Democracy does not fit in a box

In his recent article on POLITICO "Why political Islam is winning" Charles Hill did not convince me that the democratic world as we know it is coming to an end. Point taken: today the relics of the Arab Spring protest seem like the final backlash against democracy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) but the overall picture is not as dark as its seems in the article. Let me explain why.


First, it is wrong to put political Islam on the same footing as the Islamic State. While the former is a way of doing politics, the latter is a radical group that uses religion as an excuse for warfare in its cruelest form. Political Islam is not anti-democratic, violent and repressive as we can see in the recent, globally ignored elections in Tunisia. There are, however, justified doubts that the MENA regimes will ever follow the Western model of democracy.  Second, the region is in the middle of a democratic self-discovery process that takes time. Jordan and Morocco are other examples where the undertaken reforms may lead to more democratic regimes in the future. After the swift slide into democracy by Central and Eastern Europe, we should not expect the MENA to do the same without the accession perspective to the European Union (EU) or U.S. support. The EU and the US invested heavily in the civilian and militaristic promotion of democracy in the MENA, their geopolitical interests often counteracts their efforts. Which brings me to my last point. Hill's article is a prime example of how misunderstood the EU still is on the U.S. side of the Atlantic. Yes, it does not fit in our political toolbox, is neither a state nor an international organization. But so what? Diplomats should do what scientist have done for decades: move beyond the quest of putting the EU in a box and look at what it is doing. In the case of democracy promotion, the EU has been ambiguous and still prefers stability over democracy in its southern neighborhood. But it has established better relationships with many MENA regimes than the U.S. was able to in the past. And while the EU just lost its mediator role in its Eastern neighborhood with the escalating conflict with Russia over Ukraine, it still has its ties with the MENA region.  


To close, the clash between political Islam and liberal democracies is antiquated and the Islamic State is as much a threat to modern political Islam in the MENA as to human rights and dignity worldwide. Rather than painting a picture of diminishing role of "old" global powers, it is time to recognize not what they are, but what they are doing. 

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