Fadi Elhusseini

The Arab Spring struck the Middle East to the core as popular uprisings landed in Tunisia then Egypt, Libya followed suit after Yemen, yet the course of events was doomed when the process was held up in Syria, bringing the issue of democracy in the Arab region to the fore. Enthusiasm towards fully-fledged democracy has been mounting and demonstrators calling for freedom, human rights and democracy have never stopped, although the revolts succeeded in toppling a number of autocratic regimes and “fair” elections were held. The parties, who failed in the elections, and their supporters, accuse the winners of cheating, fraud and falsifying the results. This is not an attribute unique to elections in the Arab region as many democratized societies behave the same way in similar circumstances (the latest case was in Bulgaria). Nevertheless, the opposition sparked a new spate of demonstrations aiming to topple, obstruct or thwart the rule of the newly elected elites. On the other hand, the winners were accused of wrongdoings and practices that are deemed to enhance and consolidate their own rule. In an attempt to keep readers abreast, this article will try to explain the term democracy in the Arab world, tackling both historical and practical contours. The first part will review the status of democracy in the Arab region from a historical perspective; while the second part will discuss its viability as pertains to the current state of affairs.

Democracy, as a term, is a system of government by which “political sovereignty is retained by the people and exercised directly by citizens.”[1] David F. J. Campbell referred to democracy in etymological terms, as it comes from ancient Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratiā), which combines dēmos, the “people”, with kratos, meaning “rule”, “power” or “strength”. Hence, the literal denotation of democracy is “rule by the people”, culminating in a popular form of government[2]. The crux of democracy is that people choose who governs them and those elected rulers will be held accountable for their actions and decisions. There is no one definitive form of a government as democracy can exist in republics (e.g. France), kingdoms (e.g. United Kingdom or Spain), and empires (e.g. Japan) where powers of the king or the emperor are very limited.

Initially, democracy appeared as an alternative to ancient monarchies where kings and emperors reserved the right to rule and transferred their crowns to their heirs irrespective of their suitability. What matters was to keep the rule within the same dynasty. This norm has changed, and republics and constitutional monarchy appeared as a logical alternative.

The same norm was applicable in the Arab region, mainly in early times of Islam when the Caliph was chosen (elected) among other candidates. However, this trend had changed with the emergence of the Umayyad Caliphate (centered on the Umayyad dynasty) and lasted until the latest Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (centered on the dynasty of Osman I.). In spite of the existence of the Shura councils, the last word was the Sultan’s or the Emir’s, and no council would dare to question or remove the Sultan or Emir. Hence, it would not be of any surprise to learn about the numerous revolutions and coups, some of which were from inside the Palace of the Sultan himself, during that époque.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, colonial powers ruled most of the Arab region, and they started introducing their practices and life-style, inserting their culture and injecting their notions, among which was democracy. More startlingly, they had “assigned” governments in the Arab societies that resembled their democratically “elected” governments. In 1992, Bernard Lewis referred to this in his “Rethinking the Middle East” piece. Lewis says: “the word ‘democracy’ in Arab political discourse has for long denoted the sham parliamentary regimes that were installed and bequeathed by British and French empires.”[3]

Post-colonial era witnessed the establishment of new republics in the Arab region and the new rulers inherited and swiftly declared their adherence to “installed” culture and practices. Hitherto, Arab leaders have included, at times defended, democracy in their daily speeches, even if their practices were far from democratic. With the advent of the Arab Spring, everybody was holding great hope for democracy, the way it is practiced and implemented in the West. As such, calls for adopting Western, Turkish or an Islamic model of democracy started to resonate in every corner of the Middle East.

As per the second part of the article, one can say that path of democracy in the Middle East is going through sharp turns. After holding democratic and free elections, calls for democracy are still being heard. At times, calls have even surpassed the question of democracy when the opposition asked the newly elected rulers to step down and resign; with no major crisis the new governments bear the brunt. The new rulers were also accused of enhancing and consolidating their rule indefinitely, through illegal practices, including the appointment of their members and followers in key positions in the state, and arming their supporters. Hence, the concept and understanding of democracy, on both sides, is distorted, and the exercise lacks the correct parameters. In this vein, I tend to disagree with those who limit the causes of these conditions to external factors solely. Although this argument is realistic, the main reasons behind this state of affairs are clearly internal.

Firstly, the communal environment in the Arab world is neither ideal nor ready for a proper application of democracy. Since the death of the fourth Caliphs Imam Ali Bin Abi Talib- 1352 years ago, the region has not practiced sound democracy, especially when it comes to choosing the rulers. Although rulers claim their staunch adherence and support of democracy, their actions were absolutely the opposite, which led to a deterioration of the conditions of democracy in the Arab world.

Communal preparedness is critical, and without the suitable environment in the communities that existed during Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and in the other Central and Eastern European states at the fall of Communism, revolutions would not have succeeded in transferring these societies into democratic states. In her attempt to compare the successful Eastern European revolutions and the Arab Spring, Ziya Öniş says, at the “Working Together for Democracy in the Arab world” workshop organized by USAK; “the domestic nature of the political system, where the civil society had already been developed, and an elite convergence for democracy is absent in the Arab world.”[4]

The second reason is the haste and passion of Arabs to attain a democracy similar to that one in other countries. This candor was reflected in the demands for the adoption of foreign democracies, models, and at times constitutions and institutions of particular countries. One can argue that taking historical short-cuts is not always successful as there is no guarantee that copying other models would bear fruitful results. In other words, learning from the experience of others is helpful, albeit each community has its own peculiarities and conditions which are reflected in the necessity of building one’s own experience.

Europe has paid a heavy price, including wars and revolutions, built on its own experience until it laid the foundations of its own democracy. Turks themselves have acknowledged this fact and have said that they have paid a big price to develop their own brand of democracy. Erşat Hürmüzlü, chief advisor to the Turkish president, said at the same USAK workshop that Turks have designed their own destiny, including democratic standards and institutions, to uphold the rights of individuals. Hürmüzlü also admitted that along the path to democracy in Turkey, many mistakes were made but that learning from those mistakes was the best tool to ensure better results[5].

In nutshell, one can say that democratic process is very similar everywhere but the nuance lies in the experiences of every society in developing a democracy of its own. As old habits die hard, it will take Arabs some time, flip-flopping and hesitation to overcome the problems caused by their infamous dictators and hence develop their own democracies. The present upheavals in the Arab world are part of the process of Arabs building their own experience in exploring the path towards an independent democratic choice. But this is a mere drop in the ocean; the longer the process lasts and dawdles, the more susceptible the resources of moderation, enthusiasm and hope are to depletion. The current Syrian turmoil is just one case in point.


[1] “Democracy,” Wikipedia, accessed June 4, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy.

[2] David F. J. Campbell, The Basic Concept for the Democracy Ranking of the Quality of Democracy (Vienna: Democracy Ranking, 2008), 5.

[3] Bernard Lewis, “Rethinking the Middle East” (Lecture given by Professor Lewis at the “Henry M. Jackson Memorial Lecture”, Henry M, Jackson Foundation, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, March 11, 1992): 25.

[4] Ziya Öniş, “Working Together for Democracy in the Arab World” (An intervention by Professor Dr. Ziya Öniş at the proceedings of the Working Together for Democracy in the Arab World workshop, International Strategic Research Organization ‘USAK’, Ankara, Turkey, October 27, 2011):47-48.

[5] Erşat Hürmüzlü, “Working Together for Democracy in the Arab World” (An intervention by Mr. Erşat Hürmüzlü at the proceedings of the Working Together for Democracy in the Arab World workshop, International Strategic Research Organization ‘USAK’, Ankara, Turkey, October 27, 2011):39-42.

 

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Comments

  1. This blog was a pleasure to read. The Arab world is often misunderstood and I thought the way you framed the road to democracy using other countries such as Czechslovakia as an example was excellent and shows many countries have successfully negotiated social transitions. I look forward to reading more of your work, please keep me up to date.

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