Recent turmoil in the Middle East has focused the world's attention on the disintegration of several of that region's worst autocratic dictatorships. "Popular uprising," "liberalism," and "democracy" sound like movements the U.S. and the West should support; however, when coming out of the Arab world — with a twist of Islamism surely involved — we should be concerned. Democracy has proven an elusive goal in a region where its precepts seem poorly understood or internalized.
Consequently, when questioned about the recent riots in Libya, Col. Moammar Gaddafi told Christiane Amanpour that he could not step down because he is not a president or king, and was confident that there have been no demonstrations against him in Tripoli. He said that "my people love me … they would die for me."
Elections where a majority chooses a candidate to hold political office are not sufficient for a true democracy. In fact, a democratic republic requires a developed civil structure that supports the concepts of popular voice, equal access to speech and belief, and the legitimacy of opposing points of view.
The fact that these basic constructs are lacking in the Arab world should come as no surprise to anyone.
The very elements that are fomenting rebellion — namely Islamist organizations like the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) — are as anti-democratic as they come. Though their genuine desire to overthrow the autocrats of the last half-century is not in doubt, it would be difficult to argue with any credibility that they have a clear commitment to the precepts of democracy. Islamists have made no secret of their goal to eliminate opposition both political and religious, and institute the rule of sharia law once in office.
All of this is illustrated in the exiled spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi's return to Egypt. Qaradawi — known for his hatred of Jews, women, and homosexuals — recently returned to Egypt following Mubarak's departure.
Similar trends can be seen in both Lebanon and Iran, where Islamist elements (Hezbollah and the ayatollahs, respectively) have used the putative tools of democracy — elections — to gain access to office and then use that power to advance their agenda.
For example, in Tunisia and Egypt — where the autocratic dictatorships of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Mubarak were solidly entrenched and the popular voice was muted if not eliminated entirely through violence and tight state media control — there are plenty of supporters for the current coups, including those who would be (and probably will be) oppressed by an incoming government that includes significant Islamist elements. Egypt, specifically, has a long history with the cycle of autocracy and revolution, and its tradition of repressed political activism coupled with an increased infiltration of modern technology, social media, and economic distress is a valuable and potent catalyst for the Ikhwan to capitalize on. But this history does not include an active civil society which values pluralism of opinion — witness the ongoing and violent conflict between Muslims and Copts — and for this reason the idea of a shallow "elections-only" democracy does not bode well for the future.
Of late, the revolutionary fever spread to Jordan where King Abdullah II — a young, Western-educated monarch well-versed in the ways of modern technology and experienced in the workings of a democratic republic — has made concessions by replacing his government and calling for more transparency. But Jordan is qualitatively different from Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen; it is a monarchy (albeit a recent construct) whose legitimacy and stability depends on the king uniting very disparate elements within his borders. The tension between the mutually opposing goals of increasing the popular voice and controlling the centrifugal forces threatening to rip apart the kingdom's unity is also understood on the street.
In Libya, on the other hand, Gaddafi (the man Ronald Reagan called "the mad dog of the Middle East") has enforced a reign of terror for the past half-century. There the uprisings have been met with an intensification of repression and a mass exodus of both Arabs and Westerners from the country. As in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and now Bahrain, it is not clear whether the social network-inspired uprisings will spark lasting or deep changes leading to democracy.
It is perhaps a cliché, but nevertheless true — institutions matter. While uprisings, demonstrations, and calls for elections could signal the beginning sparks of a move to democracy, it is difficult to be optimistic at this point. Popular voice, expressions of discontent and dissent, and willingness to endure repression in order to protest are all necessary — but not sufficient — conditions for the structures of a democratic state to take root. Until civil society changes in these states to the degree that open dissent, dialogue, and disagreement are all legitimate, and true elections can be held, issues debated, and power passed peacefully between opposing parties, democracy is still a far-off dream.