What Burma Says About Egypt
Image Credit: Essam Sharaf

What Burma Says About Egypt


There’s a common refrain we’ve heard throughout the Arab Spring: be careful what you wish for. Skeptics claim the establishment of democracies in the Middle East might be worse for the United States and others than the status quo. They often point to Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, or fears that the Muslim Brotherhood will establish a theocratic state in Egypt. But these criticisms overlook an important point: one democratic vote doesn’t make a country a democracy.

While new democracies in the Middle East shouldn’t be mirror images of the United States, they must possess the basic requirements of a truly democratic state. Stanford University scholar Larry Diamond has formulated an essential list of these, including: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, respect and protection for minorities, ongoing free and open elections, rule of law, and an independent judiciary.

Hamas’ Gaza Strip is therefore not a democracy. And if the Muslim Brotherhood establishes an authoritarian government in Egypt, it won’t be a democracy either. In a truly democratic Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood would be one political party that competes fairly in elections and respects freedom of speech, religion, and belief.

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This is why many of the fears about a democratic Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood are misguided. Pundits constantly warn about an Egypt that would be governed by fundamentalist Islamic law, would trample on the rights of minorities, women, and Christians, and would stifle any dissenting views. But these are not fears of a democratic state governed by the Muslim Brotherhood. They are fears of a theocratic autocracy masquerading as a democracy.

Unfortunately, recent developments make a truly democratic Egypt seem at best far-off and at worst a pipe dream. But there’s a more hopeful democratic transition playing out in Burma.

Burma’s military junta has relinquished some power, and the country has held elections, opened its economy, and rescinded some restrictions on free speech and expression. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was recently allowed to travel to Europe and claim her 1991 Nobel Prize, has praised the democratic transition, while calling for vigilance to ensure that it continues.

But recent events in Burma show that establishing a democracy is no easy feat; in fact, instilling some of the elements of a democracy can endanger others. Over the past year, for example, the Burmese government has loosened its control of the Internet and other media outlets; a commendable step towards democracy. But this newfound freedom of speech has led to violence against a Muslim minority group known as the Rohingya.

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