trend away from democracy gives us the best argument yet against optimism about even the long-term outcome of the current turmoil in the Middle East. Not that this is Kurlantzick’s purpose. On the contrary, his essay, “The Great Democracy Meltdown,” has little to say about the Middle East, focusing instead on an emerging trend of democratic reversals in the rest of the world. And for all his pessimism, Kurlantzick is an activist democratizer himself. Yet Kurlantzick’s powerful analysis undermines optimism about the so-called Arab Spring in two important ways.

First, Kurlantzick shows that it’s wrong to assume that democratization deepens with time. That may have been true for the past few decades, as democracy spread throughout the world and measures of deeper liberalization in countries holding regular elections grew. Yet that worldwide process has now reversed. For example, the number of “highly defective democracies,” countries that hold elections but are in fact close to being failed states, autocracies, or both (think Pakistan), doubled between 2006 and 2010. This trend challenges those who argue that elections can come first–that instead of postponing votes until a deeper social liberalization has taken hold, elections themselves serve as the motor of liberalizing social transformation. That hurry-up-and-vote strategy is looking a lot less reliable today.

Second, although Kurlantzick does not make the connection himself, the forces he points to as driving the world-wide trend away from democracy can already be seen at work in the Middle East. Classically, for example, democratization is supposed to be driven by economic development and the emerging middle classes it creates. Yet Kurlantzick points out that in many developing countries, the new middle class is vastly outweighed by the very poor. Once these poor get the vote, they elect populist leaders who undermine liberty and raid the wealth of the middle class. That turns the middle class away from democracy and prompts them to support military coups, in hopes of keeping the poor at bay.

We forget it now, but one reason democracy took hold so successfully in England is that the franchise was extended only gradually, as wealth and education spread through the population as a whole. America had a near-universal franchise from the start, yet we also had a great deal more social equality than England early on. East Asia, where economic development has been relatively broad-based, has also been a stronghold of democratization.

Contrast Egypt, where the tiny middle class that sparked the Arab Spring is vastly outnumbered by the extremely poor. Those poor voters, who know little of liberalism, supported the position of the Muslim Brotherhood in the recent constitutional referendum, to the consternation of the middle class. In fact, Egypt’s middle class revolutionaries are already pressuring the military to delay elections, so as to hold the Muslim Brotherhood at bay. We see here, in nucleus, the pattern now undermining democracy worldwide.

The other key factor in Kurlantzick’s analysis is the growing influence of autocratic powers, who are now actively working to counter democracy and to spread their own pattern of decidedly illiberal rule world-wide instead.

We can see that dynamic at work in the Middle East, which is currently caught in a tug-of-war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudis, who feel abandoned by the United States, are gathering an alliance of mostly monarchical states to counter revolutionary trends. On the other side, the Iranians are trying to pull the region toward their own Islamist model, forging an alliance across sectarian lines with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example. Either way this breaks–toward Saudi autocracy or Iranian Islamism — the outlook for authentic liberal democracy is poor.

Even if we cannot know the future with certainty, then, Kurlantzick’s analysis shows the long-term scenario for the Middle East sketched out by democratizing optimists lacks credibility. That scenario depends on a series of hidden and highly questionable assumptions about the relative irreversibility of social liberalization once the practice of elections take hold. It turns out, however, that as democracy spreads to unaccustomed territories, those who’ve warned against moving to elections in advance of deep-lying social liberalization are being shown to have had a point. Will the Arab Spring win out in the end? While the long-term possibility cannot be entirely discounted, democratizing optimism is looking a great deal shakier as a basis for making policy in the present.


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