What Tunisia sparked by revolting against its 20-year authoritarian ruler has spread to other countries in the Islamic world. The protest in Egypt has swelled into the biggest the country’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, has ever seen.
Mass demonstrations demand freedom from dictatorship and removal of curbs on freedom of expression, but they were triggered by food inflation and elimination of state subsidies. All elements opposed to the regimes have joined in, including those who lead the Islamist wave among the Muslims of the world.
The reaction from the rest of the world has been predictable: Led by the US, it has called on the governments to respect the voice of the people and allow them a truly representational system that would help form a national consensus about who should rule and how. But the truth is that the world has dealt comfortably with the dictators so far, for trade and political reasons. There is the additional factor of Islamism that abhors ‘western’ democracy as well as ‘western’ economic devices, like interest-based banking systems. If one pays heed to what the religionists are saying, jihad, too, becomes a pillar of the state and that scares the world. Having said that, it would be fair to call America’s pleas for greater democracy, at this point in time, a bit hypocritical because without its support and military aid, Mr Mubarak would never have stayed this long in power.
Intellectually, it is untenable to ignore the right of the people to practice democracy. Even if the beginning is ruined by religious experimentation, in the long run all countries are supposed to get to the destination of liberal democracy. Disturbingly, this thesis is weak-kneed because of the Muslims’ tendency to shy away from education, in general, and liberal education, in particular, and remain largely illiterate in the modern sense. That said, there seems to be no other choice, and as one commentator pointed out yesterday, the mass protests do go to show that the two-faced nature of US foreign policy is not the sole reason for discontent and resentment in the Middle East.
That said, a quest for democracy or autonomy must not be accompanied by a curtailment of liberty (which is what happened after the Iranian Revolution of 1979) and where freethinking and dissent are punished. Under Josip Tito, Yugoslavia was a dictatorship but it was liberal; definitely more so compared to after 1999, when elections tilted its divided society towards greater intolerance. Under Suharto, Indonesia was doing well economically and was tolerant, but after democratisation it became economically worse off and socially intolerant. The prince in Kuwait wanted women to have the right to vote but the elected parliament banned women from being elected to public office.
The point is: Yes, there has to be greater freedom in the Arab world but that may come at a price. For starters, the immediate fallout will be anarchy and violence and it is not certain, especially given history, that people's fundamental rights will be guaranteed. Liberty and freedom must be accompanied by restraint, but that may not happen in the kind of repressive climate that the Egyptians are now reacting to.
There can be no quarrel with the logic that dictatorship must end before the struggle for real, non-majoritarian democracy can begin. In the case of Egypt, years on one-man rule have left the rest of the world unsure that even if, and when, Mr Mobarak chooses to exit from the scene, what will follow. The alternate of Mohamed ElBaradei is being talked about mostly in the western press — perhaps because he is a known quantity — but it remains to be seen whether ordinary Egyptians will take to him as a leader. Or are we going to see a resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood à la Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front. It could be weeks, even months, before all this clears up. As for the outside world, those who claim a role to leading it, such as America, they will have to be prepared to deal with an entirely new leadership in countries that have been traditional allies such as Egypt and to some extent Tunisia.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2011.