In the Corriere della Sera on Feb. 13, Sergio Romano rightly observed how paradoxical it is that the West, rejoicing over the expulsion of Mubarak, found itself applauding a military coup. But it is not only a paradox. There is also a particular circumstance, both ironic and tragic (and, to some extent, “scandalous”) that explains the ambivalent attitude of the West toward the revolutions in the Middle East that can be summarized as such: How can we remove from our heads the negative thought according to which, in the complicated context of the Middle East, corrupt and repressive dictatorships were a guarantee of peace, albeit precarious, and that the (eventual) democratization of these regimes, Egyptian in mind, could result in war?
On one hand, how can you not sympathize with the people, like the many young people who courageously descended upon the square to ask for freedom? We did extremely well in sympathizing with them. If we hadn’t, we would have shown a lack of conviction in the values of freedom in which we claim to believe. And besides, as the news of clashes in progress in Iran have indicated, the democratic contagion could ( the conditional is obligatory) reopen games in a more dangerous, theocratic state. On the other hand, how is it possible to channel the processes in action in such a way that the regime changes do not instigate new wars?
Among the things we know about democracies is the fact that, once they are stabilized, it is difficult to create war among them. It’s not that they are always more peaceful than authoritarian regimes. We know only that rarely do stable democracies attack each other. The idea, albeit visionary and Utopian according to a world composed exclusively of stable democracies, is that war disappears. Mind you, this idea has not been relegated to the confines of academic discussions. It has also inspired the actions of diverse American presidents, from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan, from Bill Clinton to George Bush, Jr. If liberal democracy or something close to it would prevail in the Islamic world, thought the neoconservatives clustered around Bush, for example, the region would be pacified; there would be no more attempted attacks like those of 9/11; peace between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world may even become possible.
But things are more complicated. There are two points to make. The first is that if stable democracies tend to establish peaceful relationships among themselves, the rule is not valid for regimes transitioning toward democracy. Indeed, evidence exists for the fact that regimes in transition toward democracy can be particularly aggressive even toward their democratic neighbors. As long as democracy has not been stabilized, the risk is high that the neo-elite that emerges from the first free elections will funnel the tensions that always accompany changes in regime toward an external enemy. Croatia and Serbia were countries transitioning toward democracy at the time of their wars.
The second point is that the processes of democratization do not necessarily result in liberal democracies. Often they generate illiberal democracies, hybrid regimes that combine liberal institutions (elections that are more or less free) and non-liberal institutions (emergency rules with the purpose of suppressing the opposition). An illiberal democracy can look extremely aggressive to the outside, more aggressive than certain regimes that are purely authoritarian.
If we apply these considerations in the context of Egypt, we can see the relevance. The military was quick to assure the world that it would maintain the peace treaty with Israel. But how can they guarantee that this condition will persist even after free elections, after the installation of a democratic government in a country where, as in all Arab city centers, hostility toward Israel has been rooted in the population for decades? Among other things, the peace treaties, although formally in force, may be repeated in fact: For example, will a democratic government that will nevertheless have to contend with a strong parliamentary presence of the Muslim Brotherhood continue, like Mubarak’s dictatorship, to collaborate with Israel, in contrast to the aggressive actions of Hamas in Gaza? There are doubts.
Consider another aspect. The Egyptian dictatorship enjoyed decades of American and European support. Notwithstanding Obama and other Western leaders who, by the end, disassociated themselves from Mubarak, the memory of that support cannot be easily erased from the minds of Egyptians. Leaders who will seek the vote in free elections will take this into account. It is possible, if not probable, that the democratization will be accompanied, at least in the beginning, by a strong affirmation of anti-Western and anti-Israeli sentiments with geopolitical consequences that are easy to imagine.
Should we hope for the far-sightedness of the Egyptian military? In reality, we must put our hope in the gradual process in progress. For example, we have now found (thanks to events in Afghanistan and Iran) that free elections must be the crowning point of democratization, the point of arrival, not departure. First we need to strengthen the institutions that limit the powers of government (constitutional courts and other balances) and remove the countless constraints, both legal and bureaucratic, that burden the personal freedom of individuals. Only after the completion of this arduous journey can we reasonably hope that free elections will not lead to illiberal democracies that threaten both citizens and peace.
They are right, those who argue that democracy can be reconciled with the Muslim religion (as evidenced by many existing democratic regimes in the Islamic world), and that, even in this world, strong democracies can keep fanatics at bay. But the path that leads to stable democracies and to the enjoyment of their efforts is long, rugged and full of dangers. The awareness of this fact explains the ambivalence of the West.