I'm beginning this essay with a bold and possibly foolhardy assumption: that the wave of protests throughout much of the Arab world, and what is increasingly drifting in the direction of a violent revolution in Libya, will eventually lead democratization and real reform in many Arab states. This hasn't happened yet, of course. In Tunisia, where it all began, certainly there's a lot more freedom now by all accounts than there was under Ben Ali, but protesters recently found that when they went into the streets again, there was a rather familiar government response: they were beaten up. The same thing happened when small protests reemerged in Egypt. In both of those countries, the process of reform is underway, but where it will lead is totally unclear as yet. Islamists, led regionally by the elderly fanatic Yusuf Qaradawi, are slowly but surely introducing their agenda into what has, thus far, to all appearances been a secular, ecumenical and fundamentally nationalist set of movements. In Egypt and Tunisia, "people power" did not exactly unseat the hated dictators, but forced the militaries in both countries, which were unprepared to open fire on their own people, to perform “soft coups,” removing the individual dictators from power and shipping them and their families out of the country or to remote areas.
Utopian and dystopian scenarios look the same at this point
The problem is that both the utopian and dystopian scenarios in Tunisia and Egypt would look exactly the same at this stage, so it's impossible to tell where this is all really heading. In Egypt, for example, a real transition towards democracy would involve the dissolving of a parliament elected recently under very dubious circumstances; the suspension of the Constitution and the formation of a committee to draft a new and presumably better one; the release of at least some political prisoners and opening up of political space; and the initiation of a period of transition presided over by the military which can maintain order while working with the remnants of the old regime and with opposition groups to craft a new system that is acceptable to a broad range of society. That's exactly what's happening. Unfortunately, a dystopian scenario leading to Pakistan-style military rule would look about the same at this stage: dissolving of the parliament, suspension of the Constitution, military control of the process through which a new system is developed, etc.
Even if it is the intention, as I strongly suspect it is, of the Egyptian military to oversee a transition in which it once again recedes into the sidelines of Egyptian politics, that may prove difficult to actually accomplish. Certainly Egyptian military culture has held that while it is not only acceptable but expected that former senior officers, once they are retired, can and in many cases will become senior government officials, the Army itself is not supposed to have a role in domestic politics. But now it does. And after months of being in control, and getting a good, long, hard look at the kind of civilian politicians and their petty machinations during the process of crafting a new system, the Army may well start kid itself that it alone can secure peace and stability in Egypt, run the country efficiently, and preserve the national interest. This has happened countless times in numerous developing states around the world. This could happen in Egypt in spite of the best intentions at the moment by the General Staff, assuming they have them. This impulse would be greatly intensified if it appeared that Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood were becoming increasingly well positioned to seize and hold power in a parliamentary process or other democratic structures, or to seize power through extraconstitutional means of one variety or another. So the same process that's underway at the moment could lead to democratization or it could lead to and extended period of military rule, and it's almost impossible to tell at this stage where things are really leading.
Extended violence could lead to extremism and/or national fragmentation
As I've written and said many times in the past, the violence in Libya is a grave threat to the prospect of a positive outcome to the Libyan uprising. The ruthlessness, indeed insanity, of the Qaddafi regime really does have the potential to create national fragmentation if the conflict is protracted, or to produce radicalized, extreme opposition groups that could come to power locally or nationally if the violence is greatly intensified and drags on for a long time. Again, the historical precedents for this grim process are myriad. Qaddafi is threatening his people with incredible violence from himself, and his continuous insistence on invoking the gruesome specter of bin Laden, Zawahiri and even the late, monstrous figure of Zarqawi no less, is designed to frighten Libyans into fearing that because he will not go without a bloodbath, the outcome could produce new leaders or organizations, radicalized to the point of psychosis, as happened in Algeria, Iraq, Peru, Cambodia and many other societies wracked by brutal civil war.
Reasons to hope for an Arab renaissance
So, obviously, while the outcome of the relatively orderly processes underway in Tunisia and Egypt is not clear, the danger is in Libya, and of course in areas where protests are steadily gaining steam, particularly in Yemen, is even more uncertain. However, there are very powerful grounds for optimism that what we are seeing are the birth pangs of a new Arab renaissance after an extended dark age of cultural obscurantism, political sclerosis, misrule and corruption, religious fanaticism and economic decay. The behavior of the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square was anything but that of an anarchical mob baying for blood. It was highly organized under almost impossible circumstances, dignified, nationalistic, secular, ecumenical, respectful, and displayed a very refined degree of social consciousness. Protesters displayed wisdom in maintaining the discipline of nonviolence under grave provocation, and the political sophistication to welcome the military with open arms, which certainly was a crucial factor in avoiding a confrontation and a bloodbath. Books will be written, both worthy and ridiculous (brace yourself for some of the most ridiculous academic anthropology and sociology theorizing coming soon to a peer-reviewed journal or academic press near you on this subject), about the spontaneous organization in the “Tahrir Republic,” the organization of neighborhood watch committees, spontaneous public protection of the National Museum and other crucial installations, and the enforcement of certain kinds of law and order, particularly against looting, by spontaneously organized groups of citizens. This is a people not only yearning for self-governance, but who have proven more than capable of it under very difficult circumstances. The icing on the cake was that, after celebrating the removal of Mubarak by the Army, the protesters returned to the Square the next day and cleaned it up, handing it back to the military authorities in fairly pristine condition. This is a display of national and social consciousness that should leave no one in any doubt that the urban middle, lower-middle, and working classes of Cairo and other cities in Egypt are a people as ready for self-government as any other in the world. They know what the right thing to do is, and they were ready, willing and able to do it at great risk to themselves, animated not by religious gobbledygook but by national and social consciousness.
A very similar attitude has been on display in Tunisia, and in the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, even though, as I've written before, the Bahraini case is slightly different than many of the other Arab protests. What this suggests is that the protests that we've seen so far were not simply about removing individuals, or even changing systems or expressing pent-up economic and political frustrations, but were also very much about demonstrating the readiness of Arabs to embrace well-functioning, equitable, self-governing social orders. There are also indications of this mentality — a yearning for genuine social order based on real rules and accountability that is equitable — is coming out of liberated parts of Libya such as Benghazi and the other cities free of the control of the Gaddafi regime. So even if military rulers were to try to impose long-term control over these societies, they might find themselves facing another round of major protests, and this is already beginning to happen in Egypt and Tunisia where dissatisfaction with the pace of change and with the continuation of too many facets of the old national security states are starting to boil the pot again.
The dangers ahead
The dangers of this kind of uncontrolled, spontaneous movement for change in many Arab states are significant, and they include military dictatorships, Islamist takeovers through elections and/or seizure of power, national fragmentation, and extended civil conflict. Malefactors are everywhere and, as Qaddafi is proving, some old orders don't only die hard, they kill enthusiastically and for as long as possible. But at a cultural level, the essential elements of an Arab spring, a real cultural, social and political renaissance in the Arab world at long last, are readily discernible for the first time in decades if not centuries. I think that's why the movement spread like wildfire throughout the region and has captured the imagination of Arab peoples in almost every country in the Middle East. It's even inspired the reigniting of the Green Movement in Iran. Anyone who isn't optimistic about where this can go isn't doing justice to the evident animating spirit of the Arab protest movements in general. However, anyone who isn't concerned about dystopian outcomes isn't being realistic about the potential dangers.
There is one serious concern that hasn't received enough attention either from the euphoric, triumphalist voices heralding the new Arab spring/Renaissance, or from the dysphoric, alarmist voices, mainly on the American, European, and above all, Israeli, right wing. Assuming that the three most obvious dystopian scenarios can be avoided in the Arab states that will undergo major transformations in the coming months and years — military dictatorships, Islamist takeovers, and national fragmentation, failed statehood or chaos — the question will then be how best to manage the emergence of a new, democratic order in much of the Arab world and what are the pitfalls to be most assiduously avoided?
Elections alone and majority rule are NOT democracy
There is a danger that too many political orientations in the Arab world have confused democracy with elections and the majority rule, and not fully assimilated the other side of the democratic, republican coin, which is protection of individual and minority rights and limitations on the power of government. The essence of democracy, of course, is a balance between the right of majorities or majority coalitions to exercise the fundamental functions of government on the one hand, with inalienable rights of individual citizens, minority groups of various kinds, women and others, on the other hand. In other words, a real democracy doesn't merely involve enacting the will of the majority, whatever it might be at any given moment. It means doing so with strict limitations as to how far the government can go in intruding on the rights of individuals and minorities, and other limitations on government actions.
Most people in the Arab world, with the exception of the most extreme Islamists, seem to have understood that government legitimacy must stem from elections that gain the consent of the governed, and this understanding even extends to many Islamists, including many Muslim Brotherhood parties such as the one in Egypt. It's true that Islamists aren't necessarily committed to elections as such, but many of them do seem to have understood that there is no other way to guarantee the legitimacy of a government, and many of them, such as the more mainstream Islamist organizations in Egypt and Jordan, seem to feel it is their best path to power, and they're probably right. It's a grim truth that during the 20th century Salafists and other Islamists have managed to redefine Islam in the eyes of many Muslims in a very narrow-minded, obscurantist, and non-traditional manner in the name of a faux-authenticity and a fatuous and completely fictional “return” to the alleged principles of the early stages of Islamic history. And it's also true that in many Arab societies, Islamist parties would probably do very well in elections, although that may have more to do with their degree of organization and party discipline than their mass appeal.
It's important to note that Islamist rhetoric and religious identity was not only not at the forefront of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, it was barely evident at all. Of course in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was very much involved in the protests, and deliberately kept their rhetoric off the table and stayed in the background. They strategically decided not to overplay their hand, and it was a smart thing to do. It's clear that their hope is that while a secular, ecumenical and nationalist movement will create a new, open political space in Egypt, and hopefully a parliamentary democracy, that they will be the primary beneficiaries because they are the best organized and most disciplined political party other than the discredited NDP. So, in keeping with their founding Leninist party structure and strategy (although not, of course, content or ideology), they are willing to let the popular uprisings sweep the Ancien Régime from power, confident (rightly or wrongly) that they will be among the main beneficiaries of a newly open political system and can attain great influence if not seize power either through the ballot box or as a result of potential ensuing chaos if things go badly or spiral out of control. In short, the Egyptian protests especially, and the whole wave of change in the Arab world more generally, have been a mixed bag for the Islamists. On the one hand, their ideology was not the one that brought millions of people into the streets, and the political symbolism of the revolution has nothing to do with their own. On the other hand, no doubt they feel that they can sit back and wait for space to open up and be well positioned to gain more power than they have ever had in the past, if not seize control of government outrightly.
The prospect of military dictatorship can probably only be combated by more people power, popular rejection of any kind of extended military rule that is regarded by majorities as unacceptable or simply a continuation of the national security states without the old and essentially symbolic figureheads like Mubarak and Ben Ali. National fragmentation, failed statehood and chaos are, I think, unlikely in most if any Arab cases in the near future (other than Iraq and Lebanon, obviously), and would probably be the result of protracted conflicts to remove dictatorships such as may be emerging in Libya. The cure for this is quick resolution with international support, which is why I have been reluctantly advocating for asset freezes, targeted sanctions, travel bans, weapons sale bans, and even a country-wide no-fly zone in Libya for almost 10 days now. But I do think there are very few regimes, although honestly I can think of at least two others, that might resort to such extreme violence even though they are not led by certifiable lunatics. At any rate, those dangers are largely in the hands of the dictatorships, and the people and the most of the opposition groups are unlikely wish for such an outcome and can be relied upon to work against it at least in the initial phases of any uprising. Of course, if local factions come to power in certain regions, then national fragmentation becomes a very lively possibility because people are loathe to give up quasi-governmental authority once they've got it (the same temptation that will apply to the militaries as they rule for “transitional periods” that might not prove all that transitional in practice).
The threat of tyrannical majorities
The final obvious danger facing the Arab peoples as their revolts/revolutions proceed is the most difficult one to manage, and in many ways the most serious: the installation of democracy resulting in the rule of a tyrannical majority. As I noted above, most people in the Arab world, including many Islamists, have interpolated and accepted the idea that government legitimacy is best secured through elections. However, the notion that there should be strict limitations on the will of the majority may not be as clearly understood by as many people as necessary. The only real way to combat the potential of tyrannical majority rule through parliamentary democracy impinging on individual, minority and women's rights, among other concerns, is the development of constitutions with very strong limitations on government powers, backed up by an army whose loyalty is to the Constitution and not to the elected parliament.
The most obvious case in point is the Algerian model from the early 90s, a veritable textbook of how not to do democratic transitions in the Arab world (or anywhere else for that matter). The Algerian ruling elite and junta decided, for various reasons, to transition to a parliamentary democracy. But they made the most fundamental error possible: they crafted a Constitution that was infinitely and openly amenable by nothing more than a supermajority of Parliament! After the first round of voting in 1991, in a two-round process, it became clear that the Islamist FIS (Islamic Salvation Front), which had already swept local and municipal elections across the country, was poised to almost certainly gain exactly such a supermajority in the very first democratically elected parliament. It would therefore probably have been able to amend the Constitution in anyway it pleased under the law, a prospect that was utterly unacceptable to the military, the ruling party, and much of the secularized Algerian elite. In January 1992, the military canceled the second round of elections, and replaced President Chadli Bendjedid with a new leader, the old revolutionary Mohammed Boudiaf. A state of emergency was declared, FIS leaders rounded up and given lengthy prison terms, and its cadres thrown into concentration camps in the Sahara desert. By 1993 the situation had deteriorated into civil war, which eventually claimed the lives of at least 100,000 Algerians and led to the emergence of some of the most extreme Salafist-Jihadist groups the Arab world has ever seen (as I mentioned in my last Ibishblog essay).
The lessons from the Algerian experience are crystal clear: the problem was not that the military and the junta decided to move towards democratization. That was a good thing, and a good idea. The problem also was not that a (relatively moderate) Islamist party was likely to be elected to a strong majority in parliament, although obviously that's an outcome that would dismay me and many other people. But the presence and possible success of right wing religious parties is not an argument for refusing to create democracies. The problem was that the Constitution was so poorly crafted that it allowed for something as commonplace as a parliamentary supermajority to amend the Constitution in an unimpeded manner. This means that whatever protections were put in place for individual citizens, minorities, women, and other limitations on government power would have been essentially meaningless in the face of an immediate Islamist supermajority in the very first democratic parliament ever elected in Algeria. This initial idiotic mistake led to a second idiotic mistake: the extreme overreaction of the government that led inevitably to a state of civil war which predictably degenerated into a level of savagery on both sides that is still not fully comprehended by most people outside of Algeria.
The need for strong constitutional protections for individuals, minorities and women
Arab democracy is, hopefully, coming, and if it does it's going to include a fairly strong presence of right-wing religious organizations that might do quite well in elections. This is already the case in many democracies, including ultra-conservative Catholic groups in Latin America and elsewhere, the evangelical Christian right in the United States, Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, the RSS and other Hindu extremists in India, and many other examples around the world. They should peacefully and politically be fought tooth and nail, because their message and agenda is divisive and, if they are not restrained, they have a tendency to become extremely oppressive and abusive towards individuals and minorities, and especially to women. Islamism and other right wing religious politics tends, in practice, to look more like misogyny in terms of its policies than anything else, and it's anti-woman agenda is crystal clear.
The best way to restrain them is not to resist democratization, but create democracies in which individual, minority and women's rights, and other clear restrictions on government power are inviolable, and backed up by militaries that are committed to upholding the Constitution but not interfering with the legitimate exercise of constitutional, limited political power. It may be that the Arab world has to go through a period in which Islamists are given a chance to prove that they have no answers, no real economic development program, no sense of how to govern effectively, no less corruption than other political factions, and to give people a taste of how unpalatable their ultra-conservative social programs might be within the limitations of the rights cited above. They should probably be given a chance, if people really want that, to prove their uselessness, and the inherent vapidity of their ideology and political agenda. The nationalistic and ecumenical tendencies clearly evident in the protest movements in Egypt and Tunisia, and indeed elsewhere, indicate that there are strong countervailing political tendencies in the Arab world, and alarmism is no reason to reject democracy. But it has to be done right. And the right way is to create constitutions that provide powerful, inviolable protections for vulnerable groups and individuals, and especially women, restrain government action, and that prevents the emergence of tyrannical majorities.