Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Global Politics

Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Democracy in the Middle East?

Following the tradition of past successful Symposiums, editors of Global Politics decided to focus this time on recent popular uprisings in the Arab World. There are not many issues in contemporary international politics that are so dynamically developing and vigorously debated as this one. Thanks to the global media we were able to watch the overthrow of (so far) two authoritarian regimes, but the impact of these events on regional and global politics is yet to be seen. By addressing various Middle East specialists with diverse backgrounds and institutional affiliations such as London School of Economics and Political Science, John Hopkins University or American University of Beirut, we would like to contribute a little to the debate and hopefully bring attention of our readers to less known aspects of these dramatic events. What are the most important overlooked factors that were crucial for the development of the Arab Spring? What are the prospects of transition in Egypt and Tunisia?

It is our great pleasure to publish the answers of Sheila Carapico, Marek Čejka, Katarina Dalacoura, Jack A.Goldstone, Hilal Khashan, Fred H. Lawson, Karim Mezran and Yezid Sayigh.

GP questions:

  1. In your opinion, what is the most overlooked event or factor in the revolutionary Arab world that deserves to be mentioned and is of the utmost importance for the future development?
  2. Do you think that democracy will be a viable option in Egypt and Tunisia after the revolutionary spring in the Arab world settles down?

Authors provided the answers during May 2011.

Jack A. Goldstone

George Mason University; Virginia E. and John T. Hazel Jr. Professor of Public Policy, Center for Global Policy; Director

  1. The most overlooked factor is the global context – the number of democracies in the world has been growing steadily every decade since the 1960s, and democracy has spread to every continent.  Democratic regimes were ‚overdue‘ in the Middle East, given the levels of income, education, and communication in these societies, and the global trend bodes well for what we can expect in the Middle East.  By this trend, at least some countries should emerge as democracies.
  2. Yes, especially in Tunisia which has the advantages of being more homogenous, smaller, and more educated. The road to democracy will probably be bumpy – we can expect swings back toward authoritarianism, struggles with corruption, and some social conflicts, much like in eastern Europe or Ukraine.  But ten years from now, Tunisia and Egypt should be democracies.  In both countries the biggest challenge will be addressing persistent poverty.

Sheila Carapico

University of Richmond, American University in Cairo; Professor of Political Science and International Studies

  1. It is hardly surprising that the most overlooked dimension of the Arab spring has been action at the neighborhood level.  That it has been overlooked is unsurprising because international reporters and even national personalities are least likely to see what is going on in small neighborhoods and even on streetcorners: neighborhood watch committees, community street-cleaning brigades, and small-scale demonstrations or localized strikes in districts at workplaces. Now that the large-scale protests in Egypt are „on hold,“ the real action is on this micro-level.  Therefore, the prospect for civic activism to carry forth the democratization process also rest with the grassroots.
  2. The answer to the second question is interwoven with the first. Democracy will be possible if and to the extent that it engages the grassroots in the project.  It will not be possible for military officers, the business class, and middle aged political actors to forge democracy without engagement of the sha'ab and the shebab.

Katerina Dalacoura

London School of Economics; Lecturer in International Relations

  1. Between the hype on the role of social media and the scaremongering on political Islam, an important aspect of the revolts has been overlooked: the ardent nationalist feelings which inspired, at the very least, the demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt. The sea of Egyptian flags in Tahrir Square was remarkable. Although it is unfashionable to think about it, the revolts demonstrate the power of nationalism in the region. Pointing this out is important in itself but it also has implications about political analysis and, ultimately, policy making. In the case of Bahrain, for example, if the nationalist loyalty of the Shia is questioned, the ability of Iran to interfere internally and skew events can be exaggerated.
  2. Democracy is not something that is there, or not. We are always talking about matters of degree. Yes, democratic change in Egypt and Tunisia will occur and their political systems will improve, in the sense of being more open and accountable and less arbitrary. Egypt and Tunisia have sufficiently strong institutions to hold their societies together and uphold the rule of law. However, existing elites will be difficult to dislodge and, more importantly, their habits hard to change. A lot will depend on economic reform and social change. The overthrow of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes was a momentous event so what follows will be, inevitably, an anti-climax.

Karim Mezran

Johns Hopkins University; Adjunct professor of Middle East Studies, Center for American Studies, Rome; Director

  1. I think that we cannot talk about revolutions, at least not yet. We can only talk about revolts because of the lack of revolutionary outcomes so far. Nevertheless, what has happened carries two revolutionary consequences. After long time, the Arab street has reappeared and the Arab population has proved that they can risk their life for values such as freedom, respect and dignity. Secondly, after many years of standing by dictators, no matter how bad they were, the United States has shown a change of heart in so far as they will not stand by the regimes who oppress their people with violence and blood.  
  2. Of course, although I think that more than the realizations of democracy per se, what we are going to witness is a long and difficult process of liberalization, that is the progressive acquisition of rights by the masses from the state. How long this process will be and how difficult it is easy to imagine. Nevertheless, I deeply believe that this is exactly what has begun in this past winter. Especially in Egypt, we are going to see finally the entrance into the political arena of a party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood. This will break the deadlock started in the ‘50s between the secular authoritarian state and the popular Islamist movements.

Fred H. Lawson

Mills College; Professor of Government

  1. Crucial to the outbreak and success of revolutionary uprisings across the Arab world is the relationship between the organized labor movement and the regime.  There can be little question that the activities of industrial workers in Egypt over the last few years laid the foundation for the events of January-February 2011. At a minimum, steps taken by workers to defy the authorities and set up unofficial trade unions provided a model and an inspiration for the students who organized the demonstrations in Tahrir Square—this is obvious from the name that was adopted by the primary student group.  It is even more likely that connections between the strikes and protests carried out by workers all across the country merged with the marches in Cairo and Alexandria to generate a challenge that looked threatening enough to persuade the military high command to abandon the president and his inner circle in the National Democratic Party.  How exactly these dynamics occurred remains to be explored. 
  2. Why liberal democracies sometimes succeed in supplanting autocratic regimes in poorer countries remains largely unknown.  One major factor seems to be a moderate level of economic development, which Tunisia is approaching but Egypt has not yet reached.  Another is a country's prior experience with party politics and popular elections, which is much greater in Egypt than in Tunisia.  In both countries, the major Islamist organizations have pledged to play by the rules of the electoral game, while radical groups that reject liberal institutions have been crushed.  If the Muslim Brothers of Egypt and the Awakening party in Tunisia follow through on their promises, politics based on routine popular voting may indeed take root.  Such elections are likely to produce outsomes that displease the governments of Europe and America, not to mention Israel, but we will have to hope that the days when London and Washington actively undercut such nationalist leaderships as Iran's Muhammad Musaddiq have at last ended.

Hilal Khashan

American University of Beirut; Professor of Political Studies

  1. There is no question that Arab publics are angry at their ruling elites and want to see them go. Decades of  ill-governance seem to have finally had their toll on the people. Arab uprisings are occurring as natural phenomena after decades of despotic rule, economic stagnation, loss of direction and lack of horizon. One of the main problems of Arab uprisings is the absence of specific demands, not to mention an agenda for change. The protesters have no leaders to follow and no program of action to pursue. Arabs are seething with frustration and anger; they want change, but it seems they have no vision beyond ousting their tyrannical rulers. Arab societies are segmented; the social forces that seek change are not of one persuasion. The greatest fear is that they will turn against each other once they embark upon the daunting task of building a new political system.
  2. Democracy is the ultimate goal of Arab protesters. There is a big difference between aspiring democracy and installing it. There is absolutely no question that Egyptians and Tunisians want their countries to have workable democratic systems. The institution of democracy is a long term process that requires, among other things, instilling in the minds of people democratic values and behaviors. What we are currently observing in Egypt and Tunisia is the laying out of the first building block in the very tall edifice of democracy. There are many challenges lying ahead and the road to democracy is bumpy and can be quite unpredictable. The transition to democracy takes generations to institute and one should not expect it to take root overnight.

Yezid Sayigh

King's College London; Professor of Middle East Studies

  1. A very large part of media attention and academic analysis of the “Arab Spring” has focused on youth, and on the information and communications technologies they use to mobilize and organize. However, what is overlooked is the older generation of former activists who acquired critically important political and organizational skills during previous decades of opposition to authoritarian governments. Many have shaken off the legacy of brutality and imprisonment to renew their role, which is likely to become increasingly important: first, because the old regimes were deeply entrenched and the democratic transition is far from complete, and second because the revolutionary surge now faces huge problems of dealing with unemployment, massive poverty, and other challenges of social and economic development.
  2. Egypt and Tunisia are the most likely among the Arab states to experience a deepening democratic transition, because they both have strong state legacies, relatively homogeneous societies, and sizeable educated middle classes. The old regimes were deeply entrenched, however, and the former security establishment (intelligence agencies, interior ministries, police) remain intact, and their resistance to further democratization will increase every day. This may also be supported by the senior commands of the national armies, and possibly also the conservative Islamists. Conversely, the recent revolutions have generated new political and social forces, including growing labour movements, which will continue to push for greater reform and genuine democracy. These two trajectories will come into growing tension, and so the real crisis of these systems still lies ahead.

Marek Čejka

The Institute of International Relations, Prague; Researcher

  1. In my opinion, it’s lack of information on the context. Media often stress the causes such as “economic situation”, “food prices”, “dissatisfaction with current leaders” etc. This view is very simplifying and the context of current developments is much more complex. Desire for justice and freedom isn’t limited to the Western world. In this respect, we don’t talk about the fact that the desire of Arabs (and Middle Eastern inhabitants in general) for life in freedom and dignity in the Arab world has started a long time ago – at the turn of 19th and 20th century, as Arab nationalism constituted and during the WWI when Arab Revolt emerged (1916). Freedom and dignity nevertheless remain out of reach until now. Before the WWII, this was mainly caused by Britain and France who gained control over the Middle East in order to pursue their own interests and set local ethnic groups and religions against each other. After the WWII, the Cold War divided the Middle East into the spheres of influence and the region became a battleground of the Cold War. At the same time, they also created an environment for the development of autocracies as well as status quo that persists until nowadays.

It was of course much more complicated, but given such a limited space, I would sum it up as follows. I certainly don’t want to say that the Arabs and their political leaders didn’t make many mistakes, but it is important to bear in mind that in the 20th century, it was practically impossible to stand up to technological superiority and political methods of Britain and France and subsequently of the USA and the Soviet Union. These countries were mostly concerned with their own interests and viewed freedom and dignity of Middle Eastern inhabitants as a very selective and purposive issue. For them, it was often more advantageous to support Middle Eastern autocracies than democratic methods of governance. The issue of today is to overcome this heritage and long-term status quo.

Last but not least, Western information on current developments also insufficiently stressed that Arab societies are much more complicated today than we are aware of due to deep-rooted schemes: Islamists – uneducated people – corrupt elite. Arab world is much more structured and there is a very influential group of people (often young and educated) who long for similar values that we do.

  1. Yes. Arab democracy is one of the varieties that can prevail in these countries. I use the term „Arab“ on purpose, because if it’s established, it will be different from ours in many aspects (even though most of the essential elements may remain identical with the concept of Western democracy). It may be nonetheless much closer to the religious, tribal, ethnic and other traditions of the Arab world. It may also be much more critical towards the Western world and results of its policies in the Middle East, it may put more stress on the role of army and security bodies etc. In this respect, current Turkey is a great inspiration, even though we can question the extent to which the Turkish model is applicable to the Arab countries that underwent quite different internal development in the 20th century than Turkey did. The existence of the Turkish model and its attractiveness for example also to moderate Islamists is nevertheless a positive thing. I would like to quote leading Tunisian Islamist Rashid al-Ghannushi: „Turkish experience remains the closest to the Tunisian tradition, culture and politics. Turkey is the closest such case for Tunisia. Therefore, (our Islamist party) Nahda cannot be compared to Taliban or to Iran. The closest comparison is AKP (current Turkish governmental party).”

Authors of Symposium are students of political science and international relations at Masaryk University and editors of Global Politics

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Jan Daniel a František Novotný
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30. 5. 2011