As 2005 drew to an close, it would be fair to say that it has been a decisive year for Arabs. Prominent figures have passed away naturally whilst others have been assassinated. Meanwhile, as old faces disappeared, new faces emerged. The political arena has been active and has transformed during the past twelve months.
I have chosen three events that from my perspective will have a categorical impact on the future. They are the Mauritanian military coup that toppled Ould Taya, the first multi-candidate presidential elections that took place in Egypt and the recent Iraqi elections that took place in the presence of American military and coincided with the trial of former Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein.
What links these three events may not be immediately clear as they took place in politically and geographically distinct areas. However, I do believe that the three events can be grouped together under one title: the crisis of democratic transformations in the Arab world with all its internal merits and foreign gambles.
The reserved attempts of democratization have faced two main obstacles that the Arab world knows too well. These obstacles are the inability of the ruling regimes to prepare and offer suitable grounds for the smooth transformation of power, which is the real basis of democratic behavior, and the failure of political powers to break the vicious circle of single rule regimes through peaceful struggle. The three events have reflected various indications of the same transitional course in 2005, which is what I would like to focus on here.
Apart from the well-known particularity of Mauritania, to which I refer frequently in previous articles, the 2005 military coup relays the role of the military establishment in preparation for a peaceful democratic transition. This runs contrary to the classical coalition between the dominant single party government and the military in our region. Here, the matter is largely related to a new pattern of military coups that are radically different to traditional military coups in the eastern part of the Arab world that usually lead to authoritarianism or at its best, a restricted democracy.
The Mauritanian coup resembled the situations of some African states more than Arab examples. The most similar African case was the 1991 coup in Mali, which led to a strong and comprehensive national agreement on a reform program that ensured the necessary guarantees for successful democratic transition.
With the new model of the modern “liberal army officer” of the middle class who is well exposed to the external world as opposed to the previous “revolutionary officer” of the ruling classes who was limited academically, the strong presence of the military establishment in the Arab world may support this new trend of coups. This may be the case in the future even though it is difficult to imagine a similar coup to that of Mauritania occurring in other Arab states.
The situation in Egypt is distinct as it is based on an amalgamation of internal and external factors. The internal factors were manifested in a dynamism of efforts to change, while the external was represented by increasing political and economic pressures. However, what really distinguished the Egyptian case was the inability of both the regime and the recognized opposition (including prominent and historical political parties) to maintain control in the political game as they suffered from stagnancy and erosion. Banned organizations and civil movements took advantage of this crisis, the most prominent of which is the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is true to argue that external pressures led to a partial, albeit essential change in the rules of political practice when the regime allowed for multi-candidate presidential elections. Nevertheless, that very change highlighted the paradox that is represented in the formula that separates electoral legitimacy from political legitimacy and prospers on the weakness of civil society due to the fragility of political parties and infiltration from the outside. This encouraged banned movements to make the most of the artificial political openness. The new situation became impossible to neglect or postpone as international forces have already considered the best ways to deal with it, (American administration has taken the early initiative of dialogue between it and the Muslim Brotherhood).
The Iraqi situation proposes two questions: How far would the transformation brought about by foreign intervention and occupation be successful and legitimate, and how long will pluralist democracy survive in a society that is threatened by sectarian conflict?
In response to the first question, one should realize that almost all observers of Iraq including Americans have agreed that the aim of the occupation has not been achieved and that is to re-establish (through an alliance of a Shia majority and Kurdish minority) an Iraqi state that would maintain vital American interests and address the Iraqi demands for freedom and democracy.
As for the second question, the latest indications from the recent elections (that is if we accept the contested results) are that the electoral system is not adequate and cannot resolve political dilemmas that have come about due to political divisions and factional and national polarization. Iraq’s election without real national reconciliation would become a tool of conflict used to exclude the most effective forces within the nation, all while committing to formal rules of legitimacy. This should always be considered as we deal with the difficulties of democratic transformations in the Arab world.
Happy New Year.