Foundations of Democracy – Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey

EGYPT – TURKEY – TUNISIA

There is little that is encouraging about the current situation in Egypt. After the army removed the Morsi-led government, the Egyptian society found itself in a conundrum: in the name of democracy, an elected leader was deposed through that most undemocratic institution, the army; in the name of democracy, a ruler who was criticized for acting undemocratically was removed forcibly, wiping away the consequences of the elections that brought him to power.

In any regime, the army would possess the brute power to remove the political leadership. The reason it does not do so has to do with political culture: a constitutional consensus, lack of popular support, and the long-term lack of prospects; but it is never for lack of capacity. And, as we can see in Egypt, such a brute act, even if coming from “the best of intentions”, carries implications that simply can not be squared with the idea(l)s of liberal democracy.

The Egyptian army’s intervention into the social and political life of the country is very much reminiscent of recent Turkish history. During the second half of the twentieth century, it was the Turkish army that guaranteed and upheld the secular, “democratic” state – which was not really democratic, but was (at least partially) secular. The consequences of those decades of muted oppression and silent violence were the rise after the year 2000 of religiously-inspired political forces, who have now been in government, quite successfully, for the last ten years. Recent trials directed against attempts by military groups to remove this democratically elected regime through coups d’état have benefited from the support of the majority of the population. But Erdogan’s religiously-inspired AK Party has also learned from those decades of military-backed secular rule. They have learned to thread a careful path, knowing that a good part of the population is in fact culturally secular, and still very much supportive of the original, Atatürkian blueprint of the Turkish republic. Notwithstanding those lessons, Erdogan’s government could not help itself derailing here and there from the expectations of that part of the population – and the recent string of popular protests has demonstrated just how difficult this project is: to rule in a democratic political system, but also to try to shape it, from an Islamist-influenced perspective.

Yet that seems to be Erdogan’s project, and this is why he was also very much involved with, and supportive of, the Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. He was hoping to help them carve out a path through which an Islam-influenced political group would prove that it can successfully hold power in a democratic system, while also leading the polity in the right direction, according to their ideology. An ambition apparently not very different from any other democratic party’s ambitions – to come to power, and to implement policies, based on a specific ideology.

But the dictum, “politics is the art of the compromise”, is learned by force of necessity, and not by choice. In Egypt, Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood clearly did not have the benefit of a similar set of experiences; unlike in Turkey, which was an illiberal democracy under the watchful guardianship of the military (but still a sort of democracy),  Mubarak’s Egypt was an authoritarian state, where all and sundry were equally oppressed. And this lack of democratic political experience is true for all the political forces in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi party, and the very fragmented “opposition groups” (those who opposed both Mubarak, and Morsi as well, in the name of the 2011 Revolution). Case in point regarding this lack of political experience is Morsi’s economic record, which was dismal, showing that they did not understand that the first and foremost duty of any government, notwithstanding ideology, is to provide for the physical security of the population: food, order, basic services, the ability to earn a living.

Meanwhile, neighboring Tunisia is another site for a similar experiment: Islamic parties are in power, a natural consequence of surviving decades-long oppression, having well-established structures, and benefiting from the popular capital that opposition forces have, at the time of a regime change. So what is happening in Tunisia? Although the governmental forces are at pains to distance themselves from some of the more extreme Islamic groups, recent assassinations of prominent opposition figures, supposedly by some of these groups, have brought the people unto the streets, in protest against the government, which is accused of being secretly behind these acts.

THE FIRST QUESTION: SECULAR POLITICS

What do Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia have in common? In all three countries, Islamic parties have been trying to come up with a modus vivendi, and a modus operandi, to govern in a democratic setting. In all three societies, there are significant parts of the population that are culturally secular(ized) – and another good part, in fact a majority, that are culturally religious (and have voted these governments into power). The distinctions, as always, are not clear cut.

But one should also note here that “secular” means something, if used to describe to a life-style or philosophy, and a different thing, if used to describe a political system. To give an example, the religious denominations in Western Europe, even in the countries with established religion like the United Kingdom or Denmark, are politically secular; they look at politics as a sort of neutral means to regulate decision-making in a democratic polity. These “neutral” means, then, depending on who is elected into office, can be oriented in one or another ideological direction, according to the ruling party’s philosophy (which might be closer or less so, to the principles of these religious denominations; eg. the ruling Christian-Democratic Union in Germany).

Yet what appears to be clear-cut is always a bit more complicated, a bit more confuse, when looked at closely. Take, for example, the difference between the French understanding of the secular state (laïcité), and the traditional American understanding of the same concept. In France, the legacy of the French Revolution shaped a secularism that is a-religious, verging on the anti-religious. In the US tradition, the idea of the secular state implies a coexistence, in which the institutions of the state (which possess the power) do not impose their power, favorable or unfavorable, over religious institutions. These are the models, at least on paper. Yet a closer look at how these are actually lived out shows that even in the countries that produced these models, the situation is not clear. For example, there are plenty of American political actors (or regular citizens) who understand the state from a French perspective, and French citizens who naturally lean toward a model much closer to the American one.

It is no surprise, therefore, if confusions or questions about these issues appear in countries where such models have not yet been established or tried out – like Egypt, or Turkey, or Tunisia. There are religious people (as most Egyptians are, for example), who have a secular image of politics; and secularized citizens who support an Islamic-influenced government (as in Turkey); or, on the other hand, secularized or religious people, who understand this identity in a very militant way, and would like to enforce it on the others, democratically or not.

THE SECOND QUESTION: POLITICS AS COMPROMISE

In the video below, a remarkable young Egyptian presents with astonishing articulateness the complexities of the situation in Egypt, while also reflecting the complexities of Egyptian society (he accuses the Muslim Brotehrhood of not being true to religion), and the challenges the Morsi-opponents face in making the distinction between political adversary and full “enemy”  ( a crucial distinction).

Many of the anti-Morsi political actors seem to dismiss all too easily the concern that, in a democratic political system,  the only legitimate way to remove a government is through the mechanisms of the system. But, they could say, these mechanisms are excruciatingly slow and imperfect; and they could also say that they were justified, because they are right. As true as both these statements may be (or not be), they do not change the nature of these undemocratic actions. In a democracy, “being right”, even “being certain of being right”, is not reason enough to forcibly remove a government. Politics, just like living in a society, or in a family, is indeed “the art of the compromise”: a slow and imprecise process during which one is obliged to fight even the worse positions of the political adversary, through the established mechanisms of political and civic action.

But this is not to imply that the secular-minded (in the political sense) forces are alone with this impatience and irascibility. Their action was provoked by, and was met by, the equally impatient and irascible politics of the Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government, whose actions have indeed veered undemocratically. And the of the MB was surely “I am right.” Yet “I am right” – ideologically, morally, or metaphysically – is simply not enough of a justification to bypass by force the rules of the democratic political system (at least according to the current status quo about what democracy is).

These secular and religious forces in Egypt are not alone in this struggle to deal with the cognitive dissonance between the clarity of their moral principles, and the imperfection of democratic mechanisms. Even in the more established democracies – like in the US, for example – the borders between shaping policy according to one’s ideology, and manipulating the very mechanisms of politics, based on the same ideology, are confusing and fickle. The saving grace is that the exaggerations of a political actor can be checked by the other political actors, who have this ability by virtue of the same democratic political system (through elections, checks and balances, separation of powers etc.). What makes this work, more or less, is that all political actors have subscribed to the basic ideology of the system itself, by adhering to the Constitution. What makes the situation difficult for the political actors in Egypt or Tunisia is that they did not have yet the chance to internalize the rules of liberal democracy. And this applies equally to those who support the Islamic governments and to those who do not.

Is this, then, a vicious circle – that the basic institutions of democracy have a hard time being established, because they did not already exist, and viceversa? A vicious circle is synonymous with an impossible situation, but there is no such thing, politically speaking; what is needed, is a slow learning process; and the best that Western well-wishers, governmental or nongovernmental, can do, is to support this process of democratic enculturation.

THE FOUNDATIONS OF DEMOCRACY

Superficial commentators might voice opinions to the effect that the problem is with Islam itself (theology? culture?). That would ignore the democratic experience of the largest Muslim-populated country, Indonesia (as complex as it is). Yet it is true that in the Middle East and North Africa there have been very few experiments, and those only of late, of an Islamic political force governing a liberal democracy; which is why, again, the fate of Erdogan’s project is of such interest.

Yet the problem is much broader than the current events in Egypt or Tunisia or Turkey. The questions of the ethical, philosophical, and even metaphysical assumptions of the modern liberal democracy are studiously avoided, or remain unsatisfactorily answered, even in the West. The problem is that the modern (i.e. liberal, Enlightenment) model of democratic political systems is itself based on moral and philosophical assumptions, which have not been challenged, but which are constantly being “tried and tested” on an unsuspecting population. At the basis of this model there seems to be an impetus toward individualism, and toward individual liberty as the ultimate value – but also towards the state as the ever more powerful Leviathan that ensures the programmatic pursuit of these objectives. Yet these values, mentioned here, are very specific values, belonging to a specific ideology. They are not absolute universal values, neither horizontally (in different places, today), nor longitudinally (at different points in history). Working under the assumption of an immutable “march of history” in one specific direction is both irrational and clearly ideologically biased. In other words, the “neutral means” of democratic politics is not as neutral as it seems.

It is easy to understand, then, the unease of some of the newer political actors, in some of the more inexperienced democracies. After all, what in France looked like an inherent consequence of the basic principles of the French status quo, namely the ban on publicly-worn religious symbols, was met with incredulity and incomprehension in many other countries (for example in the United States). But just a few years later, the Barack Obama-led US government needed to be harshly rebuked by a rare unanimous decision of the Supreme Court, when ideological motivations led the government to trespassing on a long established constitutional clause, which was meant to provide for the free and peaceful co-existence of different philosophical/ ideological/ theological systems. So the dilemmas the Islamic-oriented political forces in Turkey or Tunisia are facing point towards deeper unsolved questions, about the basic assumptions of the modern democratic model.

We will not solve these questions here, but this awareness might help us see how seemingly unrelated issues, such as these difficulties in the MENA region, and the conflict between Hungary’s Viktor Orbán government and some of his EU counterparts, might have surprisingly similar roots.  After all, part of the untold revolt of some Western European chancelleries had to do with the fact that the new Basic Law of Hungary makes explicit reference to the cultural heritage of the country, and it contains the flag and coat of arms of the country; unusual, perhaps – but is this not an innocuous detail? The irksomeness of these details in the eyes of some Western chancelleries points again to the fact that there are unexamined, fundamental assumptions, under which different democratic regimes work; clearly, these chancelleries have a specific interpretation of what the modern democratic model means or implies; to approach it somewhat glibly, one might say that “they have taken the Enlightenment and ran with it”. Whether one or the other interpretation is right or wrong, is not our concern. A more important question is if we could distinguish between a neutral, universal basis for democracy, or is it all just one ideology, which now has come to dominate the world? This is very relevant, from the point of view of the struggles of Islamic political forces, trying to be successful within the framework of functioning liberal democracies.

As with all things political, we usually make sense of things as they happen, or after they happened; and the strongest proof is always in practice; it is the tried that proves true or untrue. There is no question that the modern representative democracy is astonishingly attractive and appears germane to most people around the world. Successive opinion polls taken in the Middle East and North Africa before the Arab Spring have consistently showed that a large majority of those populations desire and are fond of the democratic model. One should not be reluctant then to say that some of democracy’s central principles – but not all! – clearly appeal to traits shared by all human beings (hence the universal popular appeal). On the other hand, one can not forget either that the actual, historical sources of the model are the Enlightenment, Judeo-Christian, and Classical Greek culture (probably in this order).

But how do we distinguish between what is universally valid, and the ideological excrescences? between freedom of religion, and the ban on religious symbols? Or, to turn around the question, is it not possible that there is a universal appeal, and there are universally valid traits, but they are developed slightly differently (yet equally democratically) in different cultural spaces? After all, religion vs state means very different things in the US and in France – and both are truly democratic. This is a most difficult question, as many illiberal democracies or even authoritarian regimes have excused their trespasses, by making reference to “cultural differences”. At this point, such references have almost become markers of something fishy going on.

But it might also be the case that the current experiments in Turkey, Tunisia, even Egypt, with this model of modern liberal democracy entering a relatively new cultural area, is an occasion to purify what is essential and universal about it, from what are ideological and cultural excrescences.

ABOUT EGYPT

As said, the recent deposition of an elected government by an undemocratic institution left Egypt, its politics and its society, in a deep impasse. The tragic nature of the situation could not be better evidenced than by the recent bloodshed on the streets of Egypt, as a result of both the brutal actions of the army against a part of the Egyptian population (the Morsi-supporters), and by the violence inflicted by some of the latter on their co-citizens (see the burning of Coptic churches). Obviously, Egypt can not survive divided, yet the cleavages existing in the Egyptian society are only exasperated by such acts of violence. One such act generates a reaction, a reaction deserves a response – an unending cycle of violence, all under the illusion that “the other side” can actually be silenced, eliminated, terminated.

Politics and, more specifically, the institutions of representative democracy, are made for the management of inherent societal conflicts. The existence of sharply differing ethical, philosophical, ideological positions in a society is an inevitable reality; what stops these conflicts from being fought on the streets is the consensus of all political actors, and of a great majority of the population, that the legitimate means of solving these divergences is through the institutions of (democratic) politics, especially through parties, which coalesce differing opinions into structured programs; and through parliaments, where these positions are allowed to clash through debate, and to generate a course action through the shaping of policy. In other words, if these institutions are not allowed to play out their role, politics fails, and violence speaks.

One could thus say that the only possible “solution” for the current situation, is a return to functioning democratic institutions, which could channel these societal conflicts. The problem is that the army seems to act under the impression that it can first eliminate these conflicts, and then reestablish democratic politics. This, clearly, is false. What compounds the degree of difficulty in the current situation, is that no side seems ready, able, or willing to talk to the other; instead, one seems to notice on both sides the illusion that “we can solve the situation, once and for all”, that “we can defeat them” – through force. That, however, is the opposite of democracy, and its perfect poison, both short- and long-term.

ADDENDUM & TIME-OUT

A good example of the range of cultural identities existing in the societies mentioned above is the Harlem Shake staged by Tunisian high school students (below), and the varied reactions it engendered.

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