Democratization and Popular Protest in the Middle East

Libyan Protestors in Benghazi city.

Libyan Protestors in Benghazi city.

For several weeks I’ve resisted the temptation to blog on groundswell of popular protest rocketing across the Middle East. In part, my hesitation was driven by the expansive coverage already offered by some of the best bloggers on the internet: Daniel Drezner, David Rothkopf, Duncan GreenGideon Rachman, and Stephen Walt have all blogged on events in recent days. In part, my hesitation was also driven by the excellent coverage offered by the Daily Show  in recent days as well. But recent events in Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi, who has been in power for more than 40 years, has been engaged in a desperate struggle to put down popular protests by ordinary Libyans demanding democratization—and more specifically a recent blog post by political scientist Benjamin Barber—sparked my curiosity.

Benjamin Barber is probably already well-known to most readers of this blog. His work on democratic politics (strong vs. thin democracy) as well as his work on globalization (Jihad vs. McWorld) make him a staple in most comparative politics and international relations programs. Writing at the Huffington Post last week, Barber made the case that whether or not Gadhafi is able to hold on to power Libya will likely face ongoing domestic turmoil—if not outright civil war—rather than the establishment of a democratic polis.

In Egypt, despite the success of popular protests in forcing the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, there is similar reason to suspect that the democratic hopes of the masses will be dashed. Remember that it was the military that assumed control of the Egyptian government following Mubarak’s resignation, despite constitutional provisions that his successor should have been the head of the Egyptian parliament. The military is promising elections in September, but that remains months away.

And even if democratic elections are held in countries like Egypt, we still have to be aware of the limits of elections as a proxy for democracy. Real democracy—strong democracy, in Barber’s terms—requires more than elections. As Barber notes, the notion of radical individualism that lies at the heart of liberal political theory produces a limited form of democracy which negates the idea of community central to real (or strong) democracy. For Barber, then, it is the excess of liberalism that undermines democratic structures in the west and facilities cynicism and alienation.

The popular protests taking place across the Middle East in recent weeks is a sign of the strength of civil society in these countries. Despite decades of suppression, civil society in these countries is proving its vitality. Translating the strength of the popular protests into a democratic polis will clearly be a major challenge for the countries of the Middle East in the near future. Clearly there is reason for doubt. But there’s also reason for hope.

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