Some suggest that a preoccupation with democracy can raise unrealistic expectations concerning the Middle East. Before you have democracy, it's claimed, you must have constitutionalism and the rule of law. It's said that this was the pattern in 18th and 19th Century Europe, where this sort of 'liberalism' preceded democracy. This thesis fails because it does not account for significantly different social and political conditions.
The defining document of liberal authoritarianism is Kant's short essay, "What is Enlightenment?"(1784). In it he says:
...a ruler who is himself enlightened and has no fear of phantoms, yet who
likewise has at hand a well-disciplined and numerous army to guarantee public
security, may say what no republic would dare to say: Argue as much as you like
and about whatever you like, but obey!
Arguably there have been such rulers. Kant had King Frederick II of Prussia in mind. Napoleon is another example. But in most of the modern world such figures, or their oligarchical counterparts, are not a live option. That's because the nature of dissent and the threats to public order have changed fundamentally.
To see this it is necessary to glance at European history, where there was some variation in the relation between dissent, public order, liberalism and democracy.
Of England, where political dissent was far more mature than on the continent, it is not correct to say that liberal authoritarianism preceded democracy. The development of the two went hand in hand. It is true that in the 18th Century, England may have seemed liberal because it allowed more dissent in matters of faith, and afforded the Philosophes some refuge when their philosophical writings prompted repression in France and elsewhere. And England did develop something resembling the rule of law somewhat before most of continental Europe. But it also moved towards democracy much earlier, starting at least with the Puritan Revolution of the 17th Century and proceeding with the definitive overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1688, followed by the First and Second Reform Bills of 1832 and 1834, followed by periodic expansions of the suffrage.
Though today we would not count English institutions as democratic until the institution of truly universal suffrage in 1928, from the 17th Century on a steadily less restrictive notion of popular sovereignty was strongly established in English political institutions, roughly concurrent with the rise of liberal ideas. The increasingly democratic character of British popular sovereignty is, over the decades, tangible and unmistakable. So the example of England cannot support any constitutionalism-before-democracy thesis.
France and Germany are a different matter, because in both countries constitutionalism and the rule of law did indeed precede democracy. But these countries experienced a much slower and less threatening development of political dissent. That turns out to have crucial implications for the idea that constitutionalism and the rule of law can be established before democratic institutions.
In France and Germany significant and effective political dissent was, for a long time, aristocratic or at least not populist. Even the French Revolution began as an aristocratic revolt, and lower-class resistance quickly dissipated when the Revolution was appropriated by the upper middle classes. After a few years the main popular unrest was among the peasantry who supported, and took guidance from, the remnants of the Church and nobility. For Napoleon, dissent was virtually no concern at all. By the 1820s in France, revolts were conspiratorial affairs involving students and other members of the more comfortable classes, producing very manageable political changes. Never again did peacetime French politics threaten to produce anything like far-reaching social upheaval. So France could afford liberalism quite early on, and developed democracy later. In Germany, and before it in Prussia, dissent was never a serious problem, so liberal constitutionalism could precede democracy by quite a distance.
Does this historical record hold any lessons for a country like, say, Egypt? Could there be an authoritarian but constitutional government that imposed the rule of law before developing democracy? It's hard to see how the European example affords any support for this idea.
In the Middle East, the problem of what Kant calls 'public security' was solved a long time ago. Because political violence was unknown in his Prussia, Kant is referring primarily to criminal activity, which in 18th Century Europe existed at levels inconceivable in the contemporary Middle East: the portly philosopher David Hume thought it natural to take a sword when going out of his house. So this aspect of the rule of law, once considered the most important, is well established in Middle Eastern countries. Notably missing is anything like the rule of law when dealing with what 18th Century European governments didn't need to deal with - popular political dissent. And that makes all the difference when considering whether liberal constitutionalism can be imposed before democratic institutions are established.
In Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, there is massive, resilient, well-organized popular discontent, posing a serious threat to the state. Rulers do not fail to develop constitutionalism and the rule of law, or the liberal's coveted civil liberties, because they're stupid or myopic. They need repression to keep that massive popular opposition in line. This is where the lessons from Europe lose relevance.
The comparative docility of the masses in 18th Century France and Germany, followed by the dominance of relatively genteel middle class 'revolutionaries' later, gave governments breathing room in which liberalism and constitutionalism could grow. And so it is today. Europeans and North Americans can say more or less what they like because their dissent never poses a threat to the state: indeed contemporary anti-terror measures show how quickly liberalism gives way when governments imagine such a threat.
The undemocratic rulers of 18th and 19th Century Europe allowed dissent and a measure of civil rights because they faced only manageable political dissent. The undemocratic governments of the Middle East understandably fear that civil liberties could strengthen already powerful popular movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. That's why the authority of even liberally-inclined elites can be maintained only through bloody repression, designed to ward off even bloodier catastrophe like the Algerian and Syrian conflicts. In these circumstances, undemocratic regimes simply cannot afford to institute real civil liberties. Constitutionalism and the rule of law will not and cannot precede democracy, because only democracy has a chance of tempering the truly explosive, deeply popular political dissent that the European authoritarians never encountered.