Friday, March 11, 2011

Insights on Egypt's future from Spain's past

I’ve been away from home for the past few days, which has made it difficult to do much writing, but being on the road (or in the air) has allowed me to do some catch-up reading that I’ve been meaning to get to.

In particular, I’ve had time to read and reflect on the state of Egypt, and its future hopes for a democratic society.

Oftentimes I’ve heard comments to the effect of “Arabs (or Egyptians) have no history of democratic governance, and so their transition to a democratic state is either impossible, unlikely, or at best far away.

The claim that Arabs or Egyptians have no history of democratic governance is far too dismissive of a broad-brush statement to be all that useful, but it is an argument that can be made, particularly within the context of the past century. Some fledgling attempts at democracy have taken place, but autocracy has generally been the norm in Egypt and in the wider MENA.

In the course of my reading over the past few days I was struck by a passage in the article “Spain After Franco” by Omar G. Encarnación

“The country’s previous and only significant attempt at living under a democratic system (the brief and chaotic Second Republic, 1931–36) descended into civil war and cemented Spain’s reputation as a society in which conflict and the potential for violence were ever-present.”
I came across the piece while looking for historical insights into possible future directions for Egyptian democracy. In light of the recent disruptions to the Egyptian State Security apparatus, I’ve been looking at a variety of precedents on how post-revolution societies deal with the remnants of the institutions of repression. Argentina, Chile, and South Africa have provided some insights for potential models and outcomes, but post-Franco Spain seems to be fertile ground for clues to a post-Mubarak Egypt.

Spain’s transition from an autocratic dictatorial regime to a democratic one came about in a swift and unexpected fashion – few, if any saw it coming, and as the quotation above suggests, no credible precedent for democratic self-governance existed. After decades of alternating between dictators and civil war, Franco came to power in the 1930’s. Despite his alliance with Italy and Germany during the Second World War, and his ruthless methods of control (secret police, censorship, outlawing of rival political parties, intimidation, torture, arrests, etc.), by the 1950’s he was a strong Cold War ally of the US.

Regardless, within three years of Franco’s death in 1975 Spain was experienceing the successful and unprecedented process of full democratization despite the reticence of established military and religious institutions, the presence of an active domestic terrorist organization, competition between several highly contentious political movements, a major economic collapse, and the cultural scars of decades of brutal repression. An attempt at a military coup failed miserably in 1981, and a year later Spain joined NATO and elected its first non-fascist government in more than four decades.

I highly recommend Encarnacion’s paper – it’s less than ten pages long, but it offers some useful insights and some promising hints towards a positive future for Egypt.

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