Daily Archives: June 17, 2011

Proceed Carefully When Democratizing


By now it’s
pretty clear that many people jumped to the conclusion that the Arab Spring
would usher in fresh democratic air. This conclusion, which is a combination of
naïveté and hope, mostly emerges from democratic peace theory. This is the
theory that democracies do not fight each other, that they have so much in
common and so many legitimate outlets for conflict resolution that war is never
necessary. This theory is pretty solid and although it can be overstated it is
probably true that an increase in mature fully expressed democracies would make
for a safer world. But there are two dangers to the process of democratization
worth noting, and both may yet find their way into the current instabilities in
various Arab states such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. These two dangers are illiberal democracies and the dangerous
conditions established by that period of time when a state is transitioning to democracy.

illiberal democracies look a little like democracies but rule like autocracies.
They maintain the image of democracy with elections and a certain amount of
personal freedoms but maintain a central autocratic control. Fareed Zakaria in
his well-known Foreign Affairs essay on illiberal democracies explained them most clearly as unbridled majoritarianism riding roughshod over constitutionalism. And Ivan Krastev in the Journal of Democracy refers to “democracies doubles” or regimes that manipulate their own image of democracy but are actually managed democracies.

The most
common two examples of illiberal democracy are Hugo Chavez’s revolutionary
Venezuela and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. There are differences between the two
because Chavez presents himself as a populist and Putin as a manager. Chavez
spreads wealth selectively and maintains his popular image by being highly
critical of the United States. Putin manages a cadre of elites who use certain
institutions such as elections and media to keep themselves in power. Zakaria
explained that these new illiberal democracies are a marriage of global pressures
toward democratization and illiberal traditions.

But the more
dangerous set of conditions, and the ones most pertinent to the Arab Spring, is
when states are in the process of democratizing. This is when they are most
vulnerable and subject to nationalism and special interests. Egypt, Tunisia,
and Iraq are in various states of change with some more vulnerable than others.
There are three dangerous conditions for states making the transition to
democracy. We can see many of these conditions manifesting themselves in Egypt.

First, there
is general confusion and instability. Political leaders make quick and
sometimes dangerous alliances in order to maintain their own power.
Entrepreneurs and elites take advantage of the confusion, or worse yet appeal
to nationalism in order to maintain allegiances. Established organizations such
as the Muslim brotherhood and the military, who have a history of organization,
are in the best positions to manipulate power.

Secondly, all
of the positive aspects of democratization notwithstanding, it does bring with
it often incompatible interests and new groups who feel empowered to protect
their rights and express their agenda. And although this diversity is theoretically
a desirable aspect of democracy, it does make for confusion and the addition of
sometimes unpleasant voices that have a right to be heard. Political
coalitions, business interests, labor unions, and religious groups all compete
for the ear of the populace. Developed and mature democracies can incorporate
and integrate this variety of voices but each is vulnerable during the early
stages of democratization.

Third, the
groups that are threatened by change become most rigid. Established businesses
and entrenched elites have much to lose in the new democratic order and thus
are typically inflexible. In Egypt it appears that even the new democracy
groups who played an active role in the revolution are hesitant to compromise.
In Syria, which I would not classify as in the process of democratization
except for the rumblings of protest, the government has become more rigid and
entrenched in its own violence.

The demand for
democratic reforms is inevitable but dangerous. Of course in the long term
anything that promotes human rights, associational freedoms, and increased popular
power is desirable. The rigidity referred to in three above can be the most
treacherous if it prevents compromises. It appears that compromise and ensuring
the military and elites that they will not be punished or persecuted during
periods of change is necessary for successful transitions. Fear of religious
groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood has been so central to Egyptians that the
Brotherhood was outlawed. Now, with group rights and the brotherhood no longer
outlawed they must be held in check by other means. These means are the
compromises and trade-offs that account for successful democracies.

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