Ever since 9/11, I’ve been skeptical of what I consider to be overly rapid and naively optimistic American plans to democratize the Middle East. It’s not that I’m against democracy, or even against policies designed to encourage it over the long term. The problem is that what Americans actually mean by democracy is not just elections, but liberal democracy, the broader cultural attitude toward individual liberty that’s necessary to make elections work. Bring elections prematurely to a country with a deeply illiberal culture, and you are asking for trouble. We Americans tend to take our liberal democratic values for granted, and so we’re often slow to recognize that merely giving Middle Easterners the ballot isn’t enough to turn them into liberal democrats.
That’s why the chaos in Egypt concerns me. Broadly speaking, I agree with National Review’s editors. They do a good job of treading the same fine line as President Obama and our other policy-makers. If anything, however, I would stress the danger of a post-Mubarak Egypt even more. There may well be a genuinely democratic opposition in the streets of Egypt right now. Yet broadly speaking, Egypt is bereft of the culture of liberal democracy, and that spells trouble.
I was no great fan of Pakistan’s President Musharraf, but I was also far more skeptical than most liberals or conservatives about the prospect for democracy in Pakistan after his departure. Pakistan had at least a core liberal tradition left over from British rule and embodied in its lawyers. Today a younger generation of Pakistan’s lawyers showers the assassin of a moderate Muslim governor with rose petals.
If you want to read about the cultural realities of Egyptian life that ground my skepticism, here’s a piece of mine on Egypt from the months after 9/11. For a more thorough look at the issue, here’s my take on the Middle East’s tribal culture and the barrier it poses to democracy. I cover Cairo toward the end of that piece. But for a quick, fun, and bitingly skeptical take on the whole idea of democracy promotion as traditionally understood, have a look at this.