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The “Middle of History”

Tags: Arab Spring , Democracy , Middle East , Turkey , Iran

Saunders, Paul J.

June 18, 2013

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The wave of popular anger with ineffective authoritarian governments that has swept through the Middle East during the last two-and-a-half years initially raised great hopes for democracy in the region—until Egypt’s revolution produced a government apparently quite tempted by authoritarian methods, Libya’s failed to stabilize the country after NATO military intervention, and Syria’s became a bloody two-year civil war. In recent weeks, two new developments have similarly demonstrated that the realities of authoritarianism and democracy are far more complex and challenging than many acknowledge.

Two Ends of a Broad Spectrum

In Turkey, a NATO member and for years an aspiring EU member that many have touted as a model of democracy in a predominantly Muslim country, an increasingly confident ruling party—the AKP, or Justice and Development Party—and its leadership have become increasingly authoritarian in their conduct.

Tear gas used to dispel protestors near Taksim Square in Gezi Park, Istanbul. ©Alan Hilditch
Tear gas used to dispel protestors near Taksim Square in Gezi Park, Istanbul. ©Alan Hilditch
Emboldened by a 2011 election victory that handed the AKP 326 seats in the country’s 550-member parliament, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become steadily more dismissive of opposition voices, most recently ordering police to drive thousands of protesters from Istanbul’s Gezi Park with tear gas and water cannon. The protesters objected to a redevelopment plan that would have eliminated a public space many see as a symbol of personal freedoms under threat by expanding legislative restrictions in daily life imposed by the Islamist AKP.

In Iran, new national elections have propelled reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani to power with 50.7% support and strong 72% turnout by Iranian voters, surprising those who expected Iran’s clerical leaders to engineer a conservative victory after their brutal suppression of post-election protests in 2009. Four years ago, opposition candidates and demonstrators claimed that now-outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won reelection only due to massive electoral fraud; police and paramilitary militia forces broke up the demonstrations and jailed hundreds. This time, White House press spokesman Jay Carney professed “respect” for the voting and congratulated the Iranian people.

Taken together, events in Turkey and Iran provide a powerful reminder that democracy and authoritarianism are not absolutes but are instead two ends of a broad spectrum. Moreover, this fundamental political reality has important real-world consequences around the world.

“Power Corrupts”

The case of Turkey shows what happens when the authoritarian tendency latent within every state—after all, states cannot survive much less govern effectively without authority—intersects with another fundamental political principle: Lord Acton’s well known statement that “power corrupts.”

Increasingly accustomed to his party’s unchallenged dominance in Turkish politics, Prime Minister Erdogan appears more and more frustrated with opposition to his plans for Gezi Park and for Turkey as a whole. This appears to have led him simultaneously to overestimate the level of his public support and to minimize not only the level of opposition but even the legitimacy of opposition, which he has begun to blame on “provocateurs” and Western media organizations. Without respect and protection for political opposition, elections produce tyranny of the majority rather than democracy—a danger also evident in Egypt.

While the political and policy consequences of Iran’s presidential election remain uncertain at this time, the outcome demonstrates that the country is actually more democratic than many outside it believed possible. Despite limits on many political and personal freedoms, suppression of dissent, and manipulation of political processes, Iran’s regime was either unwilling or unable to do what would have been necessary to impose a conservative candidate on the country’s voters—likely due to sharp divisions within the conservative camp that broadly supports Iran’s general direction as an anti-Western Islamist state.

Balancing Freedom and Authority

This in turn illustrates two facts of political life; first, it is difficult for ruling parties, however selected, to remain in power too long without facing internal tensions, and second, it is similarly difficult in modern society, even in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states, to keep these tensions from spreading from leadership groups to society as a whole.

Some may be tempted to see Iran’s elections as evidence that relentless public pressure for democracy and freedom makes democracy inevitable there—and everywhere else. But as Turkey and many other examples should remind us, the once-popular post–Cold War thesis that that human society has reached “the end of history” and faces only a future of expanding democracy, prosperity, and peace is deeply flawed.

Moreover, even mature democracies like the United States struggle to maintain and improve their political systems. And new technologies, like those of the information and communications revolutions, constantly raise new questions about the balance between freedom and authority. Unfortunately, we are still stuck in the “middle of history,” and the end seems nowhere in sight.

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