Arab democracy and the return of the Mediterranean world

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By Robert D. Kaplan
Sunday, February 27, 2011

With the toppling of autocratic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia - and other Arab dictators, such as Libya's, on the ropes - some have euphorically announced the arrival of democracy in the Middle East. But something more subtle may develop. The regimes that emerge may call themselves democracies and the world may go along with the lie, but the test of a system is how the power relationships work behind the scenes.

In states with relatively strong institutional traditions, such as Tunisia and Egypt, a form of democracy may in fact develop. But places that are less states than geographical expressions, such as Libya and Yemen, are more likely to produce hybrid regimes. Within such systems - with which history is very familiar - militaries, internal security services, tribes and inexperienced political parties compete for influence. The process produces incoherence and instability even as it combines attributes of authoritarianism and democracy. This is not anarchy so much as a groping toward true modernity.

Another obstacle to full-bore democracies emerging quickly across the Middle East is simply that young people, while savvy in the ways of social media and willing to defy bullets, can bring down a system, but they cannot necessarily govern. Hierarchical organizations are required to govern. And as those develop we will see various mixed systems - various grays instead of democracy vs. dictatorship in black-and-white terms.

When Christianity spread around the Mediterranean basin in late antiquity, it did not unify the ancient world or make it morally purer; rather, Christianity split up into various rites, sects and heresies all battling against each other. Power politics continued very much as before. Something similar may ensue with the spread of democracy.

Each Arab country's evolving system will unleash a familiar scenario: The United States had a relatively low-maintenance relationship with Mexico when it was a one-party dictatorship. But as Mexico evolved into a multiparty democracy, relations got far harder and more complex. No longer was there one man or one phone number to dial when crises arose; Washington had to lobby a host of Mexican personalities simultaneously. An era of similar complexity is about to emerge with the Arab world - and it won't be just a matter of getting things done but also of knowing who really is in charge.

The uprisings in the Middle East will have a more profound effect on Europe than on the United States. Just as Europe moved eastward to encompass the former satellite states of the Soviet Union after 1989, Europe will now expand to the south. For decades North Africa was effectively cut off from the northern rim of the Mediterranean because of autocratic regimes that stifled economic and social development while also facilitating extremist politics. North Africa gave Europe economic migrants but little else. But as its states evolve into hybrid regimes, the degree of political and economic interactions with nearby Europe will multiply. Some of those Arab migrants may return home as opportunities are created by reformist policies. The Mediterranean will become a connector, rather than the divider it has been during most of the post-colonial era.

Of course, Tunisia and Egypt are not about to join the European Union. But they will become shadow zones of deepening E.U. involvement. The European Union itself will become an even more ambitious and unwieldy project.

The true beneficiary of these uprisings in a historical and geographical sense is Turkey. Ottoman Turkey ruled North Africa and the Levant for hundreds of years in the modern era. While this rule was despotic, it was not so oppressive as to leave a lasting scar on today's Arabs. Turkey is an exemplar of Islamic democracy that can serve as a role model for these newly liberated states, especially as its democracy evolved from a hybrid regime - with generals and politicians sharing power until recently. With 75 million people and a 10 percent economic growth rate, Turkey is also a demographic and economic juggernaut that can project soft power throughout the Mediterranean.

The Middle East's march away from authoritarianism will ironically inhibit the projection of American power. Because of the complexity of hybrid regimes, American influence in each capital will be limited; Turkey is more likely to be the avatar toward which newly liberated Arabs look. America's influence is likely to be maintained less by the emergence of democracy than by continued military assistance to many Arab states and by the divisions that will continue to plague the region, especially the threat of a nuclearized, Shiite Iran.

Mitigating the loss of American power will be the geopolitical weakening of the Arab world itself. As Arab societies turn inward to rectify long-ignored social and economic grievances and their leaders in hybrid systems battle each other to consolidate power domestically, they will have less energy for foreign policy concerns.

The political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote that the United States essentially inherited its political system from England and, thus, America's periodic political upheavals had to do with taming authority rather than creating it from scratch. The Arab world now has the opposite challenge: It must create from the dust of tyrannies legitimate political orders. It is less democracy than the crisis of central authority that will dominate the next phase of Middle Eastern history.

Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a correspondent for the Atlantic. He is the author of "Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power."


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