The results of the Egyptian “revolution” are still uncertain. Hosni Mubarak’s career may be at an end, but the emergence of meaningful democracy in Egypt and West Asia at large is still doubtful.
The first images from Tunisia and Egypt evoked memories of Eastern Europe from two decades earlier: determined citizens ousting long-standing dictators. In this respect, there is more than a faint resemblance between the marchers in Tahrir Square in Cairo today and those in downtown Bucharest in 1989 who forced Nicolae Ceausescu to depart. Democracy is not difficult to usher when a million people want it and gather to get it.
The questions lie elsewhere. What will they do to secure meaningful content for that democracy? To make it meaningful, political equality between citizens has to match economic freedom. Unless these two —democracy and liberalism—go hand in hand, the enterprise will be less than successful. In most Arabian countries, the conditions required to make this work— robust and independent institutions, a history of civic freedoms and private enterprise unimpeded by governments (or propped by them, for that matter)—have never existed.
In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser —a great modernizer—was distinctly illiberal in economic matters and in his bid to secure a secular future for his country he ended up laying the foundations of Islamic fundamentalism. His savage treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood and especially its leader Sayyid Qutb gave legitimacy to a pernicious ideology and ensured the longevity of the Mubarak regime. The latter was propped by Western governments for long as they feared the emergence of radical Islamic forces in Egypt and the possibility of an “Islamic domino effect” across Arabia.
The result: Egypt, along with almost every single country in the region, is grossly unprepared for meaningful democracy. This is not an argument against democracy, but merely a warning of the pitfalls that lie ahead. In today’s world political independence is meaningless in the absence of economic freedom. When political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued 22 years ago that liberal democracy marked the end of mankind’s political evolution, he had this in mind. Fascism and communism had neither economic nor political freedom. Right-wing dictatorships ensured liberal economic conditions, but not political ones. Most Arabian countries have been in the grip of collectivist ideologies—pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism being just two—and the fear of markets. Unless a new institutional order—economic and political—is created together, there will be more turmoil, not peace.
Will West Asia see a transition to liberal democracy? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org