Professor Discusses Democratic Transitions
in the Middle East

Special from The Record

Feb. 23, 2011Bookmark and Share

The mandate of the Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration and Religion in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs is to examine the role of religion in world politics and help nurture new approaches to peace and democracy.

Alfred Stepan (Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)
Alfred Stepan
Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

Founder and director Alfred Stepan (GSAS’69) is heading to Tunisia and Egypt at the head of a delegation from Freedom House, America’s oldest NGO dedicated to human rights, freedom and democratic change. They leave in a few weeks.

Stepan and his colleagues were invited to meet with members of numerous opposition groups who successfully toppled the authoritarian regimes in those countries, and who have expressed interest in hearing from participants and specialists in democratic transitions from other parts of the world as they embark on the next phase.

Having begun his career as a special foreign correspondent for The Economist, Stepan is the Wallace S. Sayre Professor of Government at Columbia, and former dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. His research centers on military governments, democratic transitions, toleration, religious systems and comparative politics. His books include the recently published Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies with Juan J. Linz and Yogendra Yadav, and with Linz, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe, which discusses 14 different transitions and has been translated into almost a dozen languages.

As democracy swept central Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stepan was named the first rector and president of Central European University in Budapest, which was founded in 1991 to help the countries in that region peacefully navigate the changeover from dictatorships to democracy.

Stepan said he is thrilled to have an opportunity to immerse himself in a different region of the world as it appears to move toward democracy. “If anything I have seen or written about in other efforts at democratic transitions can be of use, it would be an honor.”

Q. Is this the Middle East’s Berlin Wall moment?

The activists in Tunisia and Egypt have just, with unprecedented originality and peace, destroyed two dictatorships by “civil society” actions. Civil society can destroy an authoritarian regime. But the construction of democratic institutions and practices has to involve something I call “political society.” The work of political society has barely begun in either country. Groups of pro-democracy advocates, many of whom may have had a past history of conflict with each other, must begin to work together to agree upon, propose and fight for new laws that will facilitate inclusive elections, the creation of new political parties and relevant civilian-controlled constitutional frameworks.

Q. Some people argue that democracy is incompatible with Islam. What’s your view?

This view is dangerous and uninformed nonsense. There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, and what is not generally realized in American public opinion and in our press is that half of them live in democratic, Muslim-majority countries, such as Turkey, Indonesia and Senegal. While India isn’t a Muslim country, we must remember that India has the third-largest Muslim population in the world, with at least 160 million Muslims. Moreover, as I document in my newest book, in our survey of 39,000 Indians in India, we found that Muslims, Hindus and Christians all support democracy at virtually identical high levels.

In Africa, one of those democracies in a Muslim-majority country is Senegal. Although extremely poor and facing many challenges, Senegal’s Sufi Muslims and French-influenced secularists have found ways to mutually and democratically collaborate, in what I call the “twin tolerations.” For example, secular state officials and Sufi Muslims worked together to design and implement a very effective anti-female genital mutilation campaign. I have also documented such mutual religion-state collaboration in Indonesia, where democratic state officials have worked together with democratic Muslim activists in crafting the educational system so that both boys and girls ages 11-15 now have virtually identical (98 percent) literacy rates.

Q. What about democracy in the Middle East?

There has not been a democracy in an Arab-majority country since the 1970s, when Lebanon collapsed into civil war. A third of all Arab Muslims live in Egypt. Egypt has always been an extremely important intellectual and cultural capital of Arab civilization. If democracy becomes established in Egypt, it will have an extraordinary impact not only on all Egyptians, but on all Arabs and the entire Middle East.

Q. Was there a moment in the Egyptian protest that gave you hope that democracy is possible?

Yes! When the military said it would not fire on citizens whom they saw as articulating legitimate grievances. In my judgment, this eliminated the possibility of a Tiananmen Square-like silencing of the protests. Analytically, for me this was a classic moment when the “military as institution” realized that it could only advance its interests by distancing itself from the “military as government.” This hugely important moment has occurred in many of the transitions I have studied, such as in Korea and Brazil.

But these are revolutionary circumstances and bad things can still happen, of course. That’s why the next days and weeks and months are so crucial. Many of the young activists have expressed disappointment that the military itself doesn’t want to make extensive changes to the constitution immediately. But from the viewpoint of creating a successful democratic transition, the new constitution should be written by a democratically elected constituent assembly, not by the military. What the democratic movements have to insist on is that all the interim military government should do is make sufficient changes for Egypt to have an inclusive election for a civilian government.

Q. What do you think should be the form of government?

There are still some major choices to make, such as whether Egypt and Tunisia should have presidential or parliamentary forms of government. I want to point out that every one of the eight post-Communist governments that is now an established democracy and a member of the European Union chose a parliamentary system instead of an American-style presidential democracy. Fortunately, many people in both countries support the adoption of a parliamentary system.

After almost 60 years of continuous rule by three military officers, Egypt understandably has no democratic parties with established leaders ready to contest elections. I hope the first election is not for a president but is for a constituent assembly whose job is to draft a constitution which could be parliamentary instead of presidential. Just think, if there were a presidential election, a president would be elected for a fixed term of four to five years, and only one person can be in that position. But what if that person is totally incompetent and his or her support falls drastically? You’re stuck. The only legal way to get rid of such a person would be impeachment, or a criminal trial. That’s very hard to do. You might have to reach out to the military, like they often did in Latin America, to change the president for you. But the military never does it for free. A parliamentary system, on the other hand, allows for coalitions. All you need is 50.1 percent of the people in the parliament to support the government; if they don’t, a new government can be formed rapidly, either by forming a new coalition or by holding new elections. Such a parliamentary system has much more flexibility in choosing and dismissing executives than a presidential system.

Q. A lot of credit has gone to Twitter and Facebook for recent events in the Middle East. To what extent can this be considered a social media revolution?

Social media was, of course, immensely important, but in Tunisia and also in Egypt, blue- and white-collar unions played a role, which has been virtually ignored. It would be a mistake to see this only as a Facebook revolution. Many Egyptian citizens are so poor that they do not have ready access to social media. But many of them had a role in Tahrir Square and may well be the majority of voters in the election. Political society must begin to more systematically involve those citizens beyond the reach of social media by newly created political institutions.

Q. What is the outlook for democratizing countries?

More than half of all democratic transitions fail; some end in civil wars. Sometimes the military will never relinquish power. This has happened many times—for example, in El Salvador and in Guatemala; there were elections but the power relations didn’t change. Military power may even be so embedded in the constitutions of new countries that the military continues to control their own promotions and budget. As history in Turkey, Chile, Korea and Indonesia illustrates, democratic struggles to reduce military prerogatives can take two decades before civilian democratic rule is consolidated. But the struggle has already begun in Egypt.

Q. Do you have a prediction on how this will play out?

In my lifetime, the protest and reform movements in the Middle East are already the most exciting and important political events I have ever witnessed. But I do not delude myself that they will turn out well in all places. The Algerian crackdown has been brutal. Eastern and Western Libya could possibly divide into a civil war. In Bahrain the Sunni monarch must allow more democratic space for the Shia majority. However, I am very hopeful that the period of no democracies in Arab-majority countries is about to end.

I am also convinced that Columbia University’s institutions, professors and students will continue to play a constructive role in the search for democracy, toleration and religious harmony.

—Interview by Bridget O'Brian