As the Middle East is Wracked By Riots, is There Still Hope For Democracy?


After making headlines for weeks, the Egyptian people were finally able to achieve what they long desired — a democratic state that gave the people a voice in governance. They held free and fair elections and democratically elected their president, only to protest against him within a year.

One might blame the coup on Egypt's inexperience with democracy, calling it an ongoing transition to a democratic political system. But what about more established democracies in the region facing similar discontent? Although the words might not have been the same, the voices of the demonstrators in Egypt were undoubtedly resonating with those in Turkey.

The most obvious common factors in both these countries were these leaders' affiliations with a particular religious view and the increasing division between segments of the society under their rule — mainly between secularists and islamists. Morsi might not be a Salafist, but his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood made it inevitable for the secular section of the population to fear his authority. Erdogan's background in the Welfare Party, a party that has been banned from politics for threatening the secular constitution, injects a similar dose of anxiety to the people in Turkey. However democratically these leaders might have been elected, these tensions in society are hard to overcome with Western-esque democratic processes and may consequently lead the people to look for alternative means such as calls for resignations and military coups.

What should we make of this? Morsi's foreign policy adviser Essam el-Haddad said, "The message will resonate throughout the Muslim world loud and clear: democracy is not for Muslims." But is this really about democracy's compatibility with Islam? Many ultra-conservative religious Muslims believe that electoral politics is against the law of God. But there is a possible scenario for democracy that comes with moderation.

The issue with Turkey and Egypt's elected Islamist parties is that they have overlooked the "secular practicalities" of governing such as power-sharing, respecting the rights of minorities and — most importantly — tolerance for people's public affairs. Just like Erdogan, Morsi chose to play by the rule of the majority, appointing his party's members to gain control over judicial decision making, allowed the constitution to be drafted by those with views and values the same as his own, and compromised freedom of expression, which is an essential part of democracy. These leaders might not have gone to extremes in Islamisizing their countries, but they've done something which is much more subtle and harder to recognize by foreigners: they have sought to "Islamicize institutions," as Steven A. Cook from Council of Foreign Relations puts it. By trying to minimize the checks and balances of a true democracy in their favor, these politicians have called for the public anxiety that has arisen in these countries, confusing the citizenry about the meaning of democracy and trustworthy governance.

Egypt should have a good look at the ghosts of Turkey's past while continuing their efforts for democratization post-coup. Mansour and the National Salvation Party have already expressed a desire for inclusive politics and encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in the democratic process. These announcements need to be championed by the society and be implemented immediately. In the past, the shutdown of islamist political parties in Turkey have lead to serious resentment among the religious population of Turkey against secularists, leaving them feeling ignored by the democratic system and even "oppressed." Erdogan owes a big part of his political success today to this than anything else.

Could the lessons be found in Tunisia? The leader of the Arab Spring movement now poses itself as a somewhat model for Egypt. With higher education levels and women's participation, as well as a history of moderate Islam and constitutionalism, Tunisia has had a much less painful transition into democracy compared to Egypt. The Ennahda party, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has always been supportive of democracy and believed that secularism's compatibility with Islam. After the political crisis that arose with the assassination of Chokri Beladi, Tunisia found the solution in forming a coalition led by the Ennahda party with the center-left Ettakatol party and the President's secular party called Congress for the Republic. Furthermore, Ennahda accepted that the interior and justice ministries would be entrusted with independent candidates. This inclusive political move allowed the new government to get a vote of confidence, and perhaps saved Tunisia's democracy from an Egypt-like failure.

But this example is to be taken with caution. Turkey also had a "coalition" approach to solving its political crises in 1996 and then again in 1997, lasting three and 18 months respectively. These coalitions have failed due to accusations of corruption and the continued threat of the Welfare Party against the secular constitution, even under the coalition government. In order to continue its success and prove a model to Egypt, Tunisia's Ennahda party needs to remember this lesson from Turkey and continue the inclusive politics approach.