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Democracy against social reform: the Arab Spring faces its demons

The link between ‘karamah’ and ‘al hurriyah”, the call for dignified existence and the rejection of oppression has given birth to a further crucial concept – that of the social responsibility of public authority.  This cannot be achieved by maintaining the economic polices of the old regimes. 

Albena Azmanova
16 May 2012

The Arab spring is now living in the critical interzone between Past and Future.  It is likely that democracy will have a pride of place in this future, as parliamentary and presidential elections are being scheduled and held, constitutional assemblies convened, suspended, convened again. And yet, even in the happy scenario of irreversible transition we are now witnessing in Tunesia and Egypt, there is a risk that things go wrong. The risk is that the political process, centered on the battle between Islamic and secular parties, sidetracks social change. Paradoxically, this high-jacking of the Arab Spring is performed with the means of the very democratic processes that have been so celebrated. In what follows, I will claim that the rituals of democratic politics in the aftermath of the Arab Spring are creating a defective bridge between past and future by derailing the revolutions from their original agenda of social change.

Where is the Arab Spring heading? The Muslim Brotherhood is raising the slogan: “Islam is the solution”. Contending voices urge secularism, human rights, and free markets instead. The crucial question is: the solution to what? What are the goals of the Arab Spring? Identifying these goals is necessary in order to clarify the proper grounds on which the Islamic parties that are being now propelled to power can effectively exercise this power. Most conspicuously, the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East took place in countries ruled by ferociously secular regimes. This might explain why Islamic parties are winning votes, but still does not tell us in the name of what political goals power is given to them.  

The goals of a revolution are already latent in the protest that sparked it. The Arab Spring unfolded as a widespread rejection of degrading living conditions experienced as an assault on human dignity. The precursors to the suicide of a 26-old Tunisian street vendor were the protests of exasperated workers in 2008 in the mining area of Gafsa in Tunisia, as the 2011 uprising in Egypt was preceded by the worker protests in 2006 against Mubarak’s economic policies.

The social and economic malaise that ignited the revolutions was not caused by lack of development, nor can it entirely be blamed on the corrupt nature of the ruling plutocracies. Since the 1980s, governments in the region have undertaken macroeconomic reforms that shifted wealth and power to the upper socioeconomic strata of the population. The passage to a market economy in these societies created great economic instability for the masses, as the elimination of subsidies and tariffs undermined local businesses and drove up unemployment rates despite the increase in education levels (hoards of young graduates remained unemployed). Even as the democratic political process in Tunisia now successfully unfolds (dominated by the ideological battles between Islamic and secular group, fought in elections), the social protest on the streets does not subside, and grievances are widened to include housing, job security, and state benefits. 

The language in which the grievances were expressed is highly suggestive of the nature of the protest – and thus, the nature of the new government’s mandate. These grievances were overwhelmingly expressed in the terms of violations of dignity, of ‘karamah’. In Arab culture, ‘karamah’ is a fundamentally social concept. The word is derived from karam (generosity); in this sense dignity is grounded on the capacity to give rather than receive. Violations of dignity were caused by the humiliation of degrading social conditions, and not the assault on political freedoms. Significantly, calls for ‘al hurriyah’ (non-oppression) were secondary, and related to the realization that the degrading living conditions were caused by the corrupt and oppressive ruling elites. The link between ‘karamah’ and ‘al hurriyah”, the call for dignified existence and the rejection of oppression brought in a crucial concept – that of the social responsibility of public authority. 

Thus, the original grievance that ignited the Arab Spring was not simply a grievance about poverty, or about the oppression of religious freedom, it was a grievance against irresponsible rule as a cause of social injustice. The proper goals of the Arab revolutions, therefore, is the establishment of responsible rule able to deliver social justice. Can Islamic Parties deliver this? Undoubtedly. Will they deliver it? There are good reasons to doubt that they will. 

Legality but no legitimacy

Islamic parties are in principle able to provide responsible governance aiming at the population’s wellbeing. Such a notion of responsible rule is part of the heritage of Islamic culture. Islamic literature is rich in injunctions about integrity in politics and the rejection of usurious speculation in economics; about ethical behavior, condemning cheating and corruption (as the Swiss Muslim thinker Tariq Ramadan has repeatedly commented). The Quran spells out rights intended to protect the ruled from the rulers (as the Turkish scholar Mustafa Akyol observes in his latest book[1]). Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood has demonstrated that it has a robust governance know-how. It effectively delivered social services at the grass roots level in Egypt, doing what the government failed to do – take care of its population. The Muslim Brotherhood was active in the professional syndicates and trade unions, thus gaining a reputation for competent and responsible governance. 

However, despite its ability to claim legitimacy based on responsible governance in the interests of all, the particular Islamic parties that are now being propelled to power are generally failing to do this. 

The trajectories of failure are at least three. First, they are invoking historical and religious legitimacy (that is, either that they have been persecuted by the old regimes or they stress Islam as a religion), rather than invoking the notion of responsible rule, as rooted in the broad Muslim culture, and formulating corresponding social and economic policies. When invoking religious legitimacy, they are more focused on securing the strong representation of the population as Muslims rather than creating a political economy that would alleviate social and economic injustice. 

Second, Islamic parties are betraying the revolution by maintaining the economic policies of the old regime. (See Fawaz Gerges, The new capitalists: Islamists’ political economy) As I noted, it is not just corruption and favouritism under the old regimes that brought about humiliating social conditions, but neoliberal export-oriented economic policy (which under Mubarak’s regime brought nearly a third of all Egyptians below the poverty line).  Reportedly, however, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has espoused this same policy and is suppressing internal dissent on economic policy. Khairat-el-Shater, the multimillionaire businessman and deputy-chairman of the Muslim Britherhood, promotes a version of Islam that explicitly promotes neoliberal capitalism along the lines that Mubarak implemented. Hassan Malek, speaking for the Muslim Brotherhood in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, declared that Mubarak's free-market policies were on the right track

This deviation from the original concerns of the Arab Spring channels the energy of the revolution in the wrong direction; ultimately, this would deprive the new governments of legitimacy, despite their rising to power via the mechanisms of democracy, which grants them perfect legality.

Democracy against itself

Paradoxically, it is democracy (parliamentary elections based on universal suffrage) that is the engine now undermining social reform. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, democratic, responsive rule asphyxiates responsible rule along three trajectories. 

First: Multi-party elections are expensive – they involve hiring consultants, renting office space, printing newsletters, and paying for presence in the mass media. That is why parties are often led and bankrolled by businesspeople. Thus, elections are opening the door to the dominance of powerful economic actors, who have a vested interest in preserving the economic models of the old regimes. 

Second: It is exactly the universal franchise that diverts politics away from the call for responsible power, and marginalizes the young people who issued this call. Islamic parties are effectively responding to the social grievance of poverty, as they focus their electoral discourse on the cost of food and promise better living conditions. However, the typical comments one hears at polling stations in poorer districts is that “it is ultimately in God’s hands”. The discourse that the future of the country is in God’s hands is very prominent even among moderate Islamic parties at the time of electoral mobilisation, and this discourse goes directly against the notion of responsible governance that is the genuine aim of the Arab Spring. 

There is yet a third way in which election-led revolutions are sidetracking social reform. This has to do with the fact that as parties they are competing against each other, and mobilizing particular constituencies; they must draw lines, which brings sectarianism to the fore – thus, political dynamics tend to focus on the distribution of power and access to resources, rather than on the question about the type of society which is to replace the old order. Sectarianism is as much democracy’s offspring as it is its enemy. 

These are the demons the Arab Spring now faces. However, as they still inhabit the critical interzone between past and future, the reborn societies of the region still have the enviable opportunity to set aside available models, either borrowed from the west, or found in local religious doctrines - and craft a model of their own, in terms as yet unfamiliar. 

What will work is a political programme that will focus its energies on solving the social issues that sparked the revolution and grounding a newly-established public authority on the ethos of responsible governance that the young protesters demanded. 

And it is in this sense, exactly, that the Arab Spring carries an important message to the inhabitants of the old western democracies. If we have the courage to admit that the social grievances that triggered the Arab Spring are also the injustices destroying our western societies, we wake up to one unsettling question: “Where is the revolt of the west”?


[1] Mustafa Akyol, Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, (Norton, 2012)

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