Public Protest as a Road to Democracy?

We are all quite aware that 2011 was a year full of protests. I say “Arab Spring” and”Occupy” what do you think of? I picture crowds filling the streets. Chanting, screaming, yelling for change. Time was on to something when they named “The Protester” their person of the year. There was certainly a lot of noise.

What changed? Maybe you shoot back – what didn’t change? Ben Ali is gone. Mubarak is gone. Gadaffi is gone. Papandreou is gone. Burlusconi is gone. Even Kim Jong-il is gone. Okay, but what changed? What assurance is there that the public protests that pushed most of these out of office will in someway lead to something better for their countries? We know what has been torn down. What will be built up?

Within political sciences many have argued that the public protest is not actually a very likely candidate for moving a country from authoritarianism to democracy. Why would that be? What factors might stand in the way of a public protest leading to a democracy?

Let me at least give you five:

1. Lack of Leadership 

Authoritarian rulers do not appreciate challenges to their rule from other potential leaders. So what do they do? They repress leadership. Students are the universal opposition of regimes, in the words of Samuel Huntington. While certainly public protests have been more than just students, the young people do contribute a significant amount to the cause. Nor am I discounting the importance of young peoples movements. I’m in full support of students and youth taking an active role in the shaping of their society. However, if they are not able to create leaders who are able to reach a broader demographic than just the youth the protest may ultimately fail to produce.

2. Institutional Weakness

Another factor is that the authoritarian government controls nearly every aspect of civil life. Especially in single party regimes they monitor and control the institutions. The civil servants that run the daily affairs of the country are employed by the regime. A violent removal of all those elements leaves the country with weak institutions. During the transition period to a new government there must be some sort of civil institutions. In some societies these are able to operate under the rule of the regime. Whether they are labor unions, religious groups, etc. institutions and organizations will be an important part of a new society. If they are lacking or prove too weak then the prospects may be grim.

3. Factionalism

During protest movements we don’t often hear much about factionalism. There is a common goal – remove the current person from power. That is pretty much all that matters. Ideologies and principles take a back seat. However – once that goal is accomplished – factions come to the surface in the rebuilding phase. The ability for groups to form broad-based and effective coalitions will be crucial to a transition to a democratic government. If they are not able to do this then the factions will compete – with institutions that are not strong enough to handle the competition within the political arena – and the political movement that started out so well. That drew together people from all different backgrounds and ideologies will ultimately come to nothing. Worse than nothing it will produce instability.

4. Instability

 The period falling the removal of a regime is often marked by instability. One study (from the 1980s) looked at the transition after the removal of a long-ruling leader to determine if the way he was removed made a difference for the instability that followed. The most volatile and negative effects came about when he was overthrown. It is studies like these that inform the fears of outside countries who are cautious about supporting public protests of regimes. This is the charge leveled against the US for their foreign policy in the Middle East. That they will support an authoritarian regime rather than democracy to protect their interests. The evidence in many ways supports the conclusion that instability will follow. If a country persists in a period of instability for too long someone will step in to offer stability. Oftentimes this is the military and sometimes this creates a military regime. It happens not because that is what the public wanted but because they are the only ones who offer peace. This is especially true when violence is involved.

5. Use of Violence

One of the most crucial components is whether or not the opposition movement uses violence in their protest against the authoritarian regime. When they do the likelihood of producing a stable democracy decreases significantly. There are also studies that have shown that nonviolence is a more effective strategy than even a well-armed and well-organized resistance. A non-violent opposition is able to engender more support from more facets of society. It does not offer the regime any way to legitimize their use of force against the protesters. As many have pointed out having the military on your side – or at least not actively against you – is key to successfully removing the regime. Soldiers are less likely to join forces with those who have been throwing Molotov cocktails at them. It also sets the standard for what your goals and objectives are. If you are willing to stand by your principles in your efforts to achieve them.

So what do you need to go from the crowd chanting in the street to the crowd casting votes at the ballot box to the crowd living in a secure, stable, and democratic society? Leadership, institutions and organizations, a willingness to work together and not default to factionalism, minimize the instability, and a rejection of violent methods.

Is it a guarantee of a transition to democracy? No. Is it going to make it easier? No. But it offers the best hope that the public protests will be part of putting the country on a road to democracy.

Public Protest as a Road to Democracy – References


Secure but not genuine…

Egyptian soldiers stand in front of a 3rd Armo...
Egyptian Soldiers

It has been about a week since I have made time to post on here. The semester is gearing up and so have been spending a lot of my time reading articles for class. The topic for my Turkish Politics class this week has been on the role of the military in Turkish Politics. It has certainly inspired some interesting thoughts in my own mind. Those then coalesced with an op-ed piece I just read about the role of the Egyptian army in the Arab Spring.

Though certainly there are intricacies to every situation the idea of the army as the guardian of democracy has been tried in various forms over the years. This has been the model in the Turkish case. Is that really possible? What develops is not a true democracy. It is a society that is kept secure but the freedoms are not really genuine. The tools and maturity required for a healthy and functioning democratic state are never able to develop because when it gets difficult the army can swoop in and right the ship, and in the ideal case return to the barracks. Yet, in the long run this damages the development of the state. It is similar to the illustration of seeing a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. As you see the struggle and fight, the difficulties it is facing to free itself out of genuine goodwill you reach down and slice open the cocoon, setting it free from its bondage. By doing that, however, you have sealed its fate. The struggle to free itself from the cocoon is how the wings develop the strength required to fly. Without the difficulties the final goal will not be realized.

So what about the case at hand – post revolution Egypt – can democracy emerge there? For too long the strategy in the Middle East has been stability over democracy – the secure path over the genuine – but in the end it is neither. Thus we should be wary of those who offer a quick fix now.

Read More: Taming the Arab Spring by Gokhan Bacik

Religiously Arguing for Religion↓

American Muslims: A (New) Islamic Discourse on Religious Freedom by John Musselman

This is the third article from the Summer edition of The Review of Faith and International Affairs.

Musselman, John. “American Muslims: A (New) Islamic Discourse on Religious Freedom.” The Review of Faith and International Affairs (Vol. 9 No. 2 Summer 2011): 17-24.

This article examines three different strands of argumentation that have emerged from Muslim American intellectuals for the compatibility of Islam and religious freedom. These arguments are particularly aimed at the Muslim community. The arguments the author investigates are in three separate strands of thought – theology, philosophy and jurisprudence – but all agree that religion and religious arguments have a place in the public square.

To examine the various strands the author highlights a notable individual in each field as a spokesman for its contribution to the religious freedom discourse.


In theology Musselman focuses on the work of Abdulaziz Sachedina. As a scholar – who at times has been controversial within the Islamic community – Sachedina considers “freedom of conscience and religion as a cornerstone of democratic pluralism and fundamental to the Koranic vision of religiosity.” (Musselman, 18) This has admittedly been absent in various interpretations of Islam and he points to “religious authoritarianism founded upon an exclusive salvific claim” as the fundamental problem. The solution offered is that rather than making exclusive claims Islam should embrace an “inclusive theology grounded in universal moral guidance.”

I disagree with this assessment. To give away the means of salvation within a theology is to essentially strip the theology of all meaning. The issue of of man’s relationship to God is the fundamental question that religion is called upon to answer. If – as Islam, Judaism and Christianity do – you believe that there is a God to whom you are accountable and who will judge your eternal destiny then the criteria required from God is absolutely essential to your beliefs. To call upon people to change from an exclusive theology – One God and One way of salvation – to an inclusive, universal theology – One God but every way leads to salvation – is a massive reinterpretation.

Rather than locate the problem in an “exclusive salvific claim” it is more tenable to confront the “religious authoritarianism” that has emerged. It is completely possible to hold an exclusive view of salvation and yet to engage others who hold differing beliefs and to work for common goals without sacrificing your theological beliefs. (This is where sharing your faith comes in) At this point you can work together with people whom you may disagree with theologically but agree with on societal moral values to articulate those – which are foundational   for creating a forum that allows for the freedom to hold differing theological views.


Islam has a rich tradition of philosophy dating back to the earliest days of its founding. In the modern era there is a movement to use social science methodology to study the social effects within Islamic systems. The thinker that Musselman highlights is M.A. Muqtedar Khan.

Khan argues for a government that draws its political sovereignty from the people rather than from God. This contrasts the viewpoint espoused by Pakistani Sayyid Abu al-A’la Mawdudi who is the inspiration for many Islamists. Khan argues that the political sovereignty lies with the population and thus they need freedom to learn and make choices. It is not a rejection of religion but simply a separation of the church from the state.

A democratic system can provide that freedom, including the freedom to authentically live out one’s faith. In turn, religion serves as an important source of “good citizens” and “good laws” – the two ingredients for good governance. – Musselman, 19

Khan believes this is possible within Islam but requires a rewriting of the traditional role of the jurists who he feels have “colonized” Islamic thought into a medieval legal tradition. This tradition has been abused and in places become anachronistic. It is through ijtihad (independent thinking) that Muslims can make progress in this realm.


The legal tradition of Islam centers on the idea of sharia. For this discourse Musselman highlights Abou El Fadl. El Fadl is a prominent thinker and speaker on Islamic law, Islam and democracy, and issues of pluralism and human rights.

Abou El Fadl insists on the transcendence of sharia from human thought and, thus, human error, while arguing that human understanding of sharia is imperfect and contingent. – Musselman, 20

This understanding of the issue allows for the possibility to reform laws within the Islamic tradition because of the historical context in which they were originally articulated. He argues that this reform then is boiled down the the key question of defining justice.

In the end concerning questions of Islamic legal tradition Musselman concludes:

If sharia can service and promote diversity, pluralism, and individual rights – including the right of conscience and belief – then it will meet its essential concern of improving human welfare.

El Fadl hopes to advance this through preserving the authority of the jurists while advancing democratization of the community allowing the people to more actively shape their own society.


These three strands of inquiry all have a role to play in advancing the cause of individual freedoms – especially those of religious belief and practice – but will they actually be effective? The Muslim world is in a place where they are looking for meaningful authority structures – politically and religiously – and now more than ever before are discarding vestiges that are ineffective. Musselman says that the ebb and flow of democratization is creating new space for discussing religious freedoms.

Contrary to the tendency in the West it is imperative that religious groups are engaged in the re-shaping of societies. It is at this point that the strands of thought Musselman analyzed are most helpful. They remind us that religious freedom and democratic discourse are part of the same discussion.

The immediate entree is not the protection of minority rights (as favored by the original US-led religious freedom campaign in the 1990s), but the promotion of the right for majority and minority citizens to bring their religious values into the public square. – Musselman, 21

While each of the thinkers that Musselman considered approached the issue from a different field and with different arguments they do converge at an important place – one that will resonate in the Muslim world -they made religiously-motivated arguments in favor of religious freedom and democracy.


Part 3 of my review of the Summer edition of the The Review of Faith and International Affairs. Read the introduction to the series.

Part 1: Forced Faith↓

Part 2: Compelled to Tell↓



Reading Today’s Stories…→8.21

Just a few short links to some of the interesting stories from today:

Syrian opposition gathers in İstanbul for transitional council

As President Assad made another speech broadcast live on Syrian national television attempting to prolong the legitimacy of his government many of the main voices expected to emerge in the post-Assad Syria were just concluding a meeting in Istanbul. The goal was to start to put together a plan for the country should the Assad regime fall. The international pressure is mounting on him, the violence continues to be horrific, yet he retains a surprising amount of popularity with some of the population. This will be a story to continue to watch.

BBC News – Libya conflict: Tripoli fighting as rebels reach city

The continuing conflict in Libya took a significant turn today. The rebel forces that have been moving towards the capital of Tripoli are making progress and have captured some key towns. There has been a significant increase in the conflict in the city as more of the citizens are taking up arms against the Gaddafi security forces. The rebels are calling this “Zero Hour” and hope this will be the final push needed to oust the 40+ year regime.

BBC News – US ‘disappointed’ by Iran hiker jail terms for spying In a story that has been pushed out of the news recently the American hikers who ended up in Iran after beginning their hike in Iraq have now been sentenced. The verdict was three years for illegally entering the country and another five years for spying. The hiker’s plan to appeal the sentence so the story is not over.

Other stories of interest today include: #Flagman, Turkey’s continued bombing of Kurdish rebels in Northern Iraq


So if you have not seen the video or heard the story yet I will share it below. This is another of the many interesting stories emerging out of the latest tensions between Israel and Egypt. It also is another demonstration of how social media continues to change the way that news is made and shared.

Last night as thousands were rioting outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egypt “Ahmed El-Shahat” scaled the dozen plus story building and removed the Israeli flag and replaced it with the Egyptian flag. He was immediately cheered by his fellow Egyptians. It was a significant gesture of how far public opinion has gone against Israel.

The other interesting thing is how this story was spread. The video was quickly uploaded to youtube where it got thousands of views. #flagman was soon the new hashtag trending on twitter. What a few years ago would have been limited to only those few thousand people in the streets of Cairo now is instantly a global event. It can be seen and shared across the globe. The Vietnam War was known as the first “Living Room” war where the evening news was able to show on the ground footage. The world is now far beyond that as mobile devices sharing footage nearly instantaneous and without any censure at all.

Is this a better world? Maybe. Is it a worse world? Maybe? It is simply a different world.