Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Democracy and the Fear of the Unknown | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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It is credible that the Yemeni public called upon President Ali Abdullah Saleh to stay in power, not because of the official propaganda that deemed him an irreplaceable sacred symbol and their widely loved ruler, but by virtue of an established truth that is practically tangible in the Arab arena – which is the fear of the unknown in the absence of an effective institutional infrastructure able to protect the country from instability and sedition.

The same thing happened in Egypt in 1967 when President Abdel Nasser announced he was stepping down after his terrible defeat in the war with Israel. The congregating masses ran out into the streets urging him to stay in power. These marches were not fake or preplanned as some have claimed, but neither were they spontaneous support to the nation’s leader as was stated by the official propaganda. Rather, they were an expression of the same fear of impeding change and the obscurity of its implementation, in addition to the resulting shock and fear in the face of hazy circumstances.

Upon Nasser’s death, commenting on a funeral that was attended by the masses, renowned French journalist Jean Lacouture wrote, “It is unprecedented in history that such large masses gather to attend the funeral of a vanquished leader…It is compelling that people cry with such bitterness and pain over a man who three years ago led them to defeat. In the West, defeated leaders commit suicide but in the East they are bid farewell with flowers and tears.” What Lacouture didn’t realize was that the people’s attachment to Nasser was more out of a desperate adherence to dreams and aspirations that he symbolized – even if he failed to achieve them.

A manifestation of the same phenomenon is the ease with which incumbent leaders are able to control the electoral polls, and the effortless success in renewing their self-confidence through referendums. It goes without saying that these elections mostly lack credibility and the sufficient transparency and integrity required. However, the phenomenon in and of itself (the ease with which people’s choices are steered through persuasion and coercion) clearly reveals a pattern of tacit complicity between the ruler and the ruled in securing the already established stability.

An Arab sociologist once questioned whether the Arab society required democracy or despotism as a concept, and the implication was that the demand for despotism will often override the demand for public freedoms for the Arab masses. This statement does not mean that the Arab society needs unilateral rule and a dictatorship; in fact it means that the Arab society can no longer discern a liberal and open dynamic that can stress an efficient and effective force of change.

Through history it is known that this force was formed in the European political revolution era through an overlapping between the rising bourgeois class and the intellectual elite, which crystallized into and propagated the ideas behind modernization and enlightenment.

Countries in south Europe, having successfully undergone democratic transformations in the 1970s wherein the military institution acted as an incubator for the metamorphosis following military dictatorships, which were responsible for slowing down the transition into a pluralistic democracy. The European dynamics of integration contributed to strengthening this. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, labor unions and the dissident movements of the intellectual elite led the forefront of democratic change in Eastern Europe after decades of unilateral socialism.

This was never achieved in the Arab world where ideological or political changes and movements occur on the level of identity with all the differences and intricacies involved. Prominent Lebanese thinker Ghassan Salama published an important book on the subject, addressing the reality and challenges of democracy in the early 1990s, as did many writers who tackled this same subject – but how can you achieve democracy in the Arab world without the presence of democrats?

This exceptional situation caused people to cling to the dominating status quo, adhering to what is required to maintain stability after the requirements for a peaceful democratic change proved to be unfeasible.

The large masses that congregated behind Abbas Madani and Ali Belhadj in Algeria in the early 1990s returned to rally behind the presiding President Bouteflika in hopes of saving the country from discord and discontent. Perhaps this scene will be repeated in the near future of the self-ruled Palestinians after the democratic equation suffered a terrible aftermath, especially in light of the Israeli aggression, which has succeeded in impeding all prospects and solutions on the internal political horizon.

Monitoring the limited positive indicators for democratic change in the Arab world enables us to explore two distinct mechanisms, which we can rely on to achieve the desired shift from unilateralism into multilateralism:

The first is represented by the reform steps taken by some hereditary monarchical regimes to expand the circle of political participation, opening up new scopes for dialogue and expression by virtue of the ability of these systems to absorb the shock of the transition of power. This comes as a result of the fact that the legitimacy of governing has been predetermined, which is in contradistinction to republican regimes.

The second mechanism relates to the role the military plays (which is the controlling force in the realms of governing and decision-making in all Arab republics) in achieving the desired transformation. Perhaps the current Mauritanian model can be an indicator of this transformation based on General Siwar al-Dhahab’s experience in Sudan after 20 years have elapsed.