Taipei, Taiwan
Taipei, Taiwan Wikipedia

In January 2011, the people of Egypt ousted their president of 30 years and demanded a new form of democratic, representative government. Although the revolution resulted in the resignation and subsequent imprisonment of Hosni Mubarak, his sons and some top colleagues, Egypt remains far from establishing a true democracy.

Despite the recent election of a new president, Mohammad Mursi, the powerful Egyptian military still looms over the nation, casting a long shadow on the country's future.

But Egypt's slow and painful struggle toward a constitutional democracy is not unprecedented -- indeed, other 'Arab Spring' nations, including Tunisia and Libya, are embarked on a similar course.

The transition from dictatorship to democracy was also recently made by a country thousands of miles away from Egypt, with a wholly alien history and culture – Taiwan.

Thirty years ago (around the same time Mubarak came to power in Egypt), the Taiwanese initiated the path toward forming a democratic state.

Taiwan, or the Republic of China, exists under the oppressive glare of Mainland China (i.e., The People’s Republic of China), which does not recognize the island as an independent sovereign nation and steadfastly claims it as its own territory. Taipei is similarly not recognized by the vast majority of states, including the U.S., for fear of offending Beijing. Consequently, any discussion of Taiwan is intertwined with the PRC.

When the Communists under Mao Zedong gained control of Mainland China in 1949, the defeated Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang), under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, evacuated to Taiwan, along with 2 million others, including soldiers, businessmen and intellectuals.

Under the Kuomintang's tight-fisted one-party control, martial law was imposed on Taiwan and would remain in effect for the next 40 years (not unlike the state of emergency that existed in Egypt until this year).

While the Kuomintang continued to insist it was the legitimate ruler of Taiwan as well as Mainland China (earning guffaws and scorn from the Communists in Beijing), Chiang Kai-shek relentlessly consolidated his power on the island.

Under martial law, dissent vanished, with the state imprisoning, torturing and killing untold thousands of people during the so-called White Terror period.

The Kuomintang asserted that martial law was necessary since Taiwan was technically at war with Mainland China. Anyone perceived to be disloyal to the Kuomintang, or worse, pro-Communist, was systematically rounded up, jailed and sometimes executed (again, a scenario quite familiar to the tens of thousands of Egyptians detained, tortured and/or murdered by Mubarak's security forces and secret police).

The emergency law in Egypt dates all the way back to Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1958, but truly came into force in 1967 after the Six-Day Arab-Israeli war. Except for a brief respite in 1980-1981, the law was reimposed following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat and remained in place throughout Mubarak's lengthy tenure.

The emergency law destroyed the possibility of any political opposition under the pretext of state security. By taking away people’s right to free speech and assembly, it muted the general public from expressing their concerns over their own government. In the absence of such rights, many people became fearful of speaking out against the corruption and atrocities committed by the government. Instead of fighting for their rights, many became quiet under the system and grew apathetic towards politics. This climate existed -- in varying degrees – in both Taiwan and Egypt.

The Kuomintang were particularly suspicious of intellectuals as a dire threat to the power structure, arresting and murdering hundreds of them, under the pretext of protecting Taiwan from a “Communist takeover,” while keeping a vise-like grip on the media.

As in Egypt decades later, Taiwan received military and financial support from the U.S., with President Dwight D. Eisenhower making a high-profile trip to the island in 1960.

Washington viewed Taipei as a crucial bulwark against the spread of communism, as years later it looked to Mubarak as a key strategic ally against Islamic fundamentalism and guarantor of peace with Israel.

During their terms in power, both Chiang Kai-shek and Mubarak made cosmetic concessions to opposition groups – changes that led to no meaningful reforms whatsoever, but were designed to uphold the legitimacy of their power.

Between 1949 and 1975, Chiang Kai-shek held quasi-elections in the National Assembly to ensure the legitimacy of his leadership (not unlike the rigged elections Mubarak held for his National Democratic Party).

Chiang Kai-shek was able to ignore the term limits prescribed in the Constitution under a “temporary provision” of a constitutional amendment that declared the country to be in a permanent emergency state of war.

Under such provisions, no other candidate was allowed to contest for the presidential office.

Similarly, Mubarak was able to stay in office for multiple terms because of a constitutional provision that forbade other candidates from running. Using a referendum by majority vote for successive terms instead of true elections, Mubarak was “re-legitimized” as president in 1987, 1993 and 1999.

In 2005 (six years before he was forcibly deposed), Mubarak made another slight concession to his critics. Under immense pressure from the public, Mubarak asked the Parliament to amend the Constitution and allow for others to vie for the presidency. Though the Egyptian presidential election in 2005 was called into question for its procedural integrity, it inadvertently represented a small step toward the democratic elections of 2012.

The situation in Taiwan remained relatively stagnant until 1979, when a pro-democracy protest (later called the Kaohsiung – or Formosa – Incident) took place. More than 30 opposition leaders were captured and imprisoned in this episode, leading the people to demand their political rights.

Analogous to the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, Kaohsiung was crushed by the state, but remained a powerful symbol of the Taiwanese people's aspirations for freedom and democracy. This incident provided the opposition with something to build on.

Liberal reforms finally arrived in the early 1980s under the stewardship of Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek's son and successor. An opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, emerged by the middle of the decade, in tandem with tremendous economic growth and infrastructure developments.

Thus, the end of the Martial Law marked a new beginning for Taiwan in 1987, as many intellectuals, social elites and artists began to speak out against the crimes committed by the previous government, challenging the new leaders to accept criticism from its people.

But even with a multi-party structure, Taiwan was still not quite free and democratic.

In 1986, the legislative branch of the National Assembly was still composed mainly of delegates elected as long ago as 1947 under the Kuomintang regime in Mainland China, with very few seats open for election. Enjoying their lifelong terms, many of the delegates refused to retire even in their 70s.

In response, thousands went into the streets to protest against such unacceptable misrepresentation. It was not until June 1990 that Taiwan's Council of Grand Justices finally ruled that all delegates to the National Assembly elected in 1947 under the Kuomintang regime were to retire by the end of 1991 – meaning democracy could be considered as fully in place.

Indeed, Taiwan has come a long way from the autocratic regime it labored under only 30 years ago. The country now enjoys press freedom, a superb health care system, 100 percent literacy and universal suffrage, all hallmarks of a democratic society.

Can Egypt hew to a similar path as Taiwan?

Today's Egyptians are in a vastly different world from the Taiwanese of the 1980s.

During the uprising of spring 2011, the youths of Cairo had something their Taiwanese counterparts knew nothing about – the Internet and social media.

They effectively reached out to many of their peers in other parts of the world, and brought their national crisis to the forefront of international media. Even now, they are expressing (and tweeting) their frustrations and hopes for the new government, bringing the matter of free speech into their own hands.

Clearly, the impatient and anxious Egyptians do not want to wait three decades to gain full freedoms.

One must also recall that the regime change in Taiwan which ultimately led to democratic reforms occurred without violence or revolution – upon Chiang Kai-shek's death, his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who was fortunately smart enough to acknowledge the winds of change in the air, took over.

One can only speculate what further reforms (if any) Mubarak's sons would have undertaken in Egypt if they had succeeded their father – as he had originally intended.

Many scholars today would attribute the relatively peaceful transition of Taiwanese democratization to the state’s economic prosperity in the 1960s, due to the boom in the technology industry. An attendant expansion of the middle-class greatly empowered the people.

In contrast, the economy in Egypt today is in a fragile state. The political turmoil in Egypt in the past 18 months has nearly brought the nation's economy to a halt.

If democratization were to continue peacefully in Egypt, then the example of Taiwan should be an important reminder to the political leaders in Egypt today that maintenance of people's living conditions must be its top priority.

Moreover, the example of Taiwan perhaps cannot predict Egypt's near-term political future. For one thing, Egypt has nothing like a giant China looming over its affairs.

Taiwan’s complicated relationship with the People’s Republic of China makes its democratization a unique case.

Indeed, during the first genuine Taiwanese presidential election in 1996, China threatened to launch missile attacks across the Taiwan Strait. With its national identity under constant debate, Taiwan is essentially an isolated state facing a murky future.

Egypt, on the other hand, faces difficulties that are equally complicated and cannot be resolved easily. Religious freedom for minorities like Coptic Christians continue to be a major focus in political discussions, while women who want more rights continue to struggle against conservative Islamic forces. In contrast, Taiwan has a relatively homogeneous population (96 percent of the population are Han Chinese).

Furthermore, Taiwan was not part of a regional uprising such as the Arab Spring. Because of its isolation Taiwan also did not face the cacophony of outside voices from all over the world inundating its political affairs as the people in Egypt have.

Taiwan’s example suggests that democracy does not come easy. Without the people actively seeking justice and equality, those in power would have not been forced to relinquish power. Rights to free press and free speech were only obtained after many protests and arrests of dissidents.

If Egyptian leaders today can follow the examples of Taiwanese politicians and think of the common good of the nation, perhaps Egypt will soon be able to emulate the success in Taiwan and become among the first in the region to enjoy a fully constitutional democracy.