In its latest public opinion survey, the Arab Barometer, the leading academic pollster in the Middle East and North Africa, reported that overwhelming majorities of people in countries across the region would still prefer to live in a democracy, even though they realize popular self-government has its imperfections. Yet from Morocco to the Gulf, citizens are "growing increasingly concerned about the potential problems associated with a democratic political system," the Arab Barometer concluded. "Over the last decade, but particularly within the last five years, there has been a dramatic increase in the degree to which the region's citizens believe democracies are bad for economic performance, stability, and decisiveness."
These shifts are starkest in Tunisia, for example, which might help explain the collapse of democracy there this year, following President Kais Saied's "self-coup" in 2021. As the Arab Barometer noted from its polling, Tunisians, along with Iraqis, "are now nearly 50 points more likely to say that democracy has some of these limitations than they were just a decade ago."
This outcome in Tunisia, the last surviving breath of fresh air from the Arab Spring, is a reminder that the Middle East should be included in the inventory of missed opportunities as the world has witnessed persistent democratic backsliding and authoritarian resurgence in recent years. It is more urgent than ever, then, to reevaluate the prevailing tactics for defending democracy, as societies everywhere have balked at the progressive embrace of individual rights and instead taken a chance on illiberal leadership offering a simulacrum of traditional values.
Not merely a disappointment, this is also a puzzle. Worldwide, the vast majority of dictators feel compelled to hold elections, pretend to operate according to rights and law, and claim to have open market economies despite rampant corruption. Although patronage is the traditional form of economic relations in these societies, the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square in 2011 were demanding President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in part because of popular anger at his sons' ill-gotten gains, among Mubarak's other abuses over nearly 30 years in power. Rights-based democracy is a vaguely desired destination, but people don't know how to get there from here.
Although not a Middle East specialist—I am a political scientist focused on democratization—I took interviewing trips to Egypt in 2011 and Turkey in 2015 at fraught moments when democratic reform movements were at the verge of running off the rails, and then did. These movements were good at expressing outraged demands, but poor at pragmatic politics, provoking backlash from skeptics and the old guard and failing to bring swing groups on board. They failed to cultivate and sustain a sufficiently broad social movement, staging protest rallies that, for all their symbolism and catharsis, lacked practical follow-through. They raged against the plague of corruption, but then neglected to build the inclusive coalition, administrative structure and unifying mentality around basic rights that was needed to prevent it. All too often, progressive activism has been more performative than pragmatic.
Reform movements in Egypt and Turkey were good at expressing outraged demands, but poor at pragmatic politics, provoking backlash and failing to bring swing groups on board. All too often, progressive activism has been more performative than pragmatic.
- Jack Snyder
Success in advancing the project of rights-based democracy has always depended on pragmatic strategies. The moralism, legalism and universalism of the Western-based human rights movement have laid out an aspirational roadmap that resonates with the ideals of its activists, but this style of activism can sound like hypocrisy and imperialism in post-colonial societies. What the West calls Islamic or Hindu "fundamentalism" is largely born of a frustration with Western secular models of state-building, which typically brought unresponsive, repressive, corrupt and alien forms of government, not least in the Middle East. Even in Western countries, the advent of equal rights and accountable politics depended on the power and self-interest of a coalition, which succeeded only through its own pragmatism—recruiting fence-sitters, expediently defusing backlash from opponents, and deftly using local vernacular in normative appeals. Successful rights-expanding movements—like those in the United States of Abraham Lincoln's anti-slavery Republicans, and, a century later, the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, or Mahatma Gandhi's campaign in India against British colonialism—stood on all three legs of what might be considered the tripod of human rights: activists giving locally resonant voice to aspirational goals, a mass social movement to demonstrate numbers and commitment, and a pragmatic reform party to make deals and amass the power to govern.
Such movements can't make human rights happen in a vacuum. Research consistently shows that human rights and democracy tend to correlate with peace—and with reasonably high per capita income, a diversified economy (not just oil and gas), functional institutions of law and governmental administration, a supportive international setting, and agreement on who is included in the democratic exercise of national self-determination. Historically, the best sequence is to put some basic institutional supports and economic preconditions in place before expecting rights-based democracy to thrive.
In the Middle East, this standard checklist shows that Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria all had few of these facilitating conditions in place during recent experiments with participatory mass politics, whereas Tunisia and Turkey enjoyed somewhat more promising points of departure and came closest to making liberalization work. Nonetheless, they still failed to solve tactical problems of progressive reform, as Tunisia's democratic collapse and Turkey's illiberalism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan show. Democratic pragmatists in both Tunisia and Turkey should focus on how to forge majority progressive coalitions to overcome those problems.
Since Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, Turkish society has fused seemingly contradictory tendencies that have been both modernizing and retrograde, politically and socially. In 2015, in the very conservative Islamic city of Konya, the epicenter of support in central Anatolia for Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, I interviewed prosperous women at a self-described "human rights insitute" who said their education and early careers had suffered from the decades-long ban on wearing headscarves in public institutional settings, a legacy of Ataturk's secular regime that was lifted for civil servants by the AKP regime only in 2013.
They described themselves as advocates for women's rights who wanted state-funded child care so that women could work at good jobs for equal pay. At the same time, they favored massive censorship of the "shameless" Western internet, yet loved their smart phones. They also sought to ban misogynistic Turkish soap operas, and thought that iron-willed grandmothers needed to rule the roost in multigenerational homes to keep the wayward men in line. They disdained Kurds simultaneously for being backward and for aligning with progressive secular parties. They complained about the influx of Syrian refugees and migrants, for which they blamed America. While expressing a full-on backlash against the liberal, Western-oriented 2013 demonstrations at Istanbul's Gezi Park against Erdogan and the AKP, they forcefully asserted, "We are modern!"
Historically, the best sequence is to put some basic institutional supports and economic preconditions in place before expecting rights-based democracy to thrive.
- Jack Snyder
And, indeed, Erdogan started off in a progressive direction—stabilizing the economy under the International Monetary Fund's tutelage, achieving candidate status for Turkey's membership in the European Union, successfully exploiting export opportunities for the Turkish economy in Europe and the Middle East, and winning elections at the head of an inclusive, modernizing coalition. Starting from his base among the near-majority core group of pious, historically "left behind" Anatolian Turks, Erdogan was able to shift into and out of alliances with traditionalist Kurds, the Islamist modernizers in the Gulenist faction, secular Turkish nationalists, and pragmatic entrepreneurs, all while isolating Westernized secular liberals centered in Istanbul and other cities, who managed to seem simultaneously too tied to the old military-dominated regime but also too cosmopolitan. These liberals were saddled with a secular Westernizing political party inherited from the Ataturk system, the Republican People's Party, or CHP, which had conspired in military coups, corrupted state support of industrial enterprises, and banned headscarves to block professional advancement of pious women. Activist organizations that took foreign money in support of secular rights were also too easily dismissed as tools of the liberal West.
Since the AKP positioned itself as the most natural coalition partner for most of Turkey's other factional constituencies, Erdogan was able to shift to an illiberal strategy as needed. When his regime turned out to be too corrupt, too abusive of free speech and Kurdish rights, and perhaps too Turkish or Islamist to qualify for full EU membership, Erdogan tried to keep economic benefits flowing with budget-busting patronage for his support base. He combined that with repression of Turkey's restive Kurdish minority and Gulenist technocrats, who were viewed by the AKP as insufficiently loyal allies of convenience and became Erdogan's rivals for power and patronage. These divisive moves, amid various economic failures, coincided with a surge in Erdogan's nationalist rhetoric and the AKP's reliance on a narrower coalition in government.
The rising costs of this reckless strategy under Erdogan have opened the door for progressives in Turkey to organize a potential winning coalition after all his years in power. Secular liberals, Kurds and the generally wealthy, dispersed and persecuted Alevi religious minority have begun to coordinate on strategic voting. Erdogan and the AKP's responsibility for astronomical inflation and crushing corruption provide a unifying issue for his opponents, despite the lack of strong network ties across this possible opposition coalition. However, even if such a coalition were to defeat Erdogan, consolidating progress toward more rights in Turkey could be a challenge without a strongly professionalized civil service, a cohesive reform party and a synchronized mass social movement.
Pragmatic coalition strategies are harder in countries that are even more lacking than Turkey in the facilitating conditions for democratic success. In Egypt, liberal and secular factions that support democracy and human rights have been out-organized and out-maneuvered since Mubarak's fall in 2011. In the waning days of his regime, although there were some professionalized NGOs to protest abuses, there were no cross-cutting elite networks to forge compromises with other moderate factions, and no pragmatic reform party. A labor movement among factory workers in the Nile Delta helped drive early protests, but it did not lead to wider political organizing in the form of a unified political party.
The potential constituencies for reform in Egypt after its popular uprising, though constituting 49 percent of the voters in the first round of the 2012 presidential election, remained divided and disorganized compared to the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. The third-place candidate, leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, garnered 21 percent; the moderate democratic Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh 17 percent; and the veteran diplomat and former foreign minister under Mubarak, Amr Moussa, 11 percent—all of them independent candidates without organized party backing. Secular, reform-minded citizens shared the anti-regime protest space of Tahrir Square with the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Brotherhood commanded a strong social movement that could get out the vote and a more disciplined leadership that prevented rival Brotherhood candidates from competing in the same district. This ultimately won them the elections for president and parliament. But the Brotherhood lacked a pragmatic governing party and had no interest in cooperating with reformists in an alliance to neutralize the common threat from the Egyptian military—which ousted Morsi in a coup the following year, leading to a regime under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi even more authoritarian than Mubarak's.
While expedient reform strategies must necessarily be tailored to local possibilities and the local vernacular, some general rules of thumb apply everywhere. Put those issues of democracy and human rights that are locally unpopular on the back burner. Instead, promote issues like fighting corruption that are already popular everywhere with potentially powerful majority constituencies. Roughly one-third of mass protests worldwide in recent years have focused on anti-corruption. They were almost all initiated by local groups. International rights organizations joined late, if at all, and then only to denounce violations of the rights of free assembly and speech. International advocates need to own the corruption issue and link it not just to punishing the guilty, but to the need for systemic rights reform that will prevent corruption in the future through impartial rule of law. Since international financial and tax systems are major enablers of corruption, rights advocates can easily avoid the appearance of shaming the Global South for its corruption by putting the spotlight on the central role and complicity of the richest states and companies of the West.
More generally, let's not pretend that we can make human rights happen in a vacuum. Instead, have a strategy that builds the institutional supports and economic preconditions for human rights in the proper sequence. Advance human rights by opening the door to states willing to liberalize, not by a hard sell to reluctant and suspicious societies. Don't overuse the tactic of shaming human rights violators, who can portray this condemnation as imperialist disdain and use it to mobilize illiberal and populist backlash. Most of all, promote democracy and human rights by proving what they have traditionally been so effective at: producing economic growth and political stability.