Islamic states of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia were mostly arbitrarily and hastily crafted as the World War ended. Now as a result of factors such as the war against terror and the Arab revolts, the states and societies of these regions are clearly entering a new phase. The liberal and secular influences are consistently shrinking as the Islamists gain strength.
This changeover has direct implications for the institutions that compose a democratic system that are already behaving erratically from Egypt to Pakistan. Moreover, the credibility of the system itself is coming into question in the West, as the extent of the association between money and power gets exposed.
Democracy In The West
Three key pillars represent the democratic system of governance: the Parliament (Congress in case of the American system), Judiciary and the Executive. At different points in western history, one or the other branch has exerted disproportionate influence. The American experience provides ample illustration of how these encroachments have historically played out, especially when the President’s party looses majority in the House or the Senate or in dealing with complex societal debates such as abortion, on which the liberal and conservatives have diametrically different stances.
Concerned with what absolute power can do, the founders of the American system of governance put in place elaborate checks and balances. As James Madison put it: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”
The unfolding economic recession and banking crisis in the West reveals what the unchecked association between money and power can do to the system. It seems greed did manage to overcome checks and balances. The representatives of the people are now caught between serving interest groups or the welfare of common people and the recent scandals reveal they have repeatedly chosen the former. The political leaders are dependent on funds they generate from these powerful groups to contest elections and thus they cannot afford to alienate them.
Aristotle had forewarned that for a constitutional democracy to work, a large middle class and reasonably fair distribution of property is required.
“Where some own a very great deal of property and others none…there comes about either an extreme democracy or an unmixed oligarchy, or a tyranny may result from both of the two extremes, for tyranny springs from both democracy and oligarchy of the most unbridled kind…”
Clearly, the European and US system of governance is going through a crisis stage.
Democratic Institutions In The Islamic World
Other parts of the world experimenting with democracy are facing the same threat that has shaken the credibility of the western system. The challenge remains, how to manage the influence yielded by the powerful to mold policies and laws in their favor, and against the interests of the people.
Since the end of World War II, the liberals, socialists, and conservatives forces in the Arab world have had their ups and downs. For the most part, their political maneuvering reflected the tensions between the socialist and capitalist models that were playing out globally as part of the Cold War.
Generally, the nationalists in the Arab world were more accepting of socialist influences. The conservative religious influences, on the other hand, have had an uncomfortable political existence. Although religious groups had their utility during the Cold War era, they were otherwise looked upon with distrust, as waiting in hiding for their chance to revive the Ummah and the Khilafat. On the other hand, to maintain their hold on power liberal dictators exploited western fear of conservative forces. At the same time, the western powers also relied on supporting the secular groups to tackle the extremist’s forces.
The institution of the military has traditionally played a pivotal role in balancing these different influences and continues to in places like Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan. In Turkey, the army was the protector of the secularism that was adopted under Ataturk. In Egypt and Pakistan, the military usually balances the liberal, socialist and conservative responses, so that they do not get significantly out of line from what would be acceptable to the global powers. However, due to factors like the war on terror, Arab awakening, corruption and lack of governance, the political landscape has changed considerably. For the first time, the institution of military itself is under threat and pressure to adjust itself to the change in public sentiments.
This change in the worldview, held by a majority of the people, is producing pressures on the usual functioning of the key institutions and pillars of the democratic system. The institutional tussles emerging in Pakistan and Egypt are more about change and status quo and different from the issue and turf oriented battles that are normally witnessed in the West.
For example, the Judiciary in Pakistan has evolved to become the champion of change, while in Egypt it is still acting as a facilitator of status quo being used by the military. On the other hand, the Executive and the Parliament in Egypt have gained credibility as a symbol of change, while in Pakistan the Parliament and the Executive are loosing credibility and are being perceived as ensuring status quo.
What Does Change And Status Quo Means
What the status quo and change have come to represent in these parts of the world also needs to be looked at. In Pakistan, the liberal forces, and the mainstream religious parties, that have long enjoyed western backing, have proven to be ineffective in governing and are often corrupt. They are also blamed for lending support towards the war against terror that has destabilized the country and the economy. The democratic system is perceived to work well for the elites and western interests but not for the people.
This dynamic is similar to the Middle East; the status quo there could not have persisted without western support. In Egypt, change would not have come as quickly if President Obama had not turned his back on Hosni Mubarak. However, now that Muslim Brotherhood is in power, the challenge for the West is how to ensure its interests in Egypt. If the military attempts to circumvent the Brotherhood dominated parliament and executive, as it has, the rage of the street could very well turn against it at some point.
Thus the question is how will the Islamist party whose very ideology is premised on the rejection of man made law, chart its path with in a democratic system. Egypt may prove to be a test case for the rest of the region. How it now reconciles working for the benefit of its people, and the Western interests, will perhaps determine the fate of democracy in other Islamic states, with Iran and Turkey show casing the other alternatives.