Why democracy in the Arab world is no foregone conclusion

One way of assessing the prospects for democracy in the Middle East is to compare this region not only with eastern Europe in the late 1980s but also with southern Europe in the mid-1970s, where aged authoritarian regimes gave way to young democracies.
Takis S Pappas
29 March 2011

When mass, anti-governmental uprisings swept the two countries, Tunisia’s president Ben Ali had to relinquish power after 24 years while, soon thereafter, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office after 30 years. As those developments set off a chain of similar social reactions in many other countries in the Arab world, many journalists, academics and other commentators compared them with the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, also expressing strong hopes for the successful establishment of democracies in the Middle East.

But then two things happened that have altered general perceptions and curbed raised hopes. The first was that, at least temporarily, the process of dictatorial regime overthrow in the Middle East has been halted. In places like Libya, Syria or Bahrain, long-lasting autocrats seem determined not to succumb to popular pressure but to cling to power by resorting to violence and, if necessary, civil war. The second – and perhaps more serious – problem is that even Tunisia and Egypt are still in tumult and highly uncertain about their political future. Tunisians cannot agree about how to dismantle the repressive laws of the previous regime and introduce a new constitution. Top officials warn that the country risks falling into anarchy. Egyptian voters have meanwhile approved a referendum (the first in Egypt’s history) on multiparty elections, which, however, has already revealed the weakness of emerging liberal forces in the country and the strength of the hitherto banned Muslim Brotherhood party. What all this is telling us is that democracy in the Middle East, rather than a foregone conclusion, may still be a highly uncertain prospect. Why should that be the case?

One way of assessing the prospects for democracy in the Middle East is to compare this region not only with eastern Europe in the late 1980s but also with southern Europe in the mid-1970s (including Italy in the mid-1940s), where aged authoritarian regimes gave way to young democracies. In both European regions, respective countries shared three features that, alas, are absent from today’s Middle East.

The first feature is that, however brief or distant, the societies in both southern and eastern Europe had at the time of regime change some past experience of democracy. In Greece, the military regime remained in power for only seven years and so the memory of democracy had not even faded. Portugal and Spain may have spent 41 and 36 years respectively under authoritarian rule but their societies kept treasured memories from older democratic experiences dating back to the nineteenth century. In the new states that emerged after WWI in eastern Europe, democracy had been episodic, ineffective and stillborn. Only Czechoslovakia had a record of relatively stable democracy between 1918 and Nazi occupation. And yet, when communism crumbled, the experience of previous democratic phases proved valuable, in that it provided symbolic capital for emerging individual actors and political parties alike. In both southern and eastern European societies, moreover, when dictatorships fell, societies demanded democracy and nothing less than democracy. Sure, there was a host of other demands and issues raised but those were subsumed under the chief popular demand that was for building strong and durable democratic institutions.

The second feature is the availability of democratic political leadership. When their own ancient régimes fell, in southern and eastern Europe political elites were already available with a commitment to carry out democratization. In the former region, first, Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi, Greece’s Constantine Karamanlis, and Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Adolfo Suarez knew well that democracy was the only way out of post-authoritarian disorder, and relentlessly pursued it. Even in Portugal, where regime change was triggered by an army revolution, moderate political leaders like Mario Soares were able to hold the rein and safely steer the country to democracy. Eastern Europe has not displayed such an exemplary array of democratic leaders but there still emerged prominent individuals who worked with intent and design for democracy. Two types of such leaders are worth mentioning: former well-known dissidents (like Poland’s Lech Walesa and Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel) and former communists-turned-democrats (as in such cases as Romania’s Ion Iliescu and Bulgaria’s Petar Mladenov). Both types of leaders played important roles in charting new ways to democratic politics in their respective countries and fending off rear-guard attacks from old regime remnants.

The third feature of southern and eastern European transitions to pluralism is the support received by those fledgling democracies from the outside world, particularly Europe. As long as southern European authoritarianism and eastern European communism were alive, they were fought against as foes of liberal democracy and as representing real dangers to it. Once pluralism resurfaced, the rest of Europe readily supported the new adherents to liberal democracy with political solidarity, financial aid programmes, and, most crucially, the prospect of integration into the wider democratic European Community. Despite the many complaints heard in Europe today about the difficulties undergone by formerly authoritarian or communist countries putting their houses in order to accelerate European unification, one thing remains beyond doubt: that, for European integration to occur, Europe had first to become fully democratic and this remains a great achievement.

In contrast, the Arab world lacks all three features. Firstly, it lacks a memory of functioning democracy; its past experience is about autocrats ruling through family-member appointments in key state positions, top-heavy armed forces, and omnipresent state security services. Moreover, if one listens carefully to the demonstrating crowds, they are not unanimous in demanding democracy above all. Depending on national or local circumstances, they raise demands that are perhaps more vital to their individual survival than democracy – unemployment, food price inflation and poverty, religious and ethnic differences, police repression and brutality, minority status, political corruption.

Secondly, in the Arab world there is a dearth of democratic political leadership. Protesters may have toppled governments but they did not provide new leaders. In Tunisia, the experiment of rupture with the Ben Ali regime by one of his former associates, Mohamed Ghannouchi, was an almost instant failure. On the other hand, the case of Egypt’s Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and previous government critic, simply shows that merely appealing to democratic values is not enough to command significant political support.

Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, the Arab world lacks at the moment the west’s active support that is necessary for building democracy, in part because of fear that democracy may bring Islamists to power and in part because there is not for the time being a coherent plan of action. At present, while the west is busy fighting against Gaddafi in Libya, chances are that it will continue losing Arab hearts and minds. Its only way of winning these would have been to remake its commercial ties with the Middle East, which have weakened over recent decades to China’s advantage, to press harder for a solution to the Arab-Israeli impasse and, above all, to help those countries that have already overthrown dictatorships to devise and implement a realistic plan of political reform.

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