Can 250,000 people really speak for a nation of 80 million?
What do people really want from their government? Do they want order and stability so that they can live their everyday lives without the threat of uncertainty? Or do they prefer democracy with its freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and dueling political parties even if their daily life becomes less certain? These questions are central to the events we are currently observing in Egypt and other areas of the Middle East.
Samuel Huntington — a Cold Warrior if there ever was one — wrote a book (published in 1968) called Political Order in Changing Societies. Named one of the most significant books of the last 75 years by Francis Fukuyama writing in Foreign Affairs, the book came out just when the US war in Vietnam was reaching its apex.
The book — a foundational work on political development — was controversial when it first appeared because it argued that order, itself, was an important goal of developing societies. And it didn’t matter if that order was democratic, authoritarian, socialist, or free-market.
It’s worth looking at this issue 40 years later. How important is order? And how much authoritarianism are people willing to put up with in order to have stability in their everyday lives?
Huntington’s main thesis is that violence and instability result in large part from rapid social change and the rapid mobilization of new groups into politics. Since political institutions have not developed at a rapid enough pace they are unable to deal with the surge in political participation.
This is especially true in countries like Egypt where opportunities for political association have been extremely limited. While, by its constitution, Egypt has a multi-party system, in practice the National Democratic Party (the long-time ruling party) is dominant. Opposition parties are allowed, but are widely considered to have no real chance of gaining power.
In addition, Law 40 of 1977 regulates the formation of political parties in Egypt. This law prohibits the formation of religious-based political parties, so groups such as the Kefaya movement have lost traction and the Muslim Brotherhood has long been outlawed.
In sum, political organization and institutions have not kept up with social mobilization and the demand for political participation.
In keeping with Huntington’s argument, the result is political instability and disorder.
As always, though, there is another argument. According to this other perspective, the problem is not really one of order and stability. It’s not about getting to work, or buying food, or making sure that the kids get to school. Instead the problem surrounding political participation — and democratization — in the Arab world is all about what political scientists call “external actors.”
According to this alternate perspective, even though there is a good deal of popular support for democracy in the Arab world, there are also significant pockets of support for authoritarian regimes. This is because citizens perceive that it is absolutely essential that their governments please the United States.
In fact, a recent study suggests that citizens continue to profess support for existing authoritarian regimes even though they hold strong democratic values.
But why? It’s obvious proponents say. After all, Arab countries are highly dependent on the US for military security and for economic aid. So while resentment is high against the US, citizens understand that they need the US to sustain their nation’s stability.
If this perspective makes sense to you, the level of support for any existing leader in the Arab world is all about how well the leader is doing in maintaining the country’s alliance with the US. In fact, the need to please the US is why residents of Egypt — and elsewhere in the Middle East — remain committed to authoritarian rule.
[If you want to find out more about what the people of the Middle East are thinking take a look at the Arab Barometer project.]
I don’t know where you stand regarding political stability and the need for order. But it’s clear that the Egyptians are mulling over both of the arguments presented above. What do you think will happen?
If the Egyptian citizenry opts for some semblance of stability and puts up with a corrupt and authoritarian regime in the name of an orderly transition to democracy, will the government hold up its end of the bargain?
And is the United States really so central to the decision making of ordinary citizens in the Arab world?
By the way, before you think the answer is an easy one, take a look at this recently released news report by Human Rights Watch. Then think about your neighborhood — unprotected and subject to unrest and chaos.