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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Arab Spring and Democracy

In Chapter One of the next edition of our textbook we will discuss the “Arab Spring”: the political protests and revolutionary efforts in North Africa and the Middle East that began in December of 2010. In the Wall Street Journal, Matthew Kaminski assesses the prospects that freedom and democracy will take root in this part of the world in the coming years:
In one country after another, mass religious-inspired political movements have outmaneuvered weak liberal parties. Fledgling democracies have been snuffed out. Anti-Semitism and sectarian violence have ensued.

"It may be that the system of parliamentary Government which suits Britain suits few other countries besides," writes the Times of London. "Recent Egyptian governments have tried to conform to the parliamentary type of republican democracy, but with scant success."

The Middle East after the triumph of Islamists in every election of the past half year? Not quite.

The Times editorial ran on Aug. 10, 1936 and was about Spain, not Egypt. In 1930s Spain—as in Austria, Hungary, Portugal, Poland, Slovakia and Croatia in that fateful interwar period—political Catholicism sank fledgling liberal systems after gaining power through coup or ballot box. (The Nazis used race, not religion.)

Parallels to today's Middle East are bracing. Parties and state institutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are weak. As in the 1930s, economies are struggling. Arab liberals are no electoral match for the Muslim Brotherhood and other offshoots of political Islam.

Yet the assumption of inevitable democratic failure requires a leap of belief in cultural determinism about Arabs no different or less patronizing than the Times of London once made about continental Europeans.

The experiment has only begun in the Middle East. . . .