The Price of Progress

Recent events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya seem to belie the Arab Spring narrative. The news stories we all saw and read hinted that these revolts would lead to democracy, freedom and justice. The uprising of the millions of brave men and women across the Arab world was merely the latest in a global wave of democratisation, its precedent being the Eastern European uprisings that helped bring down the Iron Curtain.

And yet, subsequent events in these countries appear to border on a parody of liberal values. Egyptian parliamentary elections in September delivered a majority for fundamentalist Islamists. In the latest presidential election, the Egyptian choice was limited to yet another Islamist and, almost laughably, Mubarak’s former Prime Minister. Many fear that the latter candidate, Mr Shafiq, represents a counter revolution by the powerful bedrock of Mubarak’s former regime, the Egyptian Military.

Ben Ali’s Tunisia was one of the most secular and socially liberal Arab societies. Since Ali was ousted, Tunisia has witnessed the election of moderate Islamist party, Ennahda and increasing activism from Tunisian Salafis, who follow a puritanical version of Islam. Last Tuesday, thousands of Salafis reportedly rampaged through the capital Tunis ‘hurling rocks and petrol bombs at police stations’ in protest against an art exhibition deemed insulting to Islam. They’ve also attacked alcohol vendors and the offices of secular parties.

In Libya, the post – Gaddafi government has ensured that sharia is the principle source of legislation in the new constitution, as well as making it illegal to ‘glorify’ Gaddafi or ‘offend’ Islam. There has allegedly been lynchings of Black Libyans accused of being mercenaries for Gaddafi. The country as a whole is said to be on the verge of civil war as armed tribal militias regularly clash.

If one thing appears to be evident, it is that events aren’t following the script. There have been several responses to this. One is to say the region was not ready for democratic change. Indeed Western policymakers traditionally used this self serving justification to maintain their support for secular despots like Mubarak; left to themselves, it was argued, the Arabs would only vote for theocracies. Another is a kind of despair that the uprisings were futile. In Egypt, this is one reason why the turnout was so low in the presidential elections.

However, from a historical perspective, the difficulties since the uprisings are unsurprising. The way these events were reported reflect a widespread idea that secularism, modernity and democracy go hand in hand in one smooth transition. This view is not historical. The ease with which democratic practices became entrenched in many Eastern European countries is historically unique. Even in that region, this process is not ubiquitous, as the case of Ukraine shows. As for the rest of the Western world, secularism, modernisation and democratisation were uneven, messy and bloody processes. The French are currently on their fifth Republic, and they got there via Jacobin revolutionary terror and Napoleon’s absolutism. It took a civil war for the United States to unify and end slavery. The former axis powers, Germany and Japan became pluralist democracies only in the latter half of the twentieth century. Indeed, many European countries industrialised and modernised under dictatorships. As for secularism, most Western nation states were built on a rigid sense of identity, excluding the ‘other’. The source of this fixed identity was religion: Protestantism in England, Catholicism in France, Calvinism in the United States and so forth.

It is important to bear this historical perspective in mind when interpreting events following the Arab Spring. This doesn’t mean denying the very real difficulties these countries have faced. On the contrary these difficulties are in line with history: democratisation and liberalisation are long term tough processes, not overnight smooth ones. It took Turkey, the region’s best democratic model, decades to put its powerful army out of politics and even now, their influence remains great. So the intractability of the army in Egypt is to be expected. If it took fervent religiosity to cement national identity in Europe, then it is unsurprising if the same occurs in the Arab world and if Islamists do well in the ballot box. This naturally raises concerns about secularism in the region. But it also reflects the fact that the Arab Spring set in motion a process of change that includes suffering and difficult trade – offs. That, in the end, may be the price of progress.

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