The Spectacle Blog

Democracy, Islamism, and the 21st Century

By on 1.31.11 | 10:55AM

The striking thing about the passage Jim quoted earlier this morning, from Jeane Kirkpatrick's influential 1979 essay "Dictatorships and Double Standards," is that the factual assertion upon which it's premised -- "most governments in the world are, as they always have been, autocracies of one kind or another" -- is no longer true. In 1979 Freedom House ranked 35% of countries in the world Not Free and only 32% Free. In Freedom House's latest report, 45% of countries are ranked Free and only 24% of countries are ranked Not Free. All of the Free countries are liberal democracies, and another 14% (a bit shy of half the countries in the "Partly Free" catagory) are not-so-liberal electoral democracies, making a total of 59% of countries in the world at least somewhat democratic.

In short, it's not 1979 anymore, and the "realist" impulse to pretend that it is betrays an estrangement from reality. Kirkpatrick's distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian states remains useful as an analytical tool for spotting which governments can be pushed toward peaceful reform (the latter -- think North Korea -- cannot be). But pushed to reform they must be, despite the risk. In the 21st Century, people living under authoritarian rule are aware that their governments are anomolous, and will demand democratic representation. The United States needs to be on the side of those making such demands. If we are not, we increase the odds that, when dictatorships do fall, the governments that emerge will adopt an anti-American posture.

Mohammed ElBaradei seems to be gaining the support of the anti-Mubarak forces, both secular and Islamist. If he comes out on top in post-Mubarak Egpyt -- and yes, I am assuming at this point that Mubarak is not going to survive much longer -- it remains to be seen whether he will coopt the Muslim Brotherhood or whether they will coopt him. But even if it's the latter, that doesn't mean an Iran-style theocracy is around the corner. Again: It's not 1979. The model is more likely to be the AKP, the democratically elected Islamist party in Turkey. Claire Berlinski teases out how this would play out in Egypt (and in Tunisia), and you should read her whole post. Not pretty, but not the end of the world either, and if Berlinski is right, not a scenario that permanently forecloses the triumph of a more palatable alternative.

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