Two Visions of Freedom: Understanding the Arab Spring’s Democracy

After being initially embraced by many Westerners, the Arab Spring has become a subject of concern. The crowds of Tahrir and Tunis chant for freedom, for participation, for democracy; their spokespeople are young “latte liberals” with perfect English; their rallies see Muslims and Christians side-by-side in clouds of tear gas. However, the elections they established have heavily favored Islamist parties who are ambiguous on religious pluralism, on nonsectarian governance, and on individual liberty. What’s going on?

The logos of the hardline an-Noor Party (left) and the more moderate Freedom and Justice Party (right), two Egyptian Islamist parties that will likely be able to form a strong coalition should they choose. (Image via the FJP's English website, fjp25.org)

There are of course many factors driving this gap. The people that came out to protest in Tahrir, especially the ones that Western (and Qatari) media outlets chose to interview, were not a representative sample of the Egyptian public. At the core, however, are two different visions of freedom. In Egypt, and in many Middle Eastern countries, a collective vision of freedom predominates; in America, and many Western countries, an individualistic vision of freedom predominates. The West’s confusion thus results from a miscommunication–when Westerners cheer for “freedom” in Egypt and beyond, they expect one thing and find something unfamiliar. Individual freedom is the right of one person to choose to live their life and express their views as they see fit, provided they do not harm others. Collective freedom is the right of a common group to live in a society that accords with its vision.

It should be clear that these two visions have some intrinsic contradictions but are not incompatible with democracy–collective freedom is merely a populist democratic position. It should also be clear that these visions of freedom appear in both the Middle East and the West–this is not a dramatic cleavage between the “Eastern” and “Western” mind. Many in Egypt have clamored for individual freedom–especially the youth movements. Many in the West have clamored for collective freedom. Consider, for instance, the “War on Christmas.” For my non-American readers, this is a political controversy that crops up every year around December 25, and then quickly vanishes as the holiday passes. Religious minorities in the U.S.–Jews, Muslims, atheists, and so forth–tend to favor a religiously neutral government, one that does not express allegiance to any particular faith. Thus, local governments that put up explicitly Christian decorations–Nativity scenes, etc.–draw criticism and even lawsuits. Local Christian communities sometimes respond vociferously in favor of the religious displays, and their rhetoric often includes appeals to the freedom of religion–in other words, they feel they have a right to express their religious views through their government. Much of the “culture war” in America stems from this disagreement between advocates of individual and collective freedom.

In many of the Middle East’s new political openings, advocates of collective freedom have seized the narrative. Consider these remarks from two newly-elected and one former Freedom and Justice Party (the Brotherhood’s political voice) MPs, made to the Washington Institute’s Eric Trager:

Sharia controls our morals and we have a religious community here. Our rules and constitution should come from our tradition to express our religion . . .  It’s not allowed for Christians to come and say that the sharia is wrong . . . your freedom ends at the freedom of other people . . . if I humiliate things that you respect, I violate your freedom.

This is not a new phenomenon. Consider U.N. efforts to recognize the freedom of religion, which have frequently featured attempts by Middle Eastern states to legitimize blasphemy laws. Consider the protests over the “Muhammad cartoons.” Consider the protests in Libya against a Jewish Libyan exile who returned and attempted to reopen an old synagogue.

There are several reasons that the collective conception of freedom has gained prominence in the Middle East. One is the availability of the sharia. Unlike some other major religions, Islam offers a complete system of law and a long tradition of jurisprudence. Advocates of alternative legal systems must thus justify the superiority of their proposal over a system that is believed to have originated from the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong–not an easy argument! This has fueled the fierce secularism of some Middle Eastern political factions, like the Baath–and the faux religiosity of others, like Mubarak’s strengthening of Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution.

A second factor is the nature of many Middle Eastern economies–the state dominates. In Egypt, for instance, military-backed industries control huge swaths of the economy, while significant revenues roll in from state assets like the Suez Canal and the energy sector. Such narrow economies cannot, in a free market, support more than a small share of the national population. The state thus becomes a provider to the people, a father figure. In return, the people develop a collective notion of the state’s responsibility–it must care for us and ensure our well-being. When it fails to do so, it is not merely a misfortune–it is a failure at its central task. This is why many of the monarchies, in which the paternal concept becomes deepest, have attempted to forestall uprisings by pumping billions of dollars into their economies, creating new job posts, and expelling foreign workers. Outside the small liberal class, this is not seen as “bribery.” It is seen as generosity. This fact about economic and social structure is likely the most serious challenge facing democratization in the Middle East–the paternal state has become entangled in the economy, giving its institutions (like the Army in the case of Egypt) private interests that they will act to defend.

Where does this leave the Arab Spring states? Collective freedom is not undemocratic. It is precisely the opposite–it holds that the majority has the right to do what it pleases, and that restrictions on this right are violations of freedom. It is, however, unrepublican. If the people can successfully seize the reins of power from the entrenched interests of the old system, they are likely to favor populist pure democracy, rather than restrictions on the rights of the majority to impose its will, i.e., republican restricted democracy. The Middle East will become democratic and illiberal, both economically and politically.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Two Visions of Freedom: Understanding the Arab Spring’s Democracy

  1. Think, Farid Zakaria wants it liberal and undemocratic, so which way you want it?

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