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But will Arab democracies be “illiberal democracies,” where majority rule will be the means of imposing constraints on freedom? They will, in two areas: religion and sexual matters, to a degree. Neither the French style of laïcisme nor the American pattern of state neutrality will be acceptable in Arab states, where Islam will clearly have a special position. Religious tolerance is a necessary goal, but expecting absolute neutrality between Islam and other religions (or irreligion) is unrealistic. And as to sexual mores, gender roles, while changing, are doing so slowly; true equality of males and females is distant; an end to discrimination against homosexuality is not in sight. Beyond these areas, it is reasonable to expect Arab democracies to meet the standard Western definitions of what democracy means.

The Tunisia case does suggest that democracy is possible, and it has been achieved in other Muslim states around the world, from Senegal to Indonesia. The very great obstacles to achieving democracy tell us that the struggle will be long and arduous — but that does not explain why Westerners might be indifferent or even hostile to the argument for promoting democracy in the Arab Middle East. That is explained by a different matter: the so-called “security dilemma”.

The concept is not new. During the Cold War, the United States and its allies often overlooked the abuses of dictatorial regimes because they were on “our side” against the Soviets. Anti-Communism was all the argument they needed to secure Western support, and human rights abuses were greeted with silence or mild reproofs. The purported dilemma was that if the dictators were overthrown and political openings followed, the Communists might take power. This did indeed happen in Cuba in 1959 and Nicaragua in 1979, so the argument was not entirely without force.

But over time this approach was jettisoned, in part as leaders concluded that the dictators’ abuses might actually inspire support for Communism: announcing the Alliance for Progress (to promote development in Latin America) in 1962, John F. Kennedy said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Reagan, as staunch an anti-Communist as ever existed, helped push out Marcos in the Philippines, Pinochet in Chile and Chun Doo-hwan in South Korea, among other dictators, because he understood that point.

The lessons of Cuba and Nicaragua — and for that matter Iran in 1979 and Russia in 1917 — suggested that in situations of chaos, where law and order collapsed and the security forces fell apart, well-organised extremists might well seize power. In the Reagan administration (in which I served as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, and then Assistant Secretary for Latin America) the goal of our policy in such cases was not to prevent democracy, but to prevent chaos. Clearly, slow and steady reform was preferable to sudden revolution, and clearly it was important that the forces of order remained intact (as in all the cases of democratisation under Reagan they did).

The “security dilemma” was, then, by the end of the Cold War not an argument for perpetual tyranny but for reform, and careful movement toward democracy. Yet in the Arab cases, the older and cruder view prevails: we cannot risk political openings because the Islamist extremists may seize power. In a world where al-Qaeda and Islamic State threaten our cities every day, the argument goes, this is too great a risk to take. The example of Egypt is cited as proof: allow Mubarak to be overthrown, allow a free election, and you get the Muslim Brotherhood.
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AnonymousDavid Kwavnick
December 7th, 2017
8:12 PM
The Arab world will never establish viable democracies, That privilege is reserved to the countries whose philosophical basis is in the Enlightenment. That is where the principles of democracy originate. The only countries capable of establishing viable democracies are those of the Anglosphere and Weatern Europe (except Iberia)

December 7th, 2017
4:12 PM
Democracy can flourish in only a small number of countries - those whose national ideological basis is in the enlightenment. That's the Anglosphere and western Europe not including Iberia (which never had an enlightenment) Democracy is the most extremely secular political ideology possible.

Bernard Clabots
December 5th, 2017
10:12 AM
I really cannot agree with this view. All that the Arab countries need is that we, and especially the warmongers of USA leave them alone decide for their own fate. I'm so fed up of democracy this democracy that. Democracy in the western world has regressed dramatically, and we would be lecturing others? Look at Trump, a constitutionally elected president, with no less a majority than his predecessors. Look at what the establishment has been doing... They boycott anyway they can. They overpass their mandate, and see the support they receive in the media, I wouldn't be surprise there is some financial interest behind. Look at Europe, and the position of the German Government vs the vote of their representative. Look at the popular will and the decision taken to validate Monsanto, just days before Bayer took it over... Look at how people like Macron get elected, with massive support from the media industry and the "self-righteous" few. Who are we to criticize? Look at how a referendum where not even 1/3 of the population participated in Catalonia is validated by the media and how the crimean one would be labelled illegal... Look at splitting Serbia and splitting Syria/Irak is OK, but not splitting Ukraine, Georgia... Are we the ones to lecture others? Especially you, the USA citizens who fund the American Bully with almost a trillion dollars (US army). You talk about supporting democracy? I call this meddling. Leave us alone with your poisonous help. Democracy doesn't need any help. And you write that the Muslim extremists demonstrated they could not manage the country in Tunisia and Egypt???? Popular leaders were deposed by armed coups they didn't have a chance to fail... Please... Stop bullshitting the world, right? Start helping democracy in your satellites like KSA, and when you'll be successful, you'll train us on the howto. I was in Tunisia under the Dictatorship. It was a safe place. Women were free to smoke and walk the streets. Today, I wouldn't. UAE and KSA have legitimate governments? Based on slavery and negation of women basic rights. It's a shame to write this kind of article. Suddenly the US administration was favouring peaceful coups, preserving institution, and the "arab spring" was spontaneous. Let me laugh.

Lawrence James
December 5th, 2017
10:12 AM
Democracies require stability which autocratic regimes provide: in many parts of the world personal safety takes precedence over having a vote. This is understandable, less so is the assumption that Western systems are innately superior and offer the only pathway to human happiness.

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