The current upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East are reminders that the question of how a stable social order comes into existence should be fundamental to social and political thought. This is the problem associated with the work of seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who suggested that fear of mutual destruction leads people to hand over power to a state. His answer presumes a state of conflict that can only be kept under control by authoritarian direction. Up to the present, at least, this presumption seems generally to fit the societies along the east and south of the Mediterranean, although the conflict is not, as Hobbes suggested in his abstract model, among individuals but among ethnic and religious groups. Human beings cooperate, but they tend to cooperate within the groups to which they have strong attachments. The “state of nature” is not conflict among individuals, but among groups.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s central interest in Democracy in America was less America’s general egalitarianism than it was egalitarianism as a social order. To his surprise, given his background in France, Americans managed to live together more or less as political equals without falling into conflicts that would produce a Napoleonic dictatorship. Part of his answer to this conundrum was that the widespread American practice of joining together in multiple voluntary associations created social connections that made their democracy possible. The democratic political system, in other words, came out of a pre-existing cooperative society.
The problem of transition to democracy in societies that do not have the cooperative basis is that the societies tend to split among the ethnic and religious groups that promote cooperation within groups. Divisions among Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds and Arabs, or (as in Libya) multiple tribal groups can endanger democratic political institutions. In addition, democracy can give majorities power over minorities, so that minority groups generally have a vested interest either in native dictatorships (such as the Alawite regime of Assad in Syria) or in foreign rule. Minorities stand to benefit most by the authoritarian solution of Hobbes, as they have the most to lose in an emerging sectarian democracy, as we can see in the stepped-up persecution of Christian Copts in Egypt since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.
There is, then, a serious question about what kind of political order the societies of North Africa, the Middle East (and Afghanistan) can create. They may revert to dictatorships or they may find resolution in loosely-bound federal states or they may devolve into smaller, more workable nations based on ethnic and religious identities. While we can speculate, though, I think there is very little we can actually do unless we want to play the role of the Hobbesian ruler. At present, we are struggling to get out of that role in two very disorderly parts of the world.