The Arab World and Democracy
13 June, 2013
By Fadi Elhusseini
The Arab Spring sorely hit the Middle East in the cores as popular uprisings landed in Tunisia then Egypt, Libya followed suit after Yemen, yet the course was doomed to reprieve as it stuck in Syria, bringing the issue of democracy in the Arab region to the fore. Enthusiasm toward a 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.
Nevertheless, the opposition sparked a new spate of demonstrations aiming to either topple or obstruct and 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 rule for long. In an attempt to keep readers abreast, this article will try to articulate 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." 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. 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 definite 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 to alternate ancient Monarchies where kings and Emperors reserved the rule and when moribund, transferred their crowns to their heirs, even if the latters are ineligible. 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, embedding the concept of "the better to rule".
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 Osman I. dynasty). 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 yank the Sultan or the Emir out. 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 have "assigned" governments in the Arab societies that resembled their democratically "elected" governments. In 1992, Bernard Lewis referred to this fact 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."
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 big hope on democracy, the way it is practiced and implemented in the West. As such, calls for adopting Western or Turkish or 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 intact. 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 internal par excellence.
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 neither the orange revolutions nor the Prague Spring would have succeeded in turning the societies in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into democratic states without suitable environment in their communities. In her attempt to compare between these 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."
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 history 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 its own experience until 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 ensuring better results.
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 disenchant, vitiate and render ineffective the implications and deformities caused by their infamous dictators and hence develop their own democracies. In an antithesis to prevalent views and assessments detracting from the connotation of the present upheavals in the Arab world, I believe that such transformations are nothing but 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 last and dawdles, the more susceptible resources, moderation, enthusiasm and hope are to depletion. The current Syrian turmoil is just one case in point.