Liberals vs. Democrats in the Arab World

egypt protestSamer S. Shehata has recently argued that the current troubles in Egypt involve a conflict between an Islamist government that is democratic, but not liberal, and an opposition that is liberal, but not democratic.  The (now ousted) President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters won the elections a year ago, and thus have democratic legitimacy as no other government in Egypt has ever had.  But they have governed in a manner that gave little consideration to the interests and desires of those who did not vote for them.

Conversely, the militant opposition that has been in the streets for weeks has demanded respect for individual and minority rights, but has assiduously solicited the military intervention that has now brought down the first democratically elected government in Egyptian history.

Shehata is not only on-target here, he is onto a pattern that is visible throughout the Arab world and the larger Middle East.  The pattern was actually established nearly a century ago by the secularist regime of Kemal Atatürk in Turkey.  Secularizing and westernizing the Turkish heartland of the old Ottoman Empire, Atatürk built a strong base among the urban, educated and affluent, and imposed such measures as the prohibition of the veil for women, and use of the Latin alphabet instead of the Arabic script.  More traditional, rural sectors of society (certainly the majorityin the 1920s) were simply compelled to accept the decreed changes.  Atatürk’s political apparatus consisted of a durable alliance between the Army and the Republican People’s Party.  On numerous occasions when Islamic or conservative opposition parties won elections and controlled the government, the Armed Forces stepped in to remove them and “reboot” the constitutional regime.  Even now, the conservative government (elected with a strong national majority) has faced strong popular protests in Istanbul, Ankara, and other cities, while it has mobilized massive demonstrations by its own supporters.

In the Arab world today, as well as in Iran, the pattern is similar.  Across North Africa, in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, Islamists have consistently shown the ability to win elections, and have confronted secular urban sectors that are reliant on the Armed Forces to trump the popular support of the Islamists.  It was the great secular tyrants, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddhafi, and the Assads, who stood for weakening the cultural hegemony of Islam, while systematically repressing Islamists of all stripes.

john peelerIn Iran, support for the Shah before the Revolution was centered in the more secular middle and upper classes of Tehran and other cities.  To this day, the Islamic revolutionary regime relies on the less educated, urban and rural poor and lower middle class, support that allows them to maintain the regime with the aid of managed elections.

Democracy in the Middle East as a whole, not just in Egypt, means Islamists in power, and it won’t be liberal.  And as long as the urban, educated sectors and the military are opposed to Islamist democracy, it cannot be stable.

John Peeler

Wednesday, 3 July 2013


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    An excellent broad-stroke analysis that Americans – including present occupants of the White House – have needed for years.
    Of course the picture is deeply troubling to those who assume that Mideast societies are or ought to have features that we view as the norm. Here in the West, in our normative ideal, most ‘democrats’ are ‘good’ and ‘progressive’ guys and the military are regressive or ‘bad’ guys. In the Mideast, not so simple.
    I partly differ with commenter Maizlish on one point. The USA is not the only influential potential trouble-making actor – external or internal – in the Mideast. ‘Purer’ hands-off USA conduct will not by itself necessarily make life better for the folks in the Mideast. On the contrary, the USA could help stop others’ tragic meddling. In Syria the Russian and Iranian meddling has been abetted by the USA doing nothing – not even setting up no-fly zones to protect refugees.

  2. Joseph Maizlish says

    Good observations.

    The implication I take from them is those who care about both liberal cultural ideas and democratic political ones ought to do what we can to oppose U.S. government/corporate determination to control the resources and politics of that region, oppose the pouring of weapons into those lands.

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