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“Ah, linger on, thou art so fair!” Liberal democracy – does it have future?

Published on February 6, 2012 by: in: Politics

LiberteWorld: Can we define current situation in North Africa and the Middle East as the Huntington’s fourth wave of democratization?

Aleksander Smolar: We have two questions and two doubts here. Firstly, is the third wave already over? These events can successfully be included into the third wave, which started with the Portuguese revolution in the 70s and overlapped with our peaceful revolutions of the year 1989. Secondly, is it still democratization? We do not have any clear answers yet. Whether it is officially called the fourth wave or not is of less importance here. However, it is crucial to determine the character of what is happening right now. We are probably dealing here with many complex and different processes in various countries. The multiplicity of comparisons that is to be found, illustrates well our uncertainty as to the situation in North Africa and the Middle East. An obvious example is the year 1989 and a wave of democratization, a process chain of the peaceful revolts in our part of Europe that occurred then. There are also later interpretations that look for similarities with the events of the Spring of Nations from 1848. In this case, however, the process is not so evident and simple. It does not quickly lead to any changes. The revolts during the Spring of Nations ended often in defeat and only after a long time they gave certain effects in the form of liberalization and democratization of the European societies. Nevertheless, there is also a radically different and pessimistic interpretation. It assumes that, in fact, we are dealing here with a repetition of the events of 1979 – the Iranian revolution. The primary changes and democratic aspirations were actually a prelude to the regime change, but not from authoritarianism to democracy – the change was from authoritarianism that is secular and laic to the radically Islamic fundamentalist regime. We speak also about interpretations that compare what is happening in the Arab countries to the various “flowery” revolutions – starting with the revolution in Belgrade, in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. Not only the mere fact of a revolution is analyzed here, but also and foremost the reactions that, in order to prevent the spillage of the revolutionary “plague,” led to those events in the neighboring authoritarian countries.

The list of other interpretations and comparisons may be longer. Some discrepancy and difficulties in the interpretation of these processes are quite interesting for me. The peaceful revolution in Tunisia was much different. This quite developed country is internally complicated and it has quite strong middle class. Its links with Europe are still strong, especially with France, where the nation’s elite class was educated and under whose influence it remained. Tunisia is relatively small, with no significant internal divisions. On the other hand, we have Egypt, a very large, complex, internally broken country, with the dominance of the army and Islamists – the Muslim Brotherhood. In case of Libya, it is hard to speak about the existence of a country; actually, it has never existed. Gaddafi destroyed all the elements of the state structures that used to be present there. Thus, Libya is practically only a coalition or just a collection of tribes at war. This also applies to many other Arab countries. Syria is a religiously divided country, dominated for decades by the minority. Deep religious and tribal divisions are present in most countries of the Middle East and they will probably determine the future of the revolutionary movements with undoubtedly libertarian aspirations. There are countries where nation-building processes were well advanced, the countries that are rooted in traditions and the awareness in history and institutions. These include Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. By contrast, most Arab states are still dominated by a tribal organization. The state structures have been artificially imposed by colonial, postcolonial governments, dictatorships that kept them in check and motionless not allowing at the same time for the establishment of modern state structures or political organizations. Libya is an extreme case here, but Yemen is also just “sand”, this is not a country. There used to be a dictatorship. In most cases, it was the dictatorship of one tribe over another one or people from one tribe, who, of course, favored their fellow citizens and family. Nevertheless, even in a country such as Iraq, which had certain traditions and nation-building roots, there are three groups that are nationally and religiously strongly distinguished. Still we have no assurance that the integrity of that country will be maintained. As I said earlier, most of those countries were established in a completely arbitrary way, as a legacy of the colonial past. In other words, what is happening now can also be perceived as the end of the process of decolonization. This might be an optimistic hypothesis, however not in the sense of removing the colonial authorities that have not been there for a long time; even though the authoritarian elites were often associated with metropolitan areas – Libya with Italy, Tunisia and France, Egypt with the United States. What we see now might be a long process in which we have to deal with the formation of states, the formation of nations, political structures and perhaps, with a very optimistic scenario, the formation of democracy.

photo: Khalid Albaih

photo: Khalid Albaih

LW: The colonial era ends in the mental and social sphere, but not in the organizational area?

AS: This revolutionary chaos is possibly an announcement of the creation of more authentic structures. You can imagine, however, that Libya will not be one country.

LW: Well, what are possible scenarios? For example, Tunisia creates liberal democracy, because it has good grounds and a uniform society. Egypt, with strong Muslim Brotherhood, goes like Iran. Libya falls apart, Yemen falls apart; besides, it would not be anything new, because there were two Yemeni countries for many years in the past. Is it possible that in each of these countries the events turn out differently?

AS: It is absolutely possible. Nonetheless, I doubt Tunisia can be a liberal democracy. It will be rather some kind of democracy – not so liberal and with a strong political influence of Islam. Still it would be a great progress. I do not think that Egypt is threatened by a variant of the Iranian kind of an Islamist dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood is different; as a matter of fact they are Sunnis, not Shiites. Perhaps it was a long process there; I can only rely on the specialists of de-radicalization. The Brotherhood has never been an example of such an apocalyptic nihilism that is present in the Al – Qaeda and some elements which can also be seen in Iranian Shiites. It is very likely that we will get Egypt with some essential elements of democracy, but it will be an Islamic democracy. It means that it will be limited and certainly not liberal. The role of the army will be probably crucial. A model country could be present Turkey. This is a very optimistic scenario. Besides, even in Iran, before the forgery of the recent elections and even today, some elements of pluralism remain. It is not completely leveled country. I would slightly soften your hypothesis. Yet these scenarios are entirely possible – Libya can fall apart or there could be another tribe dictatorship. The same can happen to Yemen. Iraq, for instance, could fall apart, even though its integrity seems to strengthen now. Some dramatic changes may occur in Syria that could lead to some form of a radical Shiite dictatorship that takes revenge on Alawites – a minority that is in power now. In other words, yes, indeed, things can go very different ways. How can we describe those changes? We are dealing here with a process chain where many various feelings overlap: a social and economic frustration, a rebellion caused by the desire for dignity and freedom, the will for the emancipation of nations, religions and tribes. You can perceive this as the last stage of postcolonialism or the Arabs’ 1989. It can also be seen as the new order or long-term chaos and anarchy. The absence of Islamic, anti-American and anti-Israel slogans during mass demonstrations has been often emphasized. Nevertheless, you cannot exclude the situation that various Islamist movements and anti-Western slogans take the leading role in the next stage of revolution.

LW: Who will buy democracy?

AS: Is liberal democracy appealing to the Middle East countries and North Africa? Is liberal democracy, being for us one of the goods for export that we have adopted so eagerly, also attractive for those societies?
American people, when embarrassed or when they find it difficult to give the answer, they say: This is a good question. We do not know the answer. Our experience from mass meetings and demonstrations shows that those values coincided with the goals we wanted to achieve in Poland and in other countries in our region, such as freedom, dignity, equality and justice. Probably a substantial part of those societies would enjoy such a system, especially well-educated young people. The countries of that region have gone through the period of postcolonial illusions, Pan-Arabism, socialist nationalism as well as authoritarian and corrupt regimes and Islamic dictatorships. Each of those new forms of political power turned out to be a dead end, which means they did not lead to modernity or better living conditions. However, bearing in mind the events of 1979 in Iran, nobody expected them to end up with the Ayatollahs’ dictatorship. For the first six months the power was wielded by the secular Prime Minister and the young people demonstrated fighting for equality, freedom of speech and democracy. As we have seen, there were mainly young people who manifested in Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) in Cairo. They fought for noble values, coinciding with our own ones, and there was no organization, no leader, no unified ideology there. Twitter and the underlying values were enough to bring people together. In such a varied society the members of a well organized minority can easily impose their own will. That concerns mainly religious groups, Islamist groups. This is mainly because religion is well rooted in their society and is strongly supported by political forces of well prospering Muslim Brotherhood. Even if such groups remain weak, they appear very easily in all countries of the region, as Islamic culture does not recognize formal division of sacred and secular spheres, like in the Christian world. The religion is not separated neither form politics nor social life. In other words, it is easy to use sacred language so as to influence people both in political and social spheres. Despite progressive aspirations represented by a substantial and dynamic part of the society, at the same time, the cultural background and traditions of those countries accompanied by religious influence and political Islamism, are very strong. So those countries may stay under institutional dominance of Islamic tendencies. They do not have to be radical. That can be a kind of conservatism, Islamic traditionalism containing even some pluralism and democracy. Another hypothesis is also probable and Egypt is the archetype there again. That may be a kind of military power that has been existing there for 50 years. The army represents rather secular traditions. The military dictatorship may stand alone but also may be supported by the  army and the Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt the Muslim Brothers won the referendum aiming at creation of constituent assembly and the elections, which, in fact, was only of their own and army’s concern, as they both are the only well organized Egyptian forces. All new democratic parties remain fragile and it will take time to organize them sufficiently enough. The propaganda made use of the argument ‘if you want Islam, say yes’ in referendum.

LW: Taking into consideration what you have said, one could ask whether liberal democracy is applicable in today’s world and whether this is the political system to be created or continued?

AS: That is much deeper question going far beyond Islamic countries. Let us focus on the Middle East and North Africa. The comparative cultural studies conducted by Inglehart and his research group revealed that there were no significant differences between Islamic and European countries in their approach to democratic institutions. What turned out to be a crucial difference was the attitude towards women. So can we talk about democracy if combined with discrimination against women in today’s world? ‘Our’ countries have been shaped by the culture where freedom, the rules of law and democracy constituted crucial parts in our system of values, although people violated the values, in fact. The West played a significant role, was the ‘role model’ for us to pursuit this path. Also, democratic development after the period of communism was natural for us. While in Arabic countries some cultural elements may be a serious obstacle in their development, similar to our own. But it does not mean their development will be severely blocked. It is also possible that a short-term failure may lead to a long-term success of liberal democracy, modern, progressive democracy. That is why the metaphorical comparison with the Spring of Nations was used. Bear in mind that Turkey and Indonesia are good examples that democracy in Islamic countries is possible, even if the situation of both countries still leaves a lot to be desired.

Obviously, nowadays the problem of liberal democracy should not be understood as the one that depicts only the Middle East countries, and there have been no reasons to be pessimistic about them so far. This is rather an open issue. The problem, however, is that China and many other countries have proved that great developmental success may be achieved without liberal democracy. And development is the basic problem of hundreds of millions of people living in poverty. That poses a big problem for our values and institutions as China has shown that the alternative to our model is feasible, contrary to what Fukuyama wrote in 1988. That it is possible that dictatorship and effective modernization of the country are perfectly brought together. Maybe the development of China will be severely inhibited in the nearest future and will break down under their own self-destructive political mechanisms. I do not know the answer but the question often arises. Apart from that, liberal democracy faces a serious problem on a global scale, the problem concerning the countries, such as China and India which massively enter global economy. The consumption increase, natural to them and triggered by their demographic dynamics and development, causes considerable increase in the prices of food and resources, especially fuels. The negative outcome is e.g. the crisis and the threat of severe increase in food prices, which may lead to destabilization of the countries representing liberal democracy.

My home is my castle

LW: What do you think about the problem of immigrants and their assimilation in Western Europe?  Is it also a great challenge for liberal democracy?

AS: This is a profound challenge. The countries of Western Europe were traditionally open but for some time they have been reluctant towards immigrants as they feel threatened by their different cultures, mainly Islamic one. To some extent this is the result of the crisis and unemployment. However, the underlying problem is lack of real cultural adjustment of the newcomers. Some of Muslim immigrants who came to Europe do not follow the rules of liberal democracy. They strive to introduce Sharia, Islamic law. There is a problem of the mutilation of little girls and forced marriage, not to mention the demands for separated doctors, swimming pools and classes for Muslim girls and boys. It is difficult to imagine those requirements to be put into practice in European countries, because they do not coincide with the underlying principles of liberal democracy. That problem breeds extremes just like in France where wearing burqas is banned. European reaction to Muslim revolutions is not only hope but also fear, which is connected with the perspective of high pressure put on Europe and massive influx of legal and illegal immigrants, difficult to inhibit. Time will tell what that all will influence destabilization of democracy and dramatic increase of the power of populist movements. But I am not optimistic about that. It seems to me that we are facing real threat. The success of Finnish populists or Marine Le Pen’s carrier in France may be good examples. This is how the party, which was censored not a long time ago, nowadays enters the world of big policy, and it cannot be ruled out that they will be in the second round in the upcoming presidential election. There is rather a low probability of becoming a President, but beyond doubt, in the parliamentary elections this party will have much stronger representatives than so far.

LW: Don’t you believe in the global success of liberal democracy?

AS: One may say that the situation e.g. in Muslim countries, despite varied dangers, is gradually improving, the same with the impressive development of China. That is why there is a hope for indirect or direct pluralism and democratization of those societies. In other words, there is need to carefully observe great tectonic processes arousing fear and anxiety, mainly because we are not able to control them and predict their outcomes. The events we face are of significant importance. Therefore, we recognize them as great threat to the world. And we would like to perceive the world similarly to Goethe’s Faust, who said:  beautiful moment, do not pass away! So that this world would stay as it is, but it will not. It will change in many dimensions, not only as far as liberal democracy is concerned. Unfortunately, it is probable that liberal democracy can be threatened at times, can be reshaped and some liberties may be constrained. We have observed that some liberties in the United States, being a democratic country, were limited because of the wave of terrorism. We cannot say this is not probable and this is the process initiated some time ago and it gathered speed in recent years. We do not know its long-term consequences. Profound change always breeds new chances and hopes, but also threats. What will win – we do not know now. Unfortunately, it seems that our relative importance in this world and the importance of liberal democracy in Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand will be diminished. It appears that the new powers like China, India and the second league like Brasilia, Iran, Indonesia, South Africa will play increasingly crucial roles. In other words, that is why liberal democracy, developed by our culture and long history, may have very similar counterparts in other countries. But with time there will be more and more differences.
Will Europe, Poland as well, have to face a profound discussion on the changes in a political system?

It appears to me that we will have to discuss many serious and  fundamental issues, such as economic ones, the problem of open or closed economy. That is, in general, one of the basic national problems, just like the issue of European integration. What used to be rather our free choice up to now, may soon become a necessity so that we could compete with world great powers. That must be the stimulus for the change of our mentality and a political system as well. Greek cities created opportunities for the development of democracy that is impossible, however, in the nation state.  The nation state stimulated the development of representative democracy. If we are to talk about continental political systems, is democracy able to survive and is it  applicable on continental scale? There are the problems of mutual relations and international order. Do we really think about that or rather about long-term chaos, disorder and wars? Such scenario is also probable. Historic, dramatic and profound changes and creation of the world dominated by Europe rarely appeared in peaceful times. Can integration and global order be achieved in the times of peace? Again, the problems of war and peace, which we hopefully managed to solve in Europe, have been arising on a global scale. Profound conflicts were inhibited in the Cold War period in the threat of nuclear weapon and thanks to the treaty between the US and the USSR. Will the rise of such great powers like China and India on global stage breed new serious conflicts? These are fundamental questions  to answer. The history is still open, this is not the end. With all positive and negative outcomes.

Interview: Paweł Luty

Translation: Magdalena Osiak, Martyna Kozik

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About Aleksander Smolar

Political scientist, journalist, President of the Stefan Batory Foundation.

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Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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