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Over the course of the last three hundred years, in broad swaths of the globe where Anglo-American and European thought has prevailed, history has been understood as the story of the advancement of human freedom. When there was debate, it was about what freedom meant and how freedom could be achieved. In the Anglo-American world, the larger concern was coercive power, and freedom was thought to be achievable through limited government and market commerce; elsewhere, the larger concern was scarcity and want, and freedom was thought to be achievable through greater state control of the economy and, sometimes, by harsh restrains on political liberty.

The end of the Cold War signaled the victory of the Anglo-American model.

Costly wars abroad, however, and the numerous financial shocks, have reduced economic growth to a crawl, and increased the gap between rich and the poor. For the moment, doubts have been raised about the model’s efficacy; they have not, however, altered the belief that history is the march of human freedom.

In the Middle East, milder versions of these competing visions of freedom have circulated for several centuries, but they nowhere captivated the imagination of entire nations. Liberals there sought to limit the reach of the state through the rule of law and institutional checks and balances, and to develop market commerce and the individualistic entrepreneurial spirit that animates it. They failed no less completely than did socialists who sought to gather together the economic resources of their nation in the hope of overturning the feudal system of land ownership and family privilege that had impoverished their peoples for centuries.

These Middle Eastern attempts at freedom failed, in part, because family linkages and tribal loyalties were much stronger there than they had been in Anglo-America and in Europe. This remains true today: in the Anglo-American world and in Europe, the person one is largely trumps the role one has; in the Middle East, on the other hand, the role one has in the family or tribe still largely trumps the person one is, independent of those allegiances. Democratic freedom entails that such allegiances be loosened if not broken altogether. That has not yet happened in the Middle East.

Where roles rather than persons predominate, a number of arrangements fall naturally into place. First, society will take the form of a collection of rank-ordered families, and marriage will consist in the unification of families, which fortify trust within interlocking family units and increases distrust outside their borders. Absent this trust, a sovereign power will be needed to prevail over and adjudicate between conflicting and distrustful family and tribal units, which necessitates that his coercive power always be on display. The family or tribe being strong, the sovereign power will not need to reach all of his subjects, but only the heads of each family or tribe, which in practice means the elevation of men and the diminishment of women. Finally, in those societies where socialist upheavals have taken place, weaker family and tribal units will have been destroyed, but the stronger ones that have survived will be aligned with, or be at the heads of, winner-take-all political parties that stifle political expression and political opposition as if it were a mortal threat.

None of these arrangements are hospitable to the development of democratic governance, yet some combination of them can be found in all of the nations of the Middle East. In the face of this stark fact, the United States has nevertheless sought to nourish democratic freedom in the region, through war, blind-eyed alliances, and extensive foreign aid. If democratic governance emerged in the Anglo-American world, our policy-makers wonder, should it not be able to emerge elsewhere? If states governed democratically do not fight, is it not the interest of the United States to help establish them everywhere? Political realism dictates that foreign policy be oriented by clearly discernible national interests. If history is the story of the advance of human freedom, however, is it not in the national interest to foster the development of democratic governance abroad? The recent convulsions in the region raise doubts about this grand view of national strategy and the arc of history.

It would be hard-hearted, however, not to recognize that something important is happening in the Middle East. The Tahrir Square uprising in Cairo is indeed emblematic of the frustrations of a new generation. Yet its fate is a cautionary tale we should heed. Suspicious of and exhausted by scripted political and economic arrangements that hold it fast, the younger generation dreams of a future it cannot yet grasp. Able perhaps to destabilize an existing government, the younger generation nevertheless possesses neither the knowledge nor the reach to establish a wholly new one. That is because governance in the Middle East remains oriented around family, tribe, and winner-take-all political parties. Individual persons may gather to protest against these arrangements, but they cannot together overcome the entrenched arrangements that give politics the form it currently takes. Not yet, anyway.

Alexis de Tocqueville long ago wrote that the democratic age is upon us. By this he meant that the “links” to family and tribe that held us fast in the aristocratic age were breaking apart before our eyes. The political consequence of this social de-linkage, however, was not necessarily benign democratic governance. Indeed, he worried that attempts would be made to refortify the old links, to reaffirm roles at the moment when delinked persons were emerging. What we today often identify as “Islamic Fundamentalism” is just such an attempt to re-fortify the old links, to re-enchant the world. Herein lays the dilemma of the Middle East. Caught in the matrix of the political and social arrangements of the twentieth century that defy credulity, drawn and at the same time repulsed by the fugitive freedom they see on Western shores but only dimly understand, nascent citizens more than occasionally dream of returning to an enchanted world for which an imagined Islam provides a ready guide.

Under these wildly unstable conditions, U.S. foreign policy-makers should take the long view. Democratic governance will not arrive soon in the Middle East. If it does at all, it will emerge only when families and tribes become much less important than they now are. Citizens and entrepreneurs, the building blocks of democratic governance and of market commerce, do not spring up spontaneously out of societies where families and tribes still retain their hold on the imagination. The slow process by which that changes, moreover, cannot easily be accelerated by U.S. foreign policy. In the meantime, in the interludes of peace, diplomatic and cultural outreach and, above all, higher education initiatives intended to help the younger generation understand and thrive in the disenchanted world it will inherit offer perhaps the most constructive ways to engage the region.

Joshua Mitchell is professor of government at Georgetown University and author of Tocqueville in Arabia (Chicago, 2013).

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