North Africa, West Asia

Middle East mix of feudal and dictatorial systems

The political future of the region is unclear, because it depends on the evolution of different political systems. What degree of secularisation/Islamism will these societies allow?

Cristina Casabón
26 June 2015
 Tahrir Square during Egypt's Revolution. Mohamed Mostafa/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Tahrir Square during Egypt's Revolution. Mohamed Mostafa/Demotix. All rights reserved.

“Lift your heads up high. You are Egyptians!”

This was the demonstrators’ cry in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring. The response from other parts of the square came in repeated bursts of “Allah-hu-Akbar!” (God is great.) Tahrir Square, in the center of downtown Cairo, had become a microcosm of Egyptian society, a common ground where Egyptians from all walks of life came together to embrace a new future without octogenarian dictator Hosni Mubarak. This common ground, however, did not last.

Since 2011, early optimism about the Arab Spring has given way to uncertainty. The Midde East today is torn between radicalism and globalism in its search for a new identity. The Arab political landscape is varied, and the future of the entire region is being defined as some of these societies integrate incipient democratic and western ideas and values. Meanwhile, sectarianism and religious fundamentalism is increasing in countries such as Iraq and Syria. All this is interconnected in a dynamic, living organism: the Middle East.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, democracy in the region has been weakened. The Economist’s 2014 “Democracy Index” indicates that “the Middle East...recorded a very modest improvement in [its] regional average scores between 2006 and 2014, but from very low bases indeed, and democracy...weakened between 2013 and 2014. No region in the world has experienced more turbulence in recent years.”

Yet the Arab Spring showed the world a visible increase in the number of citizens of Arab countries who identified themselves as “citizens of the world,” typified by urban intellectuals and internet savvy young people who led social media campaigns critical to the organisation of protests, and to the international diffusion of information and images capturing government repression.

But the “Arab Spring” led to an “Arab Winter”, with wide-scale violence and instability. The violent eruptions in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and the continued sectarian conflict in Iraq, especially with the rise of ISIS, have exacerbated the deterioration of incipient democratic institutions. Cosmopolitan movements struggle with the Islamists, on one side, and dictatorial military or monarchical regimes on the other.

The history of political transition in the Middle East is filled with false starts. Some political analysts believe that after this dark period of dictatorships and radicalism, the Arab world would find a new path to modernisation without foreign imposition, while others believe that the region must adopt and adapt western models.

Elza S. Maalouf, author of Emerge: The Rise of Functional Democracy and the Future of the Middle East, writes, “western abstract values and ideals have no real-world connection to the history and living conditions of the people in the Middle East, and thus created sadly dysfunctional forms of governance.”

Scholars like her believe that successful democratic systems cannot be based on alien western value systems. They must instead respond to the unique intellectual and social contexts of Arab nations, and may therefore look quite different. Think tanks, not to mention governments and NGOs, often ignore this argument when they make recommendations that overlook the living conditions and social norms that produce social values. The short-term future of the region might not look as bright and euphoric as Tahrir Square did on the day Mubarak was ousted.

Maalouf writes that the Middle East and Africa is immersed in three different stages. The ­”purple tribal” stage of development, where the group is more powerful than the individual, and individual decision making may lead to retribution and exclusion. The “red dictatorships”—Egypt, under the military rule, and Syria, under the rule of a second generation Assad—where leaders are interested in personal gain, power and domination. And the “blue level”, also described as “the Truth Force”, which is organised around an absolutist belief in the ‘correct way’ requiring obedience to authority, represented by the Islamic Sharia.

Is it possible for the Arab world to advance through these stages, embracing a new political system? The idea of this book is that after decades of building purple, red and blue structures, a culture is ready to transition beyond to a fourth level; a new and more complex individualistic level, much more complex and, according to the author, completely different.

New ways of addressing the complexities of life must emerge. Is it possible for the Arab world to develop a “democratic” political system without challenging Shari'a or Islamic values? Philippe d’Iribarne in L’Islam Devant La Démocracie declares that if the success of a democracy depends on pluralism, diversity of ideas, and discussion, then Islam and democracy cannot be reconciled. He believes that Maalouf’s transitions cannot take place as long as religion is the foundation of Arab government and society, because a strong Islamic influence forces political debate to fall into the logical trap of argumentum ad verecundiam, associating authority (especially religious) with truth, which invalidates opposing points of view.

Pluralism has not taken root in the contemporary Muslim world, due to the Islamic nature of these countries, according to the author’s ideas. Yet, as we see in Egypt and Syria, secularism also exists in authoritarian forms of government. Secular dictatorships will also not allow pluralism. Because of its dominant nature, there is no place for discussion, and opposition can only be expressed through coups or revolts.

The political future of the region is unclear, because it depends on the evolution of different political systems. What degree of secularisation/Islamism will these societies allow? In Egypt, for example, the crowds in Tahrir Square that ousted Mohammed Morsi were supposedly even larger than the ones that ousted Mubarak, so the Muslim Brotherhood may realise that their values no longer serve Egyptians.

Tunisia, the country in the region most inclined toward democracy, is not pursuing the traditional western understanding of institutional democracy. Instead, it combines elements of religion and politics. There is resistance to western-style politics and institutions, and Islamic law is forcefully present in parliament. With the overthrow of Ben Ali’s regime, Islamism was reintroduced in politics and was popular among the general population.

However, there remains a strong secular minority in Tunisia. As a former French colony, Tunisia and its leaders were heavily influenced by laïcité and small elements thereof are seen in the newly adopted constitution of 2014.

The establishment of a representative democracy with freedom of speech and expression was one of the main goals of the Arab uprising. It is necessary to implement a pluralistic system in which both secular and Islamic values can emerge. The development of a political system that allows for opposition or competition between a government and its opponents is typical of western-style democracies. 

So, which form of governance serves as the best model to manage the complexity of the Mideast? How can Arabs create an Arab-style democracy that is more suited for them? In the meantime, in the Mideast, Islam is complemented by charismatic leaders, creating a mix of the dictatorial and blue systems previously described. In a region where the political systems are embedded in tribal and feudal mindsets, how can a new political model emerge and be a guide to the region?

A democratic system that develops pluralism and new values is unlikely to be embraced in the short term, but the era of dictatorships and supremacy of religion is only a passing developmental stage along the journey towards the formation of a new political model. 

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