(Democratic) Peace in the Middle East?

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Michael Poznansky, Ph.D. Student in Foreign Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, University of Virginia

The Middle East is in trouble. If the ongoing civil war in Syria, fears of nuclear proliferation in Iran, and a tenuous cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas were not enough, Egypt has recently passed a constitution instantiating the precepts of Islamism. In a recent article in the New York Times, John Owen suggests that proponents of Islamism—a brand of political Islam forged by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s—are thriving in the new Middle East, espousing an alternative to the secular tradition of Western liberal democracy. In this post, I explore the future of Egypt’s regime and its impact on any potential democratic peace with the U.S. In the remaining space, I address three issues: (1) the state of the Egyptian regime and its implications for democratic peace; (2) what history and theory can tell us about analogous situations; and (3) how these lessons inform the future of U.S.-Egyptian relations.

The State of Affairs

Following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a promise not to compete in the presidential elections of a newly democratic Egypt; a promise they broke in late March 2012. Four months later in June, Mohamed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party—i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood—assumed the office of the presidency, winning 51.7% of the vote. Despite high hopes for Egyptian democracy, Morsi’s recent decrees placing him above judicial review (from which he has since walked back) and the passage of a new constitution with roots in Islamism have triggered apprehension, especially in the West.

Each of these developments has significant implications for a potential democratic peace between Egypt’s new regime and existing democracies. Democratic peace theory, or the idea that the empirical absence of war between democratic states is attributable directly to democracy, has been a prominent theory in the field of international relations for the past few decades. Notwithstanding its many manifestations—including normative and institutional variants as well as monadic and dyadic strands—the continual evolution of Egypt’s fledgling democracy into a stable democratic regime would render it a viable candidate for the democratic peace. The issue that must be confronted, however, is whether recent events in Egypt jeopardize its candidacy. To answer this question, I first explore how similar situations have been dealt with historically.

A New Take on Old Events

The U.S. is no stranger to intervention, not even against other democracies. During the Cold War, for example, the U.S. covertly intervened against a number of democratic regimes in the developing world. In “Democracy, War, and Covert Action,” a 1992 article in the Journal of Peace Research, David Forsythe identifies at least six instances of these interventions that “involved violence or its direct threat”: Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Indonesia (1955), Brazil (1960s), Chile (1973) and Nicaragua (1980s). While these cases seem to violate the theoretical underpinnings of democratic peace, which proscribes the use of force between democracies, I argue that a common set of conditions in each target of intervention worked to negate the constraints germane to the theory. More specifically, the constraints found in the normative variant of democratic peace—holding that a shared mutual trust and respect obtains between democracies—were seemingly absent. In each case, fears that the existing democratic regime would crumble under newly elected leftist leaders paved the way for intervention.

Critics such as Sebastian Rosato (2003) argue that these interventions against democratically elected regimes violate the normative brand of democratic peace. While some attempts have been made to defend the theory against this line of attacks, the debate has come to a relative stalemate. To nudge the discussion forward, I argue that we need to incorporate expectations—particularly, expectations about the future longevity of a given democratic regime. Put differently, while existing conceptions of democratic peace assume that a democracy today will remain a democracy tomorrow, it is fruitful to think of this assumption as a variable rather than a constant.

What happens when one democracy (say, the U.S.) expects the democratic institutions in a given state (say, Egypt) to decay, or breakdown—all despite it presently being a democracy? It is at least plausible that the constraints of a normative democratic peace would be strained or even absent. Additionally, if the expectation of democratic decay is severe enough—i.e. decision-makers perceive regime collapse as “inevitable”—the U.S. confronts two unsavory choices it did not face when expectations of democratic stasis obtained. The U.S. can either allow the status quo to continue and risk the emergence of a hostile, autocratic regime, or intervene and install a pliable autocrat of its choosing. It is unlikely that merely swapping in another democrat without addressing all of the conditions that gave rise to an expectation of democratic decay in the first place (e.g. sustained economic turmoil, extreme political and ideological polarization) will solve the problem. John F. Kennedy’s famous observation in June of 1961 captures this expectational logic well: “There are three possibilities in descending order of preference: a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime, or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first, but we really can’t renounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third.”

Half-Empty or Half-Full?

Bearing in mind John Mearsheimer’s (1990) dictum that “all political forecasting is bound to include some error,” what do Morsi’s decrees and/or the Islamist constitution mean for any potential democratic peace between Egypt and the U.S.? Depending on how events unfold, there are at least two contrasting predictions, one pessimistic and one that is more optimistic. From a “glass half-empty” perspective, recent developments in Egypt spell trouble for the future of U.S.-Egyptian relations. Using the theoretical framework presented here combined with historical experience, there is the potential for the relationship to become adversarial. If expectations of Egypt’s path to democratization sour substantially in light of recent events, any restraint that normally obtains between democratic countries will be wanting. Even if the U.S. does not covertly intervene and remove Morsi as they had done against leaders during the Cold War, it is possible that the U.S. might engage in a series of actions—actions incompatible with static conceptions of democratic peace—intended to stymie the growth of an Islamist Egypt.

The “glass half-full” perspective takes an opposite tack. This view places great weight on actions such as Morsi’s decision to walk back his decrees, all of which indicate a substantive commitment to democratic principles. While Egypt may not become a Western-style democracy, U.S. expectations of democratic stasis are likely to reinforce the constraints of democratic peace and ensure that any conflicts between the two countries will be resolved peacefully. At the time of this writing, it is too soon to definitively predict how events in Egypt will unfold and what the impact will be on U.S. foreign policy. What is nearly certain, however, is that policymakers’ assessment of the future of Egyptian democracy is likely to color relations in important ways.


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