Unfazed by Libya
There are many, especially in India, who see the Arab spring as a terrible thing. Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and the like may have been dictators, but they were secular and, at a stretch, represented the first wave of postwar Arab nationalism. Now they are gone, Islamicist groups are capturing power, and the threat to regional stability and the curdling of India’s Muslim ethos is rising.
The recent violence in Libya which led to the death of a US ambassador only confirms the views of these skeptics. While I doubt there was much that could be done to save the rulers of Tunisia or Egypt, I also think it’s a good thing the Arab world is making this transition. But I also expect this transition to be dotted with violence and unrest. Democratisation is not a tea party.
Political scientists like Jack Snyder or Ted Gurr have comprehensively shown that countries that decide to tread the path of democracy walk a path often marked by blood and gore. If they get past the teething problems – and many do not – they emerge as stable, often prosperous and generally not particularly warlike nations.
There are a number of reasons why this happens. One is the obvious one that democratisation often enfranchises new classes, new ethnic groups and so on. The ancien regime which is losing out each time an election is held, often tries to reverse the electoral process. The other is that democratisation often releases latent nationalist forces that, if suitably twisted, can make a country a militant aggressor.
As Snyder has written, “One of the key tasks for the international community will be to distinguish the circumstances that make for a safe transition to liberal democracy from those that lead to backlash, nationalism and war.” He has argued for a holy trinity of “happy democratisation”: wealth and modernization, adaptable elites and “a thick web of liberal institutions.”
Countries can make it to the promised land without some of these, or at least by creating them as they go along, but the going will be a lot tougher. And bloody.
Tunisia and Egypt, the two most successful Arab spring nations so far, have adaptable elites and a veneer of modernity. Neither is very wealthy. But what is interesting is that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has taken a sensibly long-term view of its polity and focussed on refurbishing institutions of governance and government.
Libya, interestingly, only has wealth and not much else. A reminder that money can’t buy you democracy. Syria only has a certain degree of social modernity. Its ruling elite is particularly inflexible. Their path to democracy, if at all successful, has started off bloodily and will probably remain lethal for quite some time.
The other threat is nationalism. While all Arab nations talk about “pan-Arabism” or invoke the brotherhood of the ummah, their political leaders spend a lot of time stabbing each other in the back. Before it was personal. As they democratise, it will increasingly be nationalistic. Egypt’s recent reassertion of its standing as the traditional leader of the Arab world is a forerunner of things to come. And once they are a little more stable, I would expect Iraq to make a claim for the same seat. Two non-Arab states, Turkey and Iran, already have aspirations to the same. But that is a threat that is around the corner.
India hasn’t given much thought to how it could use its own democratic experience to help the Arab spring. It has offered to help Egypt and others with technical issues like holding elections through its new Electoral Institute. But given the requirements outlined by Snyder and others, however, India could perhaps look to fill the gaps in such areas as institutional development.
The Arab world is democratizing. That means it is slowly acquiring the characteristics of a democracy. When do we know when we can say “mission accomplished”? The political scientists have worked that out already. They argue democratisation has been accomplished when a country has experienced: a) two successive and successful free and fair election in a row and b) when no major political party seeks to come to power through a nondemocratic means. I note that this excludes Pakistan. But it could include Egypt in the next 10 years or so.