The Protests in Tunisia and Egypt and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

January 31, 2011

The recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate this simple truth: Authoritarian governments that promise socioeconomic development at the expense of democracy become neither developed nor democratic. Some observers (especially former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) point to Taiwan, China, South Korea, and Singapore as successful cases where prioritizing political stability over freedom for the sake of economic growth has worked. But this approach also overlooks closed regimes’ structural problems such as waste, corruption, and poor decision-making in the absence of an effective opposition. For every Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore (which are reasonably democratic today and continue to grow economically), one can point to authoritarian countries that are still underdeveloped: Myanmar, Pakistan, and yes, Tunisia and Egypt.

In the absence of democracy, social turmoil can reverse authoritarian governments’ economic gains. When avenues to express legitimate grievances are closed off (especially free elections), citizens tend to express their anger more violently than they would in a democracy. Furthermore, restricting the opposition actually works against decision-makers in developing countries because it isolates them from much needed feedback, which could lead them to make poor decisions. Thus, democratic processes act as safety valves: if one political party fails to fulfill the people’s expectations, another party can step up to the plate.

Having said all that, how should we see the recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt and the future of democracy in the Middle East? Some commentators remain skeptical – even cynical – about the likelihood of real political change coming to the region. Others seem cautiously optimistic, arguing that the protests may be the birth pangs of popular democracies in the Arab world.

Meanwhile, leaders in the region and around the world have interpreted the Tunisian and Egyptian protests to fit their own needs. Iranian officials have likened the protests to their Islamic Revolution, which is approaching its 32nd anniversary. The Iranian opposition, for its part, compares the events in Tunisia and Egypt to the protests that broke out in the aftermath of Iran’s controversial presidential elections in 2009. Juggling between his desire to protect a close U.S. ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and peaceful citizens demanding freedom and prosperity, U.S. President Barack Obama called upon the Egyptian government not to use force against the protestors.

Looking at this picture, we need to be realistic about the prospects of democratization in the Middle East. Current democracies in the region (Kuwait, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, and Turkey) have too many problems to address. Lebanon and Iraq still cannot overcome sectarian factionalism. Israel, for its part, continues to disenfranchise the nearly 5 million Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank. And Turkey’s problems with respect to freedom of expression and freedom of the press are all too well-known.

None of this is to argue that there’s anything inherently undemocratic about Middle Eastern societies. But it is a fact that the struggle for democracy has been reversed in some Middle Eastern countries. Iran is a case in point. In others, such as Turkey, even after sixty years of free elections, democracy can still produce authoritarian governments without genuinely liberal alternatives.

Thus, the only thing we can do is to hope for the best for Tunisia, Egypt, and the Middle East while staying put for less-than-ideal scenarios.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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