An illiberal people

Over the past few days the American media has reacted with some consternation at the fact that it seems likely that Islamist political forces will probably control around two-thirds of the Egyptian legislature. This bloc is divided between a broad moderate element which emerges out of the Muslim Brotherhood, at around ~40 percent, and a crazy and savage Salafist component, at around ~25 percent. Terms like “moderate” need to be standardized though in their cultural context. The Muslim Brotherhood is moderate in an Egyptian framework. But it is not moderate in, for example, a Tunisian context, let alone a Turkish one. Egyptian American journalist Mona Eltahaway has pointed out that while the Tunisian Islamist party, Ennahda, has women in substantive positions (e.g., 42 or 46 women in the Tunisian legislature are members of Ennahda) the Muslim Brotherhood gives women only token representation, with no leadership role. And, as I have observed before the Islamist prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was greeted with great anger by North African Islamists when he proposed the shocking idea (to them) that all religions be treated equally. My point is that what is moderate in Egypt is going to be very reactionary in North Africa, and what is moderate in North Africa is going to be very reactionary in Turkey. In fact, what is moderate in Turkey is going to be very reactionary in the West. To a great extent, this is common sense, but for some reason this sense is lacking from our broader discussion on these issues.

 


This is one reason why I think that the Western media is reacting with stupefaction at the fact that reactionary elements are so much more powerful in Egypt than liberals. They presume to judge all societies by a common metric, when the reality is that that’s not feasible. You can’t compare a tribal society like Libya with one like Egypt, which has a more coherent national self-conception. But you can’t compare a trivially Westernized society like Egypt to Tunisia, where a substantial minority of the population has a Western Francophone orientation. When I originally expressed skepticism as to the liberal fruits of the Arab Spring (as opposed to the populist ones) I received some very angry reactions (some of which I deleted or did not send through moderation). The point that my critics made was that there was very little salience of religious nationalism at Tahrir Square. In other words, that this was not an Islamic revolution, etc. Many of the individuals offering this critique were Arab or Egyptian themselves, along with liberal and neoconservative Western fellow travelers. My contention was that Tahrir Square was not demographically representative of Egypt, and, even “liberal” Egyptians held rather regressive and backward views. In the context of these realities the success of the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood should be less surprising. Even in nations like Pakistan where explicitly Islamist parties are minor powers, the reality is that Islamist presuppositions suffuse the public space.

But another issue to bring to the fore is that the power of illiberal forces in nations like Egypt subject to democratic “shock therapy” should also be less than surprising. In the wake of the fall of the Eastern Bloc many of the successor nations “reverted to type.” The Czech Republic had a robust liberal democracy before World War II, and in the years since the fall of Communism that culture has been reinvigorated. Poland too has remained democratic, but some of its political tendencies hark back to a socially conservative authoritarian streak which was also prominent before World War II. In contrast to the former satellites Russia has not been able to create a genuinely pluralistic democratic culture. Its party system is weak, and the dominant faction is an ideologically vague vehicle for Vladimir Putin. Liberal democratic cultures often emerge organically, and it may take decades for them to properly crystallize. This is evident in the history of nations which we now label liberal democratic, such as England or the United States, which moved toward universal suffrage in a series of steps.

Finally, it must also be remembered that to some extent populism and expansion of the franchise can sometimes feed into illiberalism. Many constitutional monarchies and republics in 19th century Europe were based on a relatively narrow franchise granted to the middle class, and therefore the liberal and conservative factions arrayed themselves along culture ware issues that may seem somewhat surprising. Despite the Catholicism of the majority of Italians, the early prime ministers of the Italian monarchy were all anti-clerical and non-practicing Catholics, if Catholic at all. This was only possible due to the hierarchical and stratified nature of Italian society and politics. With mobilized mass populism the Catholic Church was able to reintroduce a minimal standard of piety and religious orthodoxy at the commanding political heights only in the later decades of the state. Something similar has happened in the United States with the decline of presidents who were famously free-thinking, such as Thomas Jefferson, and the rise of those which have to constantly exhort their own orthodoxy and piety. To some extent this is probably simply an alignment with public sentiment on the part of the political class.

In newly democratic nations which are pushed toward universal suffrage and the full panoply of democratic institutions the organic process of developing some safeguards for minorities and liberal norms has never evolved, because there was no evolution. Rather, these democracies are being created out of a box. Instead of a gradual shift toward more cultural conservatism with broader franchise, in these contexts it is a foundational aspect of the democratic system. I suspect this may have long term repercussions, as in other contexts liberal elites often institutionalized or established norms which served to check majoritarian populist impulses as they ceded much of their power over time.

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