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Are the Arabs ready for democracy? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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In the midst of the popular uprisings that are sweeping across a number of Arab countries, slogans demanding the ouster or change of the ruling regime have been raised; however this is without there being any clear conception of who or what this demanded [political] alternative will be. Some may consider the question of whether or not the Arabs are ready for a democratic system of governance to be unfair or a playing down of current events, yet it is crucially important – and legitimate – that this question be put forward without reservations, unless the object of these uprisings is to overthrow the ruling despotic regimes and hastily replace these with another form of despotism just to fill the vacuum. I am not the only one to raise this issue; indeed political leaders in more than one Arab country that is undergoing [political] change have now begun discussing the same issue. In Tunisia, the transitional government has decided to postpone the elections, with Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi claiming that the political parties formed following the “revolution” need time to define and prepare themselves for these elections. This is in order for these elections take place with the required “freedom and transparency.” As for Prime Minister of the Egyptian interim government Essam Sharaf, he said that postponing the elections would help the efforts “to reorganize the country” following the chaos of the “revolution”.

These calls were issued by men who contributed to supporting the uprisings that shook their own countries; they were not among the pillars of the former regime. [Justifying the decision to postpone elections], Prime Minister Sebsi added that “the wind of freedom has blown through other countries…but we will be the only ones to succeed in putting into place a democratic government”, in an implicit reference to the fighting in Libya, Yemen and Syria.

Why are these people frightened to go to the ballot boxes immediately, now that their countries have regained their “freedom” and are now able to carry out elections without voter fraud? The answer is simple: They are frightened because they are not certain of the probable electoral results should the elections take place at this time.

Prior to President Mubarak’s resignation – or let’s say the military coup carried out against him, if you will – Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman said that the Egyptian people were “not ready for democracy” at this stage. The Egyptian demonstrators furiously reacted to this statement, saying that such talk consecrates the concept of despotism. Yet such statements are now being repeated by “revolutionary” leaders during this interim period, so we must reconsider this issue once more, examining it away from feverish revolutionary slogans in order to see whether the Arabs are truly serious about establishing democracy.

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post published on 25 February 2011, well-known orientalist Bernard Lewis said that Arab countries may not be ready to implement democracy – in the Western/liberal sense – unless this democracy only means ballot boxes, but not the ideological and institutional commitments that underpins this. Lewis said that what is happening in the Arab region is caused by a state of “anger” and a deep sense of “social injustice”, and this is different than claiming that what is happening in our region is democratic revolutions. The proof of this, according to Lewis, is that these uprisings were staged with the aim of rejecting the existing despotic regimes, but without providing any real alternatives to them. Lewis also stressed that what Arab states need is to produce tools for political and intellectual reform based upon their own culture and heritage. He stressed that the concept of Shura [consultation] as a tool for political participation would be better than providing an opportunity for radical parties to hijack elections and impose a different type of despotism, in the manner of the Islamic democracy in Tehran. Lewis added that radical parties view “fair” elections as one-way opportunities to come to power, stressing that “in the inter-war period…Hitler came to power in a free and fair election”.

Of course, there are many who disagree with Lewis and his statements in this regard, whether for political or religious reasons, yet this does not mean that what he is saying is wrong. Paradoxically, Lewis suggested that “oppressive” Arab regimes are a modern phenomenon in the region, adding that “the pre-modern regimes were much more open, much more tolerant.”

Regardless of what you think of Lewis’s statement, his words are important. This discourse [that the Arab world is not compatible with Western democracy] has long been supported by intellectuals, and nationalist and Islamist writers, who in the past refused to acknowledge tools of Western rule, i.e. democracy. Rather, early prominent Islamic thinkers always rejected or were hesitant to carry out elections, considering democracy to be Western import. Yet in the decades following the Arab Naksa or “Setback” [Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War], a considerable number of Arab intellectuals referred back to Arab culture and heritage in a bid to find any roots that could support the concept of “democracy” and “human rights” in order to confirm that Arab and Islamic societies are indeed capable of adopting Western political and social models.

There can be no doubt that decades of despotic rule have made the transition towards the Western democratic model extremely difficult. Therefore, the region does not have a sufficient model to base a liberal and capitalist democracy upon, and even the limited experiences in our region have not been promising. Let us consider four Arab examples in which the political regimes tried to introduce a form of democratic political participation: Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan and Bahrain.

In Kuwait, neither the election nor the National Assembly produced a successful model. Instead, the Assembly became an arena for a noisy political opposition that obstructed national development, particularly as its activities were limited to repetitive interpellations and laws to forbid or ban different forms of openness. As for the Jordanian democratic experience, it was no less “closed”, in order to prevent the Islamists from being able to obstruct economic and civil reform. Both the Moroccan and Bahraini examples produced negative results, as it became clear that the Islamist opposition in both countries were not concerned with developing their country so much as they were seeking – in the case of Bahrain – to stage a coup against the regime, or – in the case of Morocco – to adapt it. In Bahrain, the opposition gained representation via the ballot boxes, yet when conditions were favorable to exploit the revolutionary climate and stage a coup, this opposition did hesitate to disable civil institutions and block the streets and public squares. In Morocco, which has witnessed the most significant political and constitutional reform process recently on the orders of King Mohamed VI, the major Islamist groups in the kingdom rushed to play down these important reforms in order to continue to exploit the climate of chaos and demonstrations.

To summarize, the angry calls for revolution in the region have failed to distinguish between the regimes that contain a degree of democracy and which are ready for reform, and the oppressive regimes that are based on tyranny and despotism such as those in Libya and Syria. This means that a serious trend towards a truly democratic model does not exist, and all we see now is radical parties and traditional powers’ exploiting the climate of anger prevailing amongst the youth in these countries.

In 2003, the Arabs rejected the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime because it came at the hands of a foreign power. Yet in 2011, the Arabs enthusiastically supported NATO’s [military] intervention, targeting Muammar Gaddafi and involving itself in the Libyan civil war. Now the Arabs are divided over their stance towards the Syrian regime, which acted in the same manner as Gaddafi [with regards to suppressing protests] but on an even larger scale. So where is the moral and ethical stance towards all that is going on [in our region]?

The aim here is not to say whether the Arabs are for or against democracy; the intellectual and cultural elites must answer these questions explicitly, and distance themselves from the current chaotic atmosphere that is clouding reality.

The late King Hassan II of Morocco [addressing his parliament] said “The type of democracy we seek is one which ensures economic prosperity, social renaissance, and a financial boost based on production and trade. We want you, honorable [parliamentary] deputies, to offer advice and recommendations. There must be give and take. Bring us your projects and programs so that the dialogue between us is fruitful, and so that there is ebb and flow…the ebb or flow alone will not bear fruit.”

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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