Alex Wilner - Zurich

Roger Cohen of the New York Times has a good piece in yesterday's paper. Covering the political upheaval in the Arab/Muslim world, his focus is on the shifting tides of public complacency in the face of authoritarianism. "The big shift," he writes, "is in the captive Arab mind … Arabs are thinking about their own injustices. With great courage, they are saying 'Enough!'"

No homogenous political area has had as little advancement in women's and minority rights, political liberalization, economic development, separation of church and state, and so on, over the past 50 years than the Arab/Muslim world. While it's a stretch to call the Arab world homogenous and some Muslim-majority countries have done better than others, generally speaking, the area is decades behind much of the rest of the world on various development indices. That, and they have had oil wealth beyond most countries' dreams.

Cohen suggests that the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, and elsewhere over the past few years are a sign that some Arab/Muslim societies are ready to take matters into their own hands to improve their collective lot. That involves, first, replacing their dictatorial governments with some form of democracy, and second, establishing a more competitive (and hopefully fair) socio-economic system. He argues that there's a lot of work to do, but that's an understatement. There are decades of work to do. Nonetheless, he's optimistic that what will come will be measurably better than what was.

The idealist in me cannot but agree. Democracy isn't perfect, but it's the best system we've come up with (to paraphrase Churchill). It allows all people to live as they want to and to participate in all facets of life and livelihood. It's also, usually, intrinsically fair. And from liberal political order, economic development and competition often stem. Cohen writes that "nothing in the Arab genome says democracy, liberty and plain decency are unattainable." He's right. Democracy is a political invention, a rulebook for building a particular type of society. Its core tenets should be applicable anywhere, regardless of the cultural traits of its users. There's also room for a variety of democratic typologies: many countries, for instance, still retain a monarch – a king/queen that, the story goes, has historically derived their power from God – but are nonetheless functioning, liberal democracies. What could very well happen as a result of these Arab revolts is the development of some form of Islamic democracy, like the sort of political experiment taking shape in Turkey.

The realist in me thinks that the biggest problem is that we won't have the Turkish model to deal with, but the Hamas/Hezbollah model instead. Political Islamists may want political control (and some may use democracy to get it), but they aren't usually forces that are conducive to democratic renewal. Hamas won a fair election among the Palestinians, only to then eliminate its political rivals and snuff out the democratic process. Hezbollah has done much the same, courting voters only to then threaten violence and kill opposition leaders to get their way. The same could happen elsewhere: replace Hamas/Hezbollah with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Writing in The Washington Post, Richard Cohen (no apparent relation to Roger Cohen) warns that "the dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare."

That would be dangerous for the West, and particularly, for Israel … but it would be an utter disaster for Arabs.

In effect, by channeling the Hamas/Hezbollah model, Arabs would be trading one secular autocratic regime for another in religious garb. And Islamic theocracies have repeatedly proven poor rulers. Think of Iran, Sudan, Taliban Afghanistan, and parts of Somalia. While the idealist in me believes that most Arabs don't want to trade secular authoritarianism for religious authoritarianism, the realist in me prudently asks whether they might not have much of a choice in the matter. In the meantime, I'm helpless but to watch the great spectacle unfold live over the internet.

So which do you want to be: an idealist or a realist?


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