No ‘One-Size-Fits-All’ Approach for Democracy: Europe versus Middle East

Written by | Monday, November 10th, 2014
Shlomo Avineri

INTERVIEW with Professor Shlomo Avineri – The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

EUBULLETIN: When comparing the processes of democratization in different parts of the world – in Eastern Europe, in Asian countries like Indonesia, and more recently during the so-called Arab Spring movement – how would you explain that the outcomes in every region and even in every country are strikingly different?

Avineri: I think the basic issue has something to do with the existence of building blocks – civil society. And therefore, in order to understand why countries, like Visegrad countries, on the one hand, are heading one direction, while Russia and Ukraine went another direction, one has to understand a lot about the history of these countries and you cannot just start with communism. I mean all those countries in Central and Eastern Europe were communist, of course there were nuances, but they were all communist, one party state, but they also had very different histories.

And when the communist system collapsed in Visegrad countries, you could build, for instance in the case of Czechoslovakia, on the First Republic, on its institutions and memories, the pluralism and its tolerance. In countries like Poland and Hungary, which had problematic developments before the WWII, still there was some tradition of representation, perhaps feudal representation, certainly not democratic, but there were some representative institutions, there was autonomy of the church and of universities, autonomy of cities and professional associations. So, these were all the building blocks and on this the democratic society could be built.

EUBULLETIN: Can you also find these so-called ‘building blocks’ in Russia or Ukraine?

Avineri: Well, by contrast, in countries like Russia, with a very weak civil society, with historically entrenched autocracy, reforms have historically been carried out from above – Peter the Great was a reformer and modernizer but from top to bottom. In Ukraine, we see something similar which has also something to do with a lack of a historical state structure – I mean Ukraine was historically never a political entity. So, one has to look both in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in the Middle East, to the elements of civil society – where it is very strong, there is a good chance; where it is weak, there is a problem.

EUBULLETIN: You have talked about the European experience of democratic reform, but what about the Middle East and specifically Egypt?

Avineri: In a specific case of Egypt, when the regime of President Mubarak was brought down, people in the West and also in the Middle East were very much impressed by what we can call the ‘CNN effect’ or ‘Al Jazeera effect’ – you saw tens of thousands of young people using Facebook and Twitter accounts to organize demonstrations but it is important to note that these were basically middle class, educated people. And everybody thought that they represent Egypt, while, in fact, this is only one sector of Egyptian society. There are also other sectors of Egypt that has almost 90 million people, most of whom don’t speak English, don’t wear jeans, and don’t have Facebook and Twitter accounts. So, when people in Egypt were given the chance for the first time to vote, they voted their tradition, they voted the relationship to religion because Egypt is still a very traditional society – the sector demonstrating on Tahrir Square in Cairo we saw on the CNN did not represent the majority Egyptian population.

EUBULLETIN: What are then the so-called ‘building blocks’ in the Egyptian case?

Avineri: In Egypt, the strongest political and social entity is, on the one hand, Muslim Brotherhood, which, despite the fact that it was illegal as a political party, has a network of social and educational institutions, not just religious institutions. It did a lot of work with women and children, it did lots of work against alcoholism, for religious reasons, but the outcome was that they reached out to the society. Therefore, when there were elections, lots of people voted in this direction. And, on the other hand, it is the Egyptian army that is historically considered to be the identity of the country and people are very proud of it.

EUBULLETIN: Many in the West seemed somewhat taken aback by the Egypt’s failed Arab Spring revolution.

Avineri: I was not surprised by the outcome of the elections, and until this very day, the option in Egypt is between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. The idea that there is a mass civil society calling for freedom is presented by a small, important, but small minority. And when those people who demonstrated on Tahrir Square had to choose between some sort of military authoritarianism and the Muslim Brotherhood, after a year of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule when it was clear that Muslim Brotherhood was using democratic legitimacy to impose a very illiberal system on Egypt, they chose – reluctantly – the military.

So, one has to understand each society in the context of its own history, its own institutions, structures – one cannot believe that there is a ‘one-size-fits-all’. Not is Central and Eastern Europe and not in the Middle East.

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