Imperiled Revolutions

Stormy weather is looming over the Arab Spring of 2011. Revolutions in Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, and elsewhere are seemingly in limbo as activists attempt to translate democratic ideals into institutional reality. These anti-authoritarian revolutions followed the still simmering “Green” upsurge in Iran. They transgressed national borders, challenged unique notions of identity, and exploded the paternalistic and racist assumptions underpinning once popular beliefs in a “clash of civilizations.” Obstacles to a democratic future have arisen, however, that deserve more attention than they have been given by the established media. The Arab Spring was marked by spontaneous revolts, lack of charismatic leaders, youthful exuberance, and disdain for more traditional forms of organizational discipline. That is what made these revolutions so appealing. Institutional obstacles to democracy, however, require institutional responses: speaking truth to power is no longer enough. Success now hinges on the organization of power by the former insurgents and their ability to deal with the armed forces, the bureaucracy, religious institutions, and the global economy.

Max Weber famously noted that the viability of any state rests on its legitimate monopoly over the means of coercion. The armed forces thus remain the pivot: paramilitary organizations are not merely a threat to stability but to commerce and the liberal rule of law. It is thus necessary to look beyond the barbarous armed repression against dissidents in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Whatever new democratic states emerge in the Middle East, they will need to prevent the military and the police from acting as an autonomous agent in political affairs. How the armed forces will respond to the obviously necessary curtailment of their former privileges and benefits is a key concern. President Hosni Mubarak boasted a military that was the largest in Africa and, with 500,000 enrolled, made it by far the largest employer in Egypt. The military occupied a special place in Egyptian society. Its generals notoriously benefited from state corruption and its yearly budget of well over $2 billion drained resources that might have been better spent on a variety of welfare services including health and sanitation. What is true for Egypt is basically true for the rest of the Middle East. Cutting the size of a bloated military and police apparatus is the precondition for a liberal welfare state. The possibility of a response to the incipient republican order by the armed forces is thus very real. But there are other options. Tunisia’s military has chosen to accommodate democratic forces as they prepare for elections down the road. Such actions will undoubtedly heighten respect for the armed forces. And that is a matter of some importance. The military lacks political legitimacy in its own right; its leaders are ill-equipped to deal with economic issues; its members can surely be deployed for more useful purposes in civil society; and its future interests may well conflict with those of the old bureaucracy and the mosque.

Established monarchies are trembling in Bahrain and even in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah II of Jordan has acceded to demands for a more fairly elected parliament. If and when genuine elections occur, the question is the form that they will take and the structure of the new state. Arbitrary exercise of power, labyrinthine forms of hierarchy, corruption and rank cronyism were hallmarks of the old order and its authoritarian bureaucracy. Lack of civil liberties, fairness, transparency, and the liberal rule of law were — along with lack of economic opportunity — perhaps the primary sources of revolt during the Arab Spring. Thoughts of a new bureaucracy, however, often generate feelings of uncertainty. The more conservative minded tend to assume that only bureaucrats of the former regime know how the country functions. Iraq’s sectarian civil war was, moreover, triggered by the decision of the Bush administration to exclude all members of the Bath Party from the new regime. History suggests that dealing with the old civil service requires a scalpel rather than a hammer. But, still, any stable liberal state requires an independent judiciary and the integration of younger technocrats, lawyers, and other professionals associated whose unemployment rate soared in pre-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia. Instituting a transparent and accountable bureaucracy thus calls for responsible political organizations capable of compromise whose loyalties are tied to the new state as well as their own particular constituencies or countervailing institutions — such as the mosque.

Islam is embraced by the vast majority of the Middle East. The idea of a liberal secular republic is the vision of the bourgeoisie, professional elements among the middle strata, and the more organized and skilled sections of the working class. There is little doubt that the mosque provided an institutional foundation for opposition to secular authoritarian leaders — the Church took on a similar role in Eastern Europe under communism — and it makes sense that organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood should have a jump start on political organization in the post-revolutionary society. Conflicts between religious and secular factions have had devastating consequences in Algeria and elsewhere. Gender equality, gay rights, secular education, toleration of religious differences, and individual autonomy have always been greeted with suspicion by its more orthodox partisans. Islam recognizes no distinction between mosque and state. But it would be suicidal for new republics simply to ignore religious constituencies. There is a way in which they need the republic as much as the republic needs them. Conflicts within and between different mosques — Sunni, Shia, and various smaller sects — will require rational adjudication by independent administrators and judges. Islam also evinces an ethical concern with helping the poor and many of its leaders are committed to developing the economy. Organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood retain different factions that are — more or less — willing to accommodate the requirements of a stable liberal order committed to social justice. Thus, the youth movement of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has split and formed a new party — the Egyptian Current Party — that is committed to the separation of mosque and state, civil liberties, and Islamic culture without Sharia law.

Incipient democratic regimes will also need to negotiate the privileges of capitalists in what will obviously become capitalist democracies. Compromises with the bourgeoisie are unavoidable for the simple reason that employment requires investment. External forces will subsequently have an important impact on the way in which progressives deal with internal problems. It matters that the IMF is planning to cancel the debts of Egypt and Tunisia and that the United States has offered $20 billion in guaranteed loans and developmental aid to these nations, along with millions more for a “shadow” internet and communications technology (ostensibly free from authoritarian state interference). Capitalists will obviously seek to maximize their profits. But they also know that these new liberal regimes require a mass base. Coalitions and compromises thus become necessary. Talk about the “poor” obscures structural conflicts of interest between workers and peasants: thus, for example, the former seek high prices for manufactured goods and low prices for agricultural commodities while the latter hope for the opposite. Conflicts such as these will surely test the skill of political leaders in nations where investment has declined, tourism is down, poverty is rampant, and refugees are often swelling the ranks of the unemployed.

Revolution is a daunting task but running a country the day after is perhaps an even more daunting proposition. New liberal republics in economically disadvantaged circumstances will need to navigate a swirl of conflicting economic interests and illiberal institutional claims. These are not discrete concerns though, in each circumstance, the art — not the science — of politics is required to provide an integrated set of responses. Ignoring the logic of power is no solution. Only by confronting reactionary and exploitative interests with an eye privileging the common needs of the disenfranchised and the oppressed will a fresh breeze sustain the Arab Spring.