An open door

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Date: Spring 2004
From: The Wilson Quarterly(Vol. 28, Issue 2)
Publisher: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,341 words
Lexile Measure: 1400L

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It's a little-known fact, but the Arab world had a liberal age that lasted for nearly 100 years, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. The legacy of that age may provide the ground on which to build new Arab democracies. Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria and others who have argued that liberalism is a prerequisite for sound democracy contend that its various elements--free media, competent legal institutions, the rule of law, and ethnoreligious tolerance--attune individuals to the spirit and behaviors of citizenship and predispose groups, communities, and other collectivities to the rules of fair play. They become tolerant, for example, of the unpleasant outcomes invariably built into electoral politics: "Losers" don't habitually contest the outcome of elections or resort to violent means, and "winners" don't disregard the legitimate interests of the losers. Such restraint can't be legislated. It needs to be learned and internalized by citizens if they are to enjoy sound democratic governance. So, too, must they learn the skills of organizing, mobilizing, debating, and compromising that are inculcated through the spread of small-scale institutions of civil society.

During the past two centuries, the Arab world has gone through a sequence of overlapping political phases: an early liberal, a colonial, a middle liberal, a populist radical, an Islamic, and a new liberal. Not every Arab country passed through all six phases, but Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Tunisia have done so, and their experience is instructive. In each, external factors triggered the start of political transformation. Beginning in the late 18th century, the encroachment of French, British, Italian, Israeli, and American forces was the impetus for the birth of modernity, even as the presence of the foreign powers also unleashed forces of resistance. As one phase ended and left its legacy and another began, certain social formations--classes, occupations, and ethnic groups--declined, and new ones arose. Each phase was associated with a distinct social formation. The landed bourgeoisie, for example, championed the first liberal age, and the middle class the second. The lower middle class dominated the populist radical phase, and a mix of the lower and lowest urban classes has sustained the current Islamic moment. A coalition of Western-educated professionals and business leaders in the Arab world is pushing currently for the return of liberalism.

The elements of liberalism helped usher in Western-type democracy first in Egypt, at the end of the 19th century', and then in a score of Arab countries from the early 1920s to the mid-1950s. The seeds of liberalism were sown in Egypt as early as the turn of the 18th century. When Napoleon's ships anchored in Alexandria's harbor in July 1798, the West had its first significant encounter with the Arab Middle East since the last Crusade, in the 13th century. Like the other eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt in 1798 was stagnating in medieval Islamic ways that bad maintained themselves for centuries--the very centuries during which Europe made its great leaps forward in scientific knowledge, technology, and religious and political reformation. With Napoleon,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A116406967