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.
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Burma’s military junta has relinquished some power, and the country has held elections, opened its economy, and rescinded some restrictions on free speech and expression.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.
According to the New York Times, hate speech against the Rohingya has proliferated over the past year as the Burmese authorities have stopped censoring the media and the Internet. This rhetoric has helped instigate violent clashes in the Rakhine region that have left nearly 30 people dead, thousands of homes destroyed, and 30,000 people displaced.
To his credit, reformed dictator Thein Sein has taken action to stop the violence. But he has done so by censoring the Burmese media: any news about violence in Rakhine must now be approved by a government body. This isn’t necessarily antithetical to democracy; the United States, for example, does not tolerate hate speech that incites people to violence. But in a country where democracy stands on such shaky ground, a return to government censorship could prove to be a slippery slope.
Yet the alternative is also unappealing. The Internet in Burma remains unrestricted, and many of those calling for violence against the Rohingya have turned their efforts there. The Burmese authorities are being forced to choose between competing elements of democracy: freedom of speech and the protection of minorities. It will be a difficult line to balance. And although Burma has come further towards establishing a democratic system than most Arab Spring countries, it has a long and dangerous road to travel before becoming a real democracy.
As developments unfold across Egypt, Burma, and elsewhere, it’s important not to conflate democracy with one election or other events that are simply steps on the path to democracy.
President Barack Obama recently appointed Michael McFaul as ambassador to Russia, where he quickly generated headlines, and the ire of Vladimir Putin’s government, for his vocal support of democracy. Prior to joining the administration, McFaul published a book entitled Advancing Democracy Abroad, which makes a compelling case for why a world of democracies is in our national interest. Among his many arguments: democracies don’t go to war with each other, they generate more economic prosperity on average, lead to greater regional stability, and don’t engage in indiscriminate war and political horrors such as genocide.
But he also sounds an ominous warning: some of the worst regimes the world has ever seen have arisen due to the failure to consolidate democracy. Adolph Hitler and the Iranian Mullahs, for example, both seized power under the guise of democracy. And as autocratic leaders in supposed democracies such as Russia and Turkey have amassed more power, freedoms have begun to wither.
A truly democratic Egypt would be in everyone’s interests. It would likely maintain peace with Israel and neighboring states, generate more prosperity, and respect the rights of its people. But a failed democracy would produce another military dictatorship or autocratic theocracy. We must do everything in our power to prevent such an outcome.
David Meyers is a New York-based political commentator, lecturer, and consultant. From 2006 to 2009, he worked in the West Wing of the White House, and was later a speechwriter in the U.S. Senate. His work has appeared in the Jerusalem Post and Fox News, among other outlets.