Democratic reform in the Arab world: mirages and realities

Fred Halliday
9 June 2005

The issue of political reform in the Arab world has over recent months acquired a new importance for two quite different reasons: in the United States and Europe because of the newfound enthusiasm of the Bush administration for change in the middle east, in the Arab world itself because of a range of developments – from elections in Iraq and Palestine, to the mobilisations against the Syrian presence in Lebanon, to moves by such regimes as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to alter their constitutional procedures.

No one can know where this “Arab spring” will go, and indeed if it is a spring at all. It would be premature either to assume, or regard as impossible, that US policy will have an impact: as Marxists long recognised, imperialism has contradictory effects. What is, however, lacking from much of this debate, whether in the west or in the middle east, is a realistic analysis of why Arab states are lacking in democracy, and of how the situation in each particular state relates to broader contexts: history, the regional background, and the international situation. All play an important part in explaining, and limiting, what can happen within particular Arab countries.

Putting Arabs at the centre

The place to start this discussion is emphatically not Washington: the administration’s rhetoric about change in the middle east lacks either analytical or moral substance, and is yet another example of the prevalence of one shallow policy fashion after another on the banks of the Potomac. After all these are the same people who came into office in 2000 saying “We do not do nation-building”.

Neither the neo-conservative proponents of change, nor their liberal counterparts, such as the much-overrated Thomas Friedman, show any knowledge of the history or context of middle-eastern politics. The region, in their view, has been “isolated” from global trends and has been “resistant” to reform: however, anyone with the slightest knowledge of the region would know that, on the contrary, it has long experienced one episode after another of political transformation.

Indeed there have been movements of reform in the middle east for many decades – from the Ottoman tanzimat of 1839-76 and the Iranian constitutional revolution of 1906 to socialist and populist Arab revolutions in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and Yemen.

Current western talk about middle-eastern reform also ignores two elementary aspects of political sociology. First, the kind of state that exists in the middle east today is a product not of some cultural or endogenous process, but of the formation of states, as administrative and coercive entities, in an international context, of military intervention, ideological turmoil, cold war, oil extraction in the years since the collapse of the Ottomans in 1918.

As much as is Osama bin Laden, the middle-eastern states, including Israel, are a product of recent international history and above all the cold war. This is not a question of placing sole responsibility on the west, but rather of recognising how these states came to be what they are, who supported them and shaped them, and why.

The second dimension of political sociology that is ignored in the “Arab reform” debate is the very history of western democratisation itself: this did not come about through elections alone, or through quick changes, but took decades, and often wars and civil wars, to bring about.

A very different starting-point, more exigent and more informed, is provided by the work of a group of Arab intellectuals, working on these issues through the United Nations: the third of their Arab Human Development Reports (AHDR) was published recently and received its European launch at the Elcano Royal Institute for International and Security Studies in Madrid on 25 May.

Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, the head of the Arab team and a former Jordanian minister, explained that the Arab world, seen in the context of global trends since 1980, is failing badly. The figures are stark: 32 million people suffer from undernourishment; despite oil revenues, per capita income has grown slower than anywhere else; and there are 65 million illiterates, two-thirds of them women. Moreover, regional conflicts, notably Iraq and Palestine, feed extremist tendencies; and Arab states, which the report compares to “black holes”, continue to deny political freedom, and broader forms of life opportunity, to their people.

The report was delayed for several months, because of United States concern over its passages on Palestine, and the objections of some Arab states to criticism of their regimes, but enough remains in the text for the arguments to be clear.

The measured approach of the AHDR combines an awareness of regional, cultural and political precedents for democracy with a comparative perspective that dramatically highlights its poor indicators in the fields of education, income and governance. Both these features, the regional and the comparative, invite further discussion.

Fred Halliday is visiting professor at Cidob Barcelona. This article is based on his speech as part of the panel presenting the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) at the Elcano Royal Institute for International and Security Studies in Madrid on 25 May.

The citation of Islamic and Arab nationalist thinkers, and liberal reworkings of sharia law, may appear to concede too much to what has become another political fashion of the age, “the dialogue of cultures”. Such a dialogue, if it serves education, mutual understanding and peace, must be welcome. However, above all in a document published by the UN, it runs a risk of retreating from what had, for four decades hitherto, been the basis of any discussion of such issues, universality: the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and subsequent conventions on political, social, economic and gender rights were justified in universal terms and by reference to universal history, and authority.

At the same time, the analysis of the middle east in terms of general indicators may obscure some things that are specific to the region. Much has been made of the low number of foreign-language books recorded as translated into Arabic: this is said to be an index of how introverted, and culturally isolated, the region is. But the problem – as I can confirm from personal experience – is less a resistance to translating than a resistance to paying royalties. Many more books than are officially recorded are translated into Arabic from western languages. I recall once debating this matter on al-Jazeera TV with a famous Egyptian publisher and bookseller, a popular hero in his country, Matbouli. “Copyright is imperialism!” he cheerfully told me as I asked for royalties on his translation of my book.

A similar revision may be in order in regard to the assessments published in the AHDR on popular attitudes to “politicians”. This term, used as an index of trust or distrust in government, may be the appropriate term in Latin America, Europe or Africa, but in the middle east it combines two different categories of people. On one side are ministers and parliamentarians, who may be little more than passive tools of the state; on the other are those have real power to rule and appropriate society’s resources – members of the ruling families, whether royal (Saudi, Kuwaiti, Qatari, Moroccan) or presidential (Egyptian, Libyan, Tunisian, Yemeni, Syrian).

It is the families of rulers, not “politicians”, who hold power and take their percentage of state money in these societies: conventionally it can be assumed that around one third of all state revenues is pocketed by the ruler and his relatives and close associates, a category of expenditure that US embassies politely term “off budget”. This, not the corruption of politicians as such, is the core malaise of middle-eastern states.

Arabs in the global lead

There is, however, one further twist to this tale of Arab “reform” and political paralysis. The Arab Human Development Report may provide a corrective to much generalised western discussion, and show how there are elements in the culture, religion and recent history of the region that are supportive of democratic change: but for the peoples who actually live in these societies the report’s value is of a different kind, namely that of confirming in clear and well-documented terms what they already instinctively know.

Rather as a doctor gives objective, scientific, form to what an individual already feels about his or her health, here cross-continental criteria and data bases offer informed reinforcement, since it is in the lived experience and expression of their views that the Arab peoples speak their minds.

In the novels of the contemporary Arab world there is much to confirm what the AHDR says about corruption, waste and lost life chances, nowhere more so than in the great trilogy about the modern Arabian peninsula, Cities of Salt by the late Abdulrahman Munif, a Saudi who lived much of his life in Damascus. In many Arab countries, including Egypt and Sudan, popular criticisms of the government find expression in popular music and poetry.

Perhaps the greatest index of Arab attitudes to their rulers lies in their humour, a pervasive if under-reported feature of the contemporary middle east where all those with power, be they heads of state or religious figures, are subjected to devastating attack.

In one Arab country they tell the story of the president who, after boring everyone to near death with a long public discourse, ordered his advisers, in future, to write brief speeches for him. Next time he came to speak he got up, opened his text, and went on for two hours. Afterwards, he angrily upbraided his staff: “I told you to write me short speeches!” “Yes, Mr President”, they replied, “but you did not have to read all five copies!” If the United Nations can one day create a quantification of political humour, a World Hilarity Index, the Arab world, plus Iran, will, on my experience at least, certainly come out as the global leaders.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData