The Future of Islam and Democracy After the Arab Spring

Remarks by NED President Carl Gershman at the conference on  “Democratization, Authoritarianism, and Radicalization: Exploring the Connections”

The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, April 21, 2016

It’s important to note at the outset that the authoritarian backlash in the Middle East, with the Arab Winter following the Arab Spring, is part of the global phenomenon of authoritarian resurgence that has gathered force over the last decade.  It involves, for example, the rise of Vladimir Putin and the Russian aggressions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and the fact that China has become more repressive domestically and more brazen in the South China Sea.  But the authoritarian resurgence has had a greater effect in the Middle East than other regions. According to Freedom House, 12 of 18 countries in the region are more repressive today than they were before the Arab Spring, and these 12 countries don’t include Egypt and Libya, which Freedom House thinks have improved since 2010.

I don’t think that’s true in the case of Egypt, which is more repressive today than under Mubarak.  Last year, according to the El Nadeem Center in Cairo, there were 464 enforced disappearances in Egypt as well as almost 500 deaths of prisoners in custody and nearly 700 cases of torture.  More than 41,000 people were detained in just the ten months following the July 2013 military coup, many of them held without trial in vastly overcrowded prisons and police stations.  In addition, 122 people sentenced to death last May 16, including our friend and Georgetown scholar Emad Shahin.

No one I know who follows Egypt closely feels that this repression will lead to a more stable situation in Egypt.  I’m sure that many of you saw the article earlier this week in The New York Times by the Egyptian lawyer Gamal Eid about the case being pursued against him and the human rights advocate Hossam Bahgat.  The crime that Eid is accused of having committed involved his founding a group committed to educating the Egyptian public about civil and human rights.   In the court hearing yesterday, the prosecution postponed a decision on Eid’s case but brought charges against four more activists, including Bahey Hassan of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and Abdel Hafez Tayel, the head of the Egyptian Center for Right to Education.  Eid believes that the intention of the government in bringing these charges is to shut down all non-state institutions that are independent of the security agencies and that criticize violations of rights.

Closing independent civil society organizations will not make Egypt more stable.  As Eid notes, it will eliminate groups that can serve as mediators at times when there is tension and unrest, leading to situations where ordinary tensions can escalate into nationwide conflict.  It transforms the entire public sphere into a zero-sum game between the all-powerful state and those whose rights are being threatened. 

That’s a recipe for social explosion, not for working out and solving fundamental problems.  As the Norwegian Nobel Committee recognized in giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet, Tunisia could not have resolved the deep ideological cleavages between secular and Islamist political forces without civil society intervening to broker a solution – groups representing human rights advocates, trade unions, lawyers, and business.  Civil society groups play an indispensable role in connecting the state to society and in achieving nonviolent solutions to political conflicts. But for them to play that role, they need space to function.  Take away that space and violent conflict of one form or another is almost inevitable.

But But giving space to civil society is only the first step.  The protests in Kasserine and other parts of western Tunisia last January, five years after the Jasmine Revolution, underline the sobering reality that it’s not enough just to remove a dictator, or even to replace that dictator with a democratically elected government.  A democratic government has to govern effectively, and in Tunisia that means providing employment, fighting corruption, and reforming the courts and the bureaucracies.  I agree with Bill Burns and Marwan Muasher, who said in a recent Washington Post article that Tunisia and its international supporters need to establish a new framework for internal reform and international assistance.  There needs to be dramatic, mutually reinforcing action in Tunisia and by the United States and Europe.  Regrettably, though, the Western democracies are now preoccupied with their own problems and may miss the opportunity that now exists to help make democracy work in Tunisia.  I fear that the consequences of inaction will be devastating for the future of democracy and political stability in the Middle East since Tunisia, as the first Arab democracy, is a model and the hope for others in the region.  Urgent action is needed, and it needs to be taken now.

There is a very dangerous tendency in the U.S. today to give up on the Middle East and to turn our backs on the region.  This tendency is on display in the famous article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, that sets forth President Obama’s views on Syria and the region generally.  Libya, according to Goldberg, proved to the President that “the Middle East was best avoided,” and the first conclusion outlined in the summary at the end of the article is that “the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests.”  That’s very short-sighted, in my view.  The U.S. took that view on Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1988, and the result was a calamitous civil war, the Taliban dictatorship, and ultimately the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  We’ve stood aside in Syria, and the result has been hundreds of thousands of deaths and a massive refugee crisis that has engulfed not just neighboring countries in the region but Europe as well.  The problem with the policy options offered by the President in The Atlantic article is that they always seem to involve a choice between all or nothing, going to war or standing aside.  But the real choices are almost always in between these extremes.  They require weighing the risks of inaction as well as those of reckless action, finding effective ways to work with other countries, using all the policy tools at our disposal, and being guided by a coherent strategy that takes account not just of immediate threats but long-term interests and opportunities.

It’s dangerous, I think, to give up on the possibility that the countries of the Middle East can become more democratic, and to send the message to the people of the region that the United States does not think it is in our interest to try to help that process along. We published a number of articles in the NED’s Journal of Democracy on the fifth anniversary of the Arab Spring, assessing what we’ve learned after those five difficult and tumultuous years. One conclusion of this collection was that some of the sectors that many thought would be helpful during a period of democratic transition were actually very problematic, such as the media that encouraged polarization, and many secular parties that were internally autocratic and often had ties to the security state.  At the same time, Islamist parties were not as dominant as they sometimes appeared, doing much better in first elections after a political opening, but receiving fewer votes over time as voters soured on poor performance.  Most encouraging were the findings of the Arab Barometer survey, which showed that despite the economic dislocations and security problems of the last five years, the support for democracy in the Middle East has held steady at 70 percent.  Evidently the Arab people have not given up on democracy, even if many people in the West have come to the conclusion that democracy in the Middle East is not a realistic possibility, and that trying to encourage its development is destabilizing and not in the U.S. interest.

Certainly the transition process in Egypt was flawed from the start, and there was blame to go around – from the military and deep state that never had any intention of allowing a real transition, to the over-reaching and illiberal Islamists, the fractious secular parties, and civil society which was unable to make the transition from protest to politics.  Nathan Brown has written more eloquently than anyone about all of that, especially the failure of all participants to appreciate the need to build consensus whenever and wherever possible.  Still, that doesn’t mean that lessons can’t be learned, and that Egyptians who hope for a better future should not be thinking very hard about what went wrong and how, if another opportunity for democracy opens up, they can start from a higher level of political maturity and achieve a better result.

I want to offer a final thought on the problem of Islamist extremism and terrorism.  We’re at a very dangerous moment now when ISIS and other extremists have succeeded in creating an ominously polarized political climate, a kind of Huntingtonian “clash of civilizations.”  We know that there are people in Europe and in this country – I won’t mention any names – who address the problem in those terms, who appeal to fear and project a very confrontational message.  But I think it should be obvious that what the jihadists fear most is not a confrontation with the West but the possibility of losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the mainstream in Muslim societies.  I was struck that a new UNDP report on responding to so-called “violent extremism” in Africa emphasizes the ideological dimension of the problem, meaning that there is a political, intellectual, and religious struggle – a battle of ideas – that is taking place among Muslims.  The Cold War also had a fundamental ideological dimension, and we fought that battle through institutions like the Congress for Cultural Freedom.   But the Cold War was fought over an idea – Marxism or communism – that originated in the West, appealed to a large number of Western intellectuals, and offered an alternative to the idea of democracy and pluralism. 

The current battle is different.  It is not a struggle within the West or between the West and another region, culture, or civilization, to use Huntington’s term.  It is a battle over the identity and future of vastly diverse Muslim world writ large (which also includes Muslim minorities in Europe and North America and in scores of other countries that are not part of traditional Muslim-majority countries and regions).  It must be fought within that world, led by Muslim religious leaders and educators, intellectuals and activists, workers and entrepreneurs, young people and especially women, people who do not reject the modern world but have a vision of success and achievement within it.  Far from being our enemies, these people within the Muslim world are the most important friends and allies we have.  We need to know who they are, and we must do what we can to help them, based upon our shared values of human dignity, social justice, and democratic rights and processes.  It’s their struggle because it’s their future.  But the outcome of this struggle will significantly affect our common civilization for many generations to come.