It only looks like an election.

Source: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Egypt Vote Is a Sign of Arab Winter

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
Read More.
a | A

Feel the chill in the air? Winter is coming to the Arab world, with no end in prospect. The meaningless Egyptian parliamentary elections that began Sunday set the scene perfectly.

With the only credible opposition banned and its leaders jailed, the election is structurally identical to the sorry affairs in dictatorships before the Arab Spring. The point of the vote is simply to show that the government can engage in the charade of democracy. The public gets it, and any bump to the regime's legitimacy will come only from its confidence that it can produce a result it wants, not from any genuine belief that the people have a say in government.

QuickTake Egypt's Revolution

This familiar farce doesn't just mark a lack of progress. It's much, much worse. Egypt tried democracy and saw it fail. Can citizens of other Arabic speaking countries credibly hope for improvement in the foreseeable future? It seems their states will remain a global exception to democratic progress.

As was the case before 2011, Arab thought leaders will have to ask themselves why dictatorship has been so much more durable in their countries than, say, Latin America, which is also poor, also formerly colonized, and yet has turned the corner to democratization.

Some answers include the weakness of civil society and the middle class. But there’s another looming: the failure of the experiment with democratically oriented political Islam. Islamic democracy held the promise of empowering the middle class and generating a locally distinctive, legitimate form of constitutional democracy.

Yet in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was born and was most significant to political life, the experiment failed. Unlike Tunisia, where political Islam compromised and was integrated into democratic life, Egypt will be a decisive example for Arabic-speaking countries for the next generation at least.

None of this was inevitable. The explanation for the multiple and varied failures of the Arab Spring isn't an example of the iron laws of history. If the Tunisian exception has any regional importance, it's to remind us that under roughly comparable circumstances, different results were possible. A full understanding of the Arab Winter would require careful assessment of what's actually happened in different countries, and what those developments mean for the future.

In the broad view, the civil society component shouldn't be overlooked. The Nobel committee was onto something when it gave the peace prize to the leaders of four Tunisian civil society institutions. In practice, these figures weren’t the definitive players in the emergence of Tunisian democracy -- far from it. But their organizations mattered to the transition, as recognized nongovernmental sources of social organization. When politics seemed to be deadlocked, they had the legitimacy to speak collectively and productively -- even though no one ever elected them.

Elsewhere in the Arabic speaking dictatorships, civil society entities like labor unions and professional associations generally didn't have the same sort of credibility. The reason for the civil society weakness was everywhere the same: Dictatorial regimes penetrated and then dominated civil society institutions. I myself learned this dramatically at a meeting of the Iraqi lawyers association in Baghdad in May 2003, where the president of the association was denounced as a Saddam Hussein crony. Iraq didn't have civil society institutions; it had the shadow of such groups, which were controlled by the Baath Party, the only “civic” entity of any real significance, except for the Shiite clerical establishment known as the hawza.

Egypt wasn't as extreme as Iraq. But the country’s proud early 20th century heritage of civic and political groups that pushed for independence had been eroded over half a century of dictatorship. Outside the army and the Brotherhood, there was no entity that could credibly speak on behalf of Egyptians.

The absence of a large, confident, entrenched middle class was also a major cause of Egypt's failure. It's not that Egypt didn't have educated people. Indeed, one possible interpretation of the Arab Spring uprisings is that the educated middle class was expressing its frustration with its lack of job prospects, and was followed into the streets by the poor, who were frustrated themselves.

But Egypt’s educated middle class wasn't confident enough in its societal role to take leadership after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. To be sure, the Muslim Brotherhood that got elected saw itself as a true middle-class movement, yet the most elite, educated middle-class Egyptians didn’t identify with the Brotherhood, rejecting its Islamism as threatening and socially backward. When push came to shove, this class sided with the army, and welcomed the fall of the Brotherhood. In this sense, Egypt’s educated middle class colluded in the failure of democracy.

And this leads to the most fundamental cause of the Arab Winter. The only credible alternative to the Arab dictators were the Islamic democrats. The prospects for democracy therefore depended almost entirely on whether these Islamists would govern democratically and would be accepted into the space of political society by competing political elites. Democracy only works when different political elites implicitly agree to rotate in power while respecting each other's basic rights when out of power.

In Tunisia, the Islamist movement and party known as Ennahda successfully negotiated to share power after it won early electoral pluralities. Then it negotiated its continued existence in the aftermath of its defeat in the post-constitutional elections. This ensured that Tunisia would have a shot at effective democracy.

In Egypt, the Brotherhood both failed to create a coalition and failed to win the acceptance of its political viability by competing elites connected to the state and the army. This failure had many fathers, but its consequences are definitive.

Now there’s no other option on the table: no civil society, no empowered middle class, no hopeful Islamist opposition. That's what Arab Winter looks like.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net