A chorus of liberal US foreign policy voices welcomed the July 3 ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. This was a “good military coup” that American liberals should support, they argued, because it was done in the name of the people, it advances progressive values, and most importantly, it removes political Islamists from power and opens the door for Egyptian secularists.
These arguments bring to mind a famous line attributed to a US major in Vietnam: “It became necessary to destroy the town [in order] to save it.” Their assumptions and reasoning do not stand up to critical scrutiny.
This coup marks a colossal setback for the prospects for a democratic Egypt. An intractable and unaccountable military has returned to the center of politics, a fact that makes the American voices cheering Morsi’s ouster all the more astounding. Such approbation, however, reflects a deeper Western philosophical problem: namely, how to think about the development of democracy in Muslim societies.
This philosophical problem is both historical and cultural, and it has contaminated intellectual debate in the West on Muslim societies for centuries. It is fundamentally a problem of enduring Euro-centrism; a reluctance to understand the Islamic world through the prism of its own historical experience instead of the Western one. The essential questions are: Can we think differently about the relationship between religion and political development? Are there alternative paths to modernity whereby Islamist groups can effectively contribute to democratization?
The challenge of democracy in Muslim societies cannot be comprehended by using the same interpretative framework routinely used to assess US politics. Americans should be wary of comparing – and then judging – developed societies with those in the developing world.
Analytical distortions result from measuring the politics of modern post-industrial societies – where a consolidation of democracy has long taken place and where the basic norms of society have been democratically negotiated – against those societies that have long been under authoritarian rule and where the basic rules of society have not yet been negotiated. This applies especially to the normative role of religion in public life, which is only beginning to be debated in the Arab world.
This intellectual problem is connected to the natural yet erroneous tendency to assume that the Western historical experience is universal, especially on questions of religion and secularism. The misguided assumption is that because the West – after centuries of bloodshed and experimentation – has arrived at a broad liberal, secular consensus, the same should be true of the rest of the world. This blind spot has inhibited a grasp of political development in Muslim societies where the path to democracy will take a long time and cannot avoid the gates of religious politics.
The modernization experience of the Arab-Islamic world has been qualitatively different from the Western one. For complex reasons rooted in the failures of the post-colonial state, modernization has produced strong religious-based opposition movements and weak secular groups in deeply polarized societies.
With the Arab Spring, it was hoped that this polarity would gradually diminish with the demise of long-standing dictators and the transition to democracy. The logic of multi-party politics, democratic accountability, and a robust civil society would inevitably lead to ideological transformation, political compromise, and democratic learning. This was conditional, however, on the democratic process remaining on track.
In Egypt after the 2011 fall of Hosni Mubarak, the transition was underway with all its predictable challenges, controversies, and chaos – largely the legacy of the old regime. The military was in retreat and Egyptians went to the polls six times (for various road-map, presidential, parliamentary, and constitutional balloting). Each time, the Muslim Brotherhood prevailed.
As many had predicted, the Brotherhood’s first attempt at exercising power highlighted its incompetence. Morsi made one bad decision after another and his party’s popularity plummeted. The Brotherhood was headed for certain defeat in the coming parliamentary elections. This would likely have led to a period of soul-searching and internal debate. A more inclusive and moderate offshoot might have emerged. Now, we will never know.
What Western liberals fail to appreciate is that integrating Islamists into formal politics is an essential part of the struggle for democracy in the Arab-Islamic world. The prospects of this happening have now been dealt a serious blow. The lesson that Islamists will learn is that respecting the rules of democracy do not matter, because when they win elections, their opponents do not respect the same rules. It is now likely that a process of radicalization will poison the politics of Egypt and the broader Islamic world for years to come.
Twenty years ago, US Ambassador Edward Djerejian, in a famous speech, wondered if Islamists could be trusted to respect the rules of democracy. Reflecting a widespread concern, he suggested the problem was a conception of democracy that amounted to “one man, one vote, one time.” Recent events in Egypt have turned this equation on its head. It is not mainstream Islamists, but certain liberal and secularist groups, in alliance with the military, who have subverted the democratic process.
All of this suggests a need for rethinking the Western approach and assumptions about the struggle for democracy in the Arab-Islamic World. The standard formulas and paradigms, drawn from Western history, as to which political constituencies are better agents of democratization, break down upon examination. This also applies to political struggles in “established” Muslim democracies such as Turkey and Indonesia, as well as in “developing” democracies such as Tunisia and Morocco.
For those who seek a genuine understanding of challenges facing democracy in the Middle East, what is required at this moment is a degree of humility and reflection about a coup that topples a civilian government, regardless of how incompetent that government may be.
Nader Hashemi is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. His most recent book is “The Syria Dilemma” (MIT Press, 2013).