A Tale of Two Transitions


By Connor Phillips.

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article about the challenges currently facing the nation of Burma as it seeks to transition from an authoritarian military government to a participatory democracy.  Obviously, the military-led reform process in Burma is not the only route by which an autocratic regime can give way to a more open system.  In fact, just as Burma was beginning its reforms three years ago, a region across the globe was plunged into its own political turmoil by the actions of a single fruit vendor.  When Mohammad Bouazizi immolated himself in front of a government office in an act of protest and desperation, he was setting in motion a series of events that would overthrow governments in his native Tunisia along with Egypt and Libya, engender a political transition in Yemen and a bloody crackdown in Bahrain, and plunge Syria into years of civil war.  The Middle East is still feeling the effects of these revolutions, now collectively known as the Arab Spring.  

The people-power revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya could not be more unlike the top-down transition in Burma.  Yet Tunisia and Libya are now facing a challenge similar to Burma’s (escalating sectarian conflict) while Egypt has seen the military reassertion of power that observers of Burma fear the most.  These parallels suggest that similar dynamics are at work in all of these countries, and understanding them may shed light into the nature—and possibly future—of these ongoing transitions.  

Burma’s reforms were enabled by two phenomena:  first, after decades of socialism and crippling Western sanctions, the nation’s economy had become a shambles, effectively forcing the ruling military junta to pursue democracy.  The second factor was the presence of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as the military’s interlocutor.  Her status as a human rights icon meant that her stamp of approval was necessary for the international community to consider any reforms legitimate, allowing her to largely dictate the terms of democratization.  While Suu Kyi’s control over the process has kept political reform on track, it has not rendered the transition entirely inclusive.  As my article pointed out, she has been less eager to raise her voice in support of Burma’s beleaguered ethnic minorities, especially the Rohingya Muslims, afraid that it might erode her political support among the majority Bamar. 

In contrast to this personality-driven process, it was leaderless popular movements that overthrew long-entrenched regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.  Once the revolutions were accomplished, however, the various political factions who made up these movements, from secular liberals to socialists to moderate Islamists to hardline Salafists, had much less success at arriving at an arrangement for establishing a new government amenable to all.  Tunisia and Libya have both seen the partial breakdown of political dialogue between these various groups, leaving them stuck in a constitution-less limbo.  In Egypt, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood won the nation’s first competitive presidential election, and proceeded to marginalize the secular opposition.  His increasing autocracy engendered massive street protests, leading the still-powerful military to oust him.  The opposition supported the coup out of aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood, even though it risks a return to military dictatorship.

Several factors have been responsible for these nations’ inability to arrive at an inclusive political settlement.  One obvious one is the lack of a single unifying figure who has the respect of most of the former opposition.  In the absence of such a leader, individual political factions often do not trust each other enough to put their own interests aside for the good of the nation.  For example, in Tunisia, the ruling Islamist Ennahda party fears a return to the repression it experienced under the former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali if it loses power, while the centrist Nidaa Tounes party worries that Ennahda’s Islamist leanings may undermine Tunisia’s strongly secular society.  These tensions can be traced at least in part to the old dictators, who sought to divide the opposition through fear and mistrust in order to maintain power.

The only way to develop such trust is through the development of a tacit consensus, backed by concrete actions, that those in power will not disenfranchise or oppress other groups while those in the opposition will not actively undermine the current government through extra-political means.  Such an understanding is not a sufficient condition for a democratic society—a host of other factors, such as functional institutions and a rule of law, also play crucial roles—but it is a necessary one.  By eliminating the existing regime, the revolutions have left a vacuum that can only such a consensus can fill; the only other options are authoritarianism or chaos.  This predicament can be seen in the respective plights of the three nations:  Egypt, plagued by mistrust between the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents, appears to be returning to authoritarianism, while Libya, wracked by violence between rival militias, is sliding into chaos.  Only Tunisia may still have some glimmer of hope left, albeit fading fast.  

Burma has not faced such a problem:  the military, while relinquishing political control, still holds enough power to keep the country together.  Does this difference imply that democratization is more successful when led by authoritarian regimes?  I would argue that it does not, because such a process is by its nature less inclusive than any of the transitions in the Middle East.  Although Burma’s military junta has allowed free and fair elections, many ethnic groups (particularly the Rohingya) remain marginalized.  This inequity is partly a product of Burma’s sectarian history, but it also stems from the manner of the nation’s democratization:  the authorities only extended political rights to the degree necessary to gain Suu Kyi’s support and thus international legitimacy.  In any case where a former ruling class is reforming for its own gain and not out of a genuine interest in democracy itself, this partial enfranchisement is very likely to result.  And unlike in the Middle East, the state structure in place means that incomplete accommodation of all groups will likely not be fatal to the democratic transition (though it poses an enormous long-term challenge). 

Thus, Burma’s problems appear somewhat easier to solve than the Middle East’s only because of the relative flexibility enjoyed by its leaders; there is much less pressure compelling them to actually address these issues.  In the Middle East, on the other hand, a solution seems much more difficult but is much more necessary to forming a new government.  If the current trends continue, and Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt slip into dictatorship and anarchy, the true tragedy will not be that democracy never had a chance:  we may never know what a different sequence of events (forbearance by the Muslim Brotherhood or an extended Western commitment in Libya, to name a few) might have brought, or what the future might still bring.  It will be that the region lost what may have been its best opportunity to achieve the Arab Spring’s democratic promise. 

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