The Arab Spring, which peaked with the ouster of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, is all but over after the Muslim Brotherhood was banned once again by an Egyptian court earlier this week. The status quo ante is largely restored, with the Brotherhood underground, the military firmly in charge, and an interim government poised to strengthen the generals rather than cultivating real democracy.
Arguably, the cause of democracy in the Arab world is worse off now than it was in early 2011. Egypt was ripe for transition to a stable democratic system, according to a theory championed by Fareed Zakaria, that those countries with per capita Gross Domestic Product of roughly $3000 make that change more smoothly than poorer ones. Egypt meets that threshold (barely), and its democracy ought to have done far better.
The character of the Muslim Brotherhood itself is undoubtedly the main factor in Egypt’s democratic failure. Not only was it incompetent in domestic affairs and adventurous (i.e. jihadist) in foreign affairs, but it was also profoundly undemocratic in its rule. Actually, it would be more accurate to say it practiced a sort of illiberal democracy, since Islamist parties do enjoy overwhelming majority support among Egyptian voters.
More broadly, Egypt’s democratic failure, of which the re-banning of the Brotherhood is the culmination, is a sign that Islam, as a civilization, remains harsh soil for democracy to take root. The values and the culture of Islam reflect individual submission, not independence. That does not mean liberal democracy is doomed in the Muslim world, but that it requires special circumstances (Kemalist revolution or foreign occupation).
Those in the west who hoped for better have been forced to reconsider the arguments of Israeli politician-theorist (and former Soviet dissident) Natan Sharansky, as articulated in his contemporary classic The Case for Democracy. The more ambitious claim to which that book lent support–that democracy in the Arab world would enhance American security–has proven, over and over, to be a dubious proposition at best.
But Sharansky’s more limited claim–that unfree societies cannot be trusted in security matters–has stood the test of time. The relative indifference of Egypt’s military to American interests, for example, has been an embarrassment for the Obama administration. Sharansky’s core argument endures because it aims at the key problem in the Middle East world: the lack of liberty, not democracy, without which elections are futile.
Unlike the original “Spring,” the Prague Spring, there were few members of the anti-Mubarak crowds in Tahrir Square in 2011 that evoked much sympathy. The liberal parties and the odd Google executive were distinctly in the minority; the exuberant crowds raped an American journalist and attacked women as the police did nothing (or worse). The moment of liberation revealed the weakness of Egyptian society.
And unlike the 1968 crackdown that saw Soviet tanks rolling through Wenceslaus Square, the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has a silver lining, which is that a would-be tyranny has been averted, albeit by a lesser, though still brutal, military-backed regime. Until the region’s broader struggles with militant Islam (both its Sunni and Shia versions) are resolved, liberty may struggle to flourish outside Western outposts.