Shadi Hamid writes: When I was living in the Middle East, politics always felt existential, in a way that I suppose I could never fully understand. After all, I could always leave (as my relatives in Egypt were fond of reminding me). But it was easy enough to sense it. Here, in the era of Arab revolt, elections really had consequences. Politics wasn’t about policy; it was about a battle over the very meaning and purpose of the nation-state. These were the things that mattered more than anything else, in part because they were impossible to measure or quantify.
The primary divide in most Arab countries was between Islamists and non-Islamists. The latter, especially those of a more secular bent, feared that Islamist rule, however “democratic” it might be, would alter the nature of their countries beyond recognition. It wouldn’t just affect their governments or their laws, but how they lived, what they wore, and how they raised their sons and daughters.
Perhaps more than at any other time, millions of Americans are getting a sense, however mild in comparison, of what it might feel like to lose your country — or at least think about losing your country — because of what people decide to do in the privacy of the voting booth. It still remains (somewhat) unlikely that Donald Trump, the now presumptive Republican nominee, can win a general election. Regardless of the final outcome, however, the billionaire’s rise offers up a powerful — and frightening — reminder that liberal democracy, even where it’s most entrenched, is a fragile thing.
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When I hear my friends debating how, exactly, so many of their fellow citizens could support someone like Trump, it reminds me a bit of Egypt. In my forthcoming book, I relay a telling conversation I had four years ago, which has stayed with me since. A few days after the country’s first post-revolutionary elections concluded in January 2012, I visited my great aunt in her extravagant flat in the posh Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. She was in a state of shock, but worse than that was the confusion. It was one thing for the Muslim Brotherhood, long Egypt’s largest opposition group, to win close to 40 percent of the vote, but how could 28 percent of Egyptians vote for ultraconservative Salafi parties, which believed in the strict implementation of Islamic law?
Like most Egyptians, she personally knew Brotherhood members even if she didn’t quite like them, but she hadn’t had much experience with Salafis and seemed totally unaware that they had extended their reach deep into Egyptian society. She realized, perhaps for the first time, that the country she had thought was hers for the better part of 70 years would never quite be the same. It hadn’t really even been hers to begin with.
What my aunt feared was that Egypt would become an “illiberal democracy,” a term popularized by Fareed Zakaria in his 2003 book The Future of Freedom, but one that’s still difficult for Americans to fundamentally relate to. In the American experience, democracy and liberalism seemed to go hand in hand, to such an extent that democracy really just became shorthand for “liberal democracy.”
As Richard Youngs writes in his excellent study of non-Western democracy, liberalism and democracy have historically been “rival notions and not bedfellows.” Liberalism is about non-negotiable personal rights and freedoms. Democracy, while requiring some basic protection of rights to allow for meaningful competition, is more about popular sovereignty, popular will, and accountability and responsiveness to the voting public. Which, of course, raises the question: What if voters don’t want to be liberal and vote accordingly? [Continue reading…]