Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Why I remain pessimistic about democracy in the Arab world | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Two weeks ago, I took the first steps in admitting my lack of hope in a democratic future for the Arab world. Instead, what our region should aspire to is the model of the tolerant elderly tribal leader or what I refer to as the kind elderly sheikh because Arab society, above all, is based on kinship and blood relations. Even if one analyses the revolutionary and intellectual movements in the region, one finds that blood relation, and not ideology, constitute the main bond that ties these movements together.

None of what I am saying is new; some time ago, I wrote an article, published in the Middle East Policy, in 1992, arguing that the history of the Arab world is full of examples demonstrating that, in any confrontation between ideology and tribal or blood affiliation, the latter will always triumph.

As an example, let us consider the relation between tribalism and Islamic ideology. I believe that, after the rule of Omar Ibn al Khattab, tribalism and kindship became the dominant force in the administration of the Muslim empire. Members of the Umayad family became involved in running the affairs of the state and were victorious in a confrontation lead by Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan, against the fourth Caliph, Ali Ibn Abi Talib. The Umayyad dynasty, based in Damascus , flourished for two centuries (661 until 750 AD) until it was defeated by members of the Abbasid clan. They ruled form Baghdad and retained power until 1258 the Monghol Emperor sacked Baghdad. Although the humanist and rational state appeared during the rule of al Mamoun and the Mutazili group, the essential bond remained the Abbasid family. The fall of the Umayyad and the rise of the Abbasid Caliphates, mark the triumph of one tribe over the other.

A further example of an empire based on blood relations is the Fatimid Caliphate, which was founded in Cairo in 969 and lasted until 1171, and the arrival of Saladin. In the capital, the Caliphs built the al Azhar mosque, the center of Shiaa tradition in the Arab world at the time. Yet the Shiaa element depended on blood relations and not ideology alone. The majority of Shaias, especially the leaders, stress the importance of blood relations above the knowledge of jurisprudence as the basis of superiority and ranking in their institutions.

When the armies of Saladin conquered Cairo , al Azhar became a Sunni institution, as a battle raged on between the Fatimid dynasty and the Kurd relatives of Saladin.

In essence, the Arab world’s past can be understood by examining the history of five major cities: Mecca , Medina , Damascus , Baghdad , and Cairo . Family formed the basis of the Umayyad rule in Damascus; the Abbasid Caliphate had its center in Baghdad , and the Ayyoubi dynasty established by Saladin ruled from Cairo . As such, blood relations have played a crucial role in Arab history since the rise of Islamic civilization.

I am aware recent graduates from different university around the world might accuse me of editing Arab history and essentializing it. I do not wish to be drawn into arguments on methodology. Suffice it to say, throughout Arab history, in any confrontation between ideology and tribe, the latter has always prevailed. This applies during the rule of Muawiya and Hafiz Assad. Even thos who followed secular ideologies, like the Baath Party in Syria, soon abandoned them and handpicked the sons as successors.

Even the Islamic movements of today, which many believe are headed by the likes of Abu Qatada or Abu Dardaa and others like them, are based on bloods relations: Abboud al Zomar and his first cousin Tariq al Zomar, Mahmoud Islambouli and his brother Khaled Islambouli who killed President Anwar Sadat, and Mohammed Atef a relative of Osama bin Laden, Mamoun al Hodeiby and Hassan and Hodeiby are mere examples of the importance of kinship. The perpetrators of the attacks on U.S cities and London were also closely related; members of the same family also carried out the latest bombing in Tahrir Square in Cairo. What are the implications of this closeness for democracy in the Arab World?

Democracy, as the product of modern society where citizens are related based on intellectual affiliation, is currently on display in the Western world and reflected in its institutions. In weaker societies, these institutions intermingle with blood relations. This type of democracy where individuals are affiliated by choice and not blood ties or tradition is unlikely to emerge in the Arab world, a region where family ties prevail and modernity has yet to appear.

High hopes for democracy in the Arab world ought to center on the realization of a democracy, which accepts difference and the various ruling tribes, such as in Iraq, where the Kurds balance out the Shia in the South and the Sunni in the center of the country. The best model of democracy in the Arab world is that of the tolerant, elderly tribal leader who allows other tribes to take part in the decision making process.

Such is the history of the Arabs and such is the logic that has ruled that part of the world for thousands of years. The search for a woman ruler is nothing but self- deception. In Iraq, the best outcome would be the creation of an administration where minorities and tribes have a say.

Attempts to apply the western democratic experience to the Arab world are bound to fail; they form part of a romantic vision in the world of politics, which admits none.