The One Consistent Thing We See In All Of the "Democracies" In the Middle East


Late last week, the Egyptian army overthrew democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi. This move was greeted with jubilation by secularists, moderates, and minority groups in Egypt who feared Morsi was growing too powerful. With their cheers in Tahrir Square, those groups asserted that the military saved Egypt from a power grab by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Whether or not it's true, the Egyptian military’s actions have reaffirmed a trend in contemporary democracies in the Middle East: Democratic politics are perceived as a zero-sum game that's drawn according to stark sectarian and ideological allegiances. For the elected party, a democratic victory is equated with fiat rule over opponents. For those who lost, the democratically elected government is seen as something to be resisted and overturned. Recent examples of this trend abound in the region.

As Iraq attempted to build democratic institutions after the 2003 invasion, both the Shia majority and the Sunni minority conducted politics using zero-sum strategies. The Shia-controlled government used its power to retaliate against the Sunni minority for the oppression endured under Saddam Hussein. For its part, the Sunni minority became increasingly violent, in an effort to undermine the government. Though Iraq's government has made huge strides in recent years, the rising number of sectarian terror strikes indicates that the nascent democracy is again growing factious. If the cycle of terror strikes continues, it is predicted that Iraq could enter into a civil war.

Zero-sum logic has also begun to manifest in Turkey, which has long been held as a model for democracy in the region. In recent weeks, the Justice and Development Party, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, brutally cracked down on protesters who were voicing opposition to the destruction of a park in Istanbul. This seemingly trivial issue, and the heavy-handed manner with which Erdogan handled it, have become symbolic of the prime minister's larger autocratic tendencies. Erdogan has increasingly pushed for bans on alcohol, and encouraged the use of the veil in public. In response to this, opposition parties have grown increasingly vocal and active in their dissent, and even went so far as to attempt a coup. The protests occurring in Istanbul now are, ultimately, the most recent manifestation of ongoing resistance against Erdogan’s growing power.

The recent coup in Egypt is another example of the zero-sum democracy. President Morsi, who was elected by a slim margin, used the victory as a mandate to further empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Opposition increasingly mounted against him as he pointed Brotherhood officials to powerful positions and ignored dissenters. When the army intervened last week it was acting in accordance with the wishes of a growing segment of the populace that feared Morsi’s increased power.

Distrust of political opponents is a common feature of all democracies. However, in a political environment where factions have no reason to trust that their rivals' intend to rule them justly, democracy will always be tenuous, if not impossible.

Syria’s brutal civil war is a perfect example of this. Ultimately, the conflict in Syria is a result of a minority group’s fear of the majority. President Bashar Assad's government, representing the Alawi minority, continues to struggle against the opposition, which is composed mostly of the Sunni majority. The intransigence of Assad's regime can be explained by more than a desire for continued power; Assad’s military, which is largely Alawi, will not surrender because they are terrified of what will happen to their community if they do so. The opposition, which has shown increasing barbarity in its tactics, has done nothing to allay these fears. As the situation stands, it is unlikely that either group will submit; the cost of surrender is simply too great.

Although Iraq, Turkey, and Egypt's unrest is far from the type of conflict now engulfing Syria, each is afflicted with a similar problem. As Fareed Zakaria pointed out in "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy," democracies that have not firmly established a culture of constitutional liberalism often fall into majoritarian intolerance. 

It may seem presumptuous to pontificate about the significance of constitutional liberalism at a time when the United States' government is, itself, wracked with gross dysfunction. For all of its recent problems, however, the United States has not seen partisans resort to these sorts of extra-constitutional tactics to achieve their ends. Though actors on both sides of the aisle have played dirty, they have not played violently. Most importantly, the overall legitimacy of the constitutional system has not been seriously challenged since the American Civil War.

If democracy is to succeed, the ruling faction must be committed to protecting the rights of the minority and working within a constitutional framework. Similarly, the minority must acknowledge the results of elections, and not circumvent the constitution in their efforts against the elected government. In Egypt, neither of these things happened. The institution of democracy was undermined both by Morsi, who abused his power, and by the military, which could not tolerate Egypt’s election results.