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The debate concerning the compatibility between democracy and the Arab-Islamic world has started again, and there is no website, no newspaper or magazine that isn’t discussing the issue. Larry Diamond has again spoken out in The Atlantic, where he wrote that “Egypt is at a point that could make a transition to democracy feasible.” Of course, the constitution will have to be rewritten, and the electoral and judicial systems reformed as well as institutions and the police, new power must be given to political parties, to the mass media and to civil society’s organizations, however, “the authoritarian exceptionalism of the Arab world could begin to draw to an end.” It is too soon to exalt, but great optimism reigns everywhere. In the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman presented the Arab world’s historical moment of change with his usual clever use of words, as always very effectively. “B.E., Before Egypt. A.E., After Egypt”. The Economist also celebrated these events (“A democratic Egypt could once again be a beacon to the region. It could help answer the conundrum of how to incorporate Islam in Arab democracies.”), while on Dissent Jo-Ann Mort wrote, “The revolution happening in Egypt today is the beginning of something different for the Arab world. It offers America and Israel a young and educated constituency with which to engage —and a similar constituency exists in the West Bank and, yes, even in Gaza. They are hungry for their chance to better their own countries, and they are looking less for enemies than for their own self-fulfilment. Israel and the United States need democracy in Egypt as much as the Egyptian people need it for themselves.”
This is the beginning of a new era, and international analysts are wondering which political scenarios will now appear in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. Will “Arab democracy” be the Islamic kind? “And now we’ll test the theory that politicians and scholars have long debated. Will a more democratic Egypt become a radical Islamic state? Can democracy work in the Arab world?” asked Fareed Zakaria in Time, and argued that the Islamist danger is exaggerated by the media. “I remain convinced that fears of an Egyptian theocracy are vastly overblown. Shi’ite Iran is a model for no country — certainly not a Sunni Arab society like Egypt.” There is rather the risk of a “illiberal democracy” as in Russia, and, as far as the Muslim Brotherhood is concerned, its success derives from the fact its members were persecuted and banned for decades. “Once it has to compete in the marketplace of ideas, it might find that, as in many Muslim countries, people are more worried about issues of governmental competence, corruption and growth than grand ideological statements.”
“What are the institutional alternatives then: Malaysia, Turkey, or Iran? – asks Seyla Benhabib on the online essay forum Transformations of the Public Sphere – There are multiple historical and institutional models to choose from in reconciling Islam and democracy. We should celebrate the contentious debate which will now break out in these countries as an aspect of pluralist democratization rather than shying away from it. There is no single model for combining religion and democracy, nor is there a single model for defining the role of faith in the public square.”
John Feffer in the Huffington Post, invited all to “finally acknowledge the democratic evolution of Islamism,” and Le Monde, in an editorial, confirmed Zakaria’s analysis, stating that “The Iranian model is not the most likely one. If there is a political party that seduces the Egyptian middle classes, it is the AKP, the conservative Islamic party led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Between the Persian and the Ottoman model it is the latter that shows the way.” Frankie Martin comes to the same conclusion on the CNN website, saying, “From its free-market economic system, which is registering Chinese-level growth, to its compatible ideals, the promotion of the Turkish model is in America’s national interest.”
It is also in this openness to political Islam that one notices a change of pace compared to past years and the George W. Bush era. Nowadays the White House is tuned in, literally, on Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite channel loathed by the Bush administration (here too Resetdoc was right, when it wasn’t fashionable to say so), and for these reasons too it is difficult to state that the neocons were right (as instead does Stephen L. Carter in Newsweek).
This is well summarized in the New York Times by Maureen Dowd (after a sarcastic, “If only W. had waited for Twitter. And Facebook. And WikiLeaks.”) “President George W. Bush meant well when he tried to start a domino effect of democracy in the Middle East and end the awful hypocrisy of America coddling autocratic rulers. But the way he went about it was naïve and wrong.” It was not bombs and western preaching that were needed by the Muslim world, as proved in May in a study by the Pew Research Center, according to which, at the time, 81% of Lebanese Muslims, 76% of Turkish ones, 69% of Jordanian Muslims and 59% of Egyptian ones, said they were in favour of democracy. Ah, yes, there was something else they needed. An American president who would experience events without intervening in an arrogant manner, without offering regimes safe shores or excuses for a repression. Precisely what Barack Obama did.
Translated by Francesca Simmons