Lesson for Mideast: Democracy takes a lot of work
by Melvyn L Fein
July 21, 2013 11:18 PM | 731 views | 0 0 comments | 35 35 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Two years ago when the Arab Spring was at its height, I warned of an excess of optimism. I wrote that euphoric observers who expected Jeffersonian democracy to break out in the Middle East were liable to be disappointed. Events have surely borne this out.

Now I must caution against an excess of hubris. Once more politicians and expert consultants are suggesting that they know how to bring democratic governance to places like Egypt. They view the toppling of the Morsi regime with disdain, but claim to know how progress can be salvaged.

The trick, we are told, is to refrain from alienating the Muslim Brotherhood. Its members are so well organized and so deeply committed that we cannot afford to ignore them. Instead, they must be welcomed into an administration that respects the differences between religious and secular factions.

Only a large tent, it is argued, can achieve the reconciliation necessary to avoid an Egyptian civil war. Only when people sit down and work through their disagreements can they come up with policies that satisfy their respective interests. Doing less is merely a formula for frustration and on-going grievances.

As with so much political rhetoric, this sounds sensible. People, it is said, need to be grown-ups who are willing to set their political commitments aside so as to figure out what is best for all. Yet how well does this work in practice? The evidence suggests, not well at all.

Consider the current impasse in Washington. How well have Republicans and Democrats been able to resolve their policy differences? Or, if we zoom out a bit, how well have liberals and conservatives been able to achieve reconciliation? Clearly, their disagreements have lasted for decades.

Nevertheless while these folks are at each other’s throats, they have not literally gone to war. They have been able to coexist, albeit uncomfortably. The slave versus free issue, however, produced more violence. It precipitated a war between the states that killed more Americans than any other of our conflicts.

Even so, the bone of contention out-lived the bloodshed. Indeed, we are still dealing with black and white disputes as witnessed by the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin affair. Passions continue to run high and not everyone is satisfied after centuries of strife.

Why then should the Arab world be different? Why should we expect that democracy, which took hundreds of years to evolve in the West, will suddenly arise in the unfertile soil of the Middle East just because we wish it to? In reality, its peoples, who have never experienced self-governance, do not have the culture to make it happen.

Look at what is actually taking place. Sunnis and Shias continue to blow each other up in Iraq. The Taliban and the central government remain at war in Afghanistan. The Alawites have resorted to poison gas and mass bombings to cling to power in Syria. And Libya has become the new home for a displaced al-Qaida.

Even Turkey, nearly a century after Ataturk instituted a policy of Westernization, has seen an upsurge of Islamist versus secular violence. The sad fact is that intractable differences do not dissipate merely by installing the trappings of democracy. True democracy cannot be achieved by pushing a button!

Lyndon B. Johnson used to urge his opponents to sit down and reason with him. In truth, he was more apt to twist arms than engage in logical discussion. LBJ was a master at coercing the recalcitrant into accepting his vision. He was not nice, but rather muscularly persuasive.

Niceness and reasonableness are not the seedbeds of democracy. Unhappily violence, warfare, and contention are. We had a revolution and a civil war, the English had a civil war and a glorious revolution, the French had a revolution and numerous coups, and the Germans lost two world wars before democracy prevailed.

Why should we expect the Arabs to be different? Why do we believe they should learn from our experience, when we didn’t learn from the experience of others?

Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University.

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