Friday, February 25, 2011

After the Revolt: The Four Stages of Arab Democracy

Despite the claims that there is an "Arab democracy deficit" and that Islam and democracy "don't mix," we can already see in less than a few weeks that the beginnings of a democratic transition is taking place in the Arab world. We need, of course, to be extremely cautious about predicting where this "Arab spring" will lead. However, we can divide democratization in the Arab world into 4 stages. While these stages are not discrete, since they can overlap, each one poses certain challenges for the future.

The Arab world is currently in the first stage of democratization - ridding the region of its tyrants. So far, the results are impressive. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was gone in a month, and Husni Mubarak was ousted in two weeks. Most Arab leaders who have not been forced from office have made at least some concessions, whether deciding not to seek office again or enacting long overdue reforms.

Stage two involves writing new constitutions and electoral laws and moving towards fair and free elections. This stage is just beginning in Tunisia and Egypt. At least in Egypt, the signs are very positive. Prominent intellectuals have been appointed to important positions in the committee tasked with suggesting constitutional reforms. Tariq al-Bishri, a well known scholar of Egyptian nationalism and Islamist movements, has been appointed head of the committee to rewrite the constitution. A former state court judge, he seeks to end the emergency laws and military rule. A Coptic Christian judge, Sami Yusef, and a Muslim Brother and lawyer, Sobhi Saleh, are also part of this committee.

Already the committee has called for reducing the term of president to four years and imposing a two term limit on the office. This demonstrates rapid and important progress in Egypt. A number of the new ministers in the Egyptian government likewise point to democratic change. Dr. Gouda Abdel-Khalek, a close friend and one of Egypt's most prominent economists, has been appointed Minister of Welfare. Dr. Abdel-Khalek is a member of the left-leaning Tagammu' Party which, despite its secular orientation, has defended the Muslim Brotherhood from government repression in the past.

While the Mubarak regime consistently denied, from the mid-1990s, permission to the "Moderate Party" (hizb al-wasat) to form, the new Egyptian government has approved the party's petition for a license. As a number of analysts have noted, the Wasat Party is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. But this comment misses the point. The party counts among its founding members a Christian. It derives its name from the Prophet Muhammad's emphasis in the Qur'an on moderation in all life's affairs, hence the name Moderate Party. The leadership has indicated that, if the membership wants to elect a Christian as party head, that would be acceptable.

In Tunisia, demonstrators continue to protest the inclusion in the Interim Government of members from the former Ben Ali regime. A new Higher Political Reform Commission, headed by the prominent and widely respected lawyer, Yadh Ben Achour, is trying to decide whether to amend the existing constitution of create a new one. Meanwhile, demonstrators continue to protest the retention of the last member of the former Ben Ali regime, Mohammed Ghannouchi, who continues to serve as prime minister.

At the same time, both Egypt and Tunisia continue to be ruled by decree. In Egypt, the military under the head of Mubarak's Defense Minister, Muhammad Hussein al-Tantawi, and in Tunisia, the Speaker of Parliament, Fouad al-Mebazaa, possess dictatorial powers.

Still, Iraq points to the benefits of democratization. Despite the very unfortunate killing of demonstrators by security forces in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq, protesters are not calling for the overthrow of the system, as they are elsewhere in the Arab world, but for better services and accountability. In other words, the demonstrators show support for democracy but not for their current political leadership.

Stage three will come after the new elections, promised to be held in Tunisia, later this year or early next year. Here questions of national identity, political participation, individual liberty, and human rights will come to the fore. Will Islamists be allowed to participate in politics? Will women's rights be fully protected, both de jure and de facto? Will secularists and Islamists, old and young, Muslims and Christians, rich and poor be able to find common ground in an accepted definition of political community? Will tolerance and pluralism assume a dominant role as core political values in the new post-election polities?

Much will depend on the good will of Tunisians and Egyptians from all political ideologies and walks of life. In Iraq, we have seen that, while tensions exist between secularists and Islamists, thus far they have been able to co-exist, albeit sometimes uncomfortably. But young people throughout the Arab world, who seem less enamored of ideology than personal freedom, may actually provide the political clout that forces their elders to approach politics in a more tolerant manner.

Perhaps educators, historians, and artists can play a greater role here by using their talents, whether through history textbooks, films or other media, to recall the nationalist uprisings of an earlier era, such as the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, and the Iraqi Revolution of 1920, in which all segments - Muslims, Christians and Jews, men and women, the young and old - helped forge a sense of national identity. Democratic activists in the Arab world and the larger Middle East have yet to fully evoke the power of historical memory.

The fourth stage will require addressing the problem of social democracy. Egypt, for example, will need to create 250,000 jobs each year if it is to just keep pace with population growth. Unemployment is endemic throughout the Middle East, especially among youth.

We know that youth comprise 65% of the population in most countries of the Middle East. This "youth bulge" will continue for the next two decades. Free elections and the right of political expression will fall on deaf ears if there are no jobs and youth continue to feel that there is no hope for the future. The recent arrival of over 4000 Tunisian "boat people" in Sicily, most of them youth, indicates that democratic freedoms alone will not solve the problems of the Arab world and the larger Middle East.

The European Union is concluding a favorable new trade treaty with Tunisia in the hopes of stemming a large flow of refugees to the shores of the northern Mediterranean The UN, US, and EU, working together with prosperous Muslim majority countries, such as Turkey, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, should work to address the problems associated with this last phase of democratization. If the new democracies are to be consolidated, they will need outside assistance. Those countries in the West and elsewhere that support democracy should not view what's occurring in the Arab world as a "spectator sport."

The Arab world is on the cusp of a possible sea change in its internal politics. The forces of democracy there need external support. Democracy flourishes when its enjoys a supportive political culture. "Democracy without bread" is a recipe for radical elements to manipulate politics with an aim of suppressing hard won freedoms and imposing authoritarian rule. We only need remember the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi Party in 1933 after a lengthy period of economic suffering by the German people.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Prof. Davis, I am reading with great interest your comments on the developments in the Arab world. But I think without the experience of party politics those regime changes are still very fragile and I am afraid from this transformations will benefit again the insiders, since the opposition does not have a rationale to be united now. I agree with you that US and EU should help them, but given that they are both in trouble it will be hard to provide carrots for all of these Arab countries.