Arab Spring Fever

August 29, 2007 Topic: DemocracySociety Tags: Bush DoctrineDiplomacy

Arab Spring Fever

Mini Teaser: All hope is not lost for democracy in the Middle East. Political pluralism may be taking root, but real change will not emerge on any U.S. administration’s timetable.

by Author(s): Nathan J. BrownAmr Hamzawy


EUPHORIA SWEPT across legions of observers of Arab politics two years ago. A series of unusual scenes on the streets of the Middle East nurtured an inspiring story line of an emerging "Arab spring" that mimicked the earlier triumph of democracy from the Philippines to Prague: mass demonstrations in Lebanon; joint rallies of Egyptian Islamists and liberals against the Mubarak regime; and elections in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia. Many of the most deeply entrenched Arab regimes appeared to be on the verge of losing their authoritarian grip. Symbolized by purple fingers in Iraq, orange t-shirts in Lebanon and the single word kifaya ("enough") in Egypt, the fall of the Arab equivalent of the Berlin Wall seemed at hand.

Today, little of that euphoria remains. New political realities have either silenced the optimists or caused them to rue the consequences of the changes they had earlier hailed. Iraqi elections were followed by a dramatic upsurge in sectarian violence that has become a bloody civil war. Political stagnation in Lebanon and Egypt has not led to any democratic transformation-Egyptian semi-authoritarianism and Lebanese confessionalism have revealed themselves to be deeply entrenched and occasionally ferocious political forces. Throughout the region, the strong showing of Islamists in parliamentary elections has created doubts about Arab democratization and highlighted the risks it bears for American strategic interests. The tragic developments in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine-all with weak or failed state institutions-have enabled Arab democracy pessimists to dismiss easily any talk about positive political reforms as the fantasy of Western well-intentioned humanists-or misguided ideologues-who do not understand the real Arab world and its unsuitability for democracy.

The problem with the manic debate in Washington-irrational exuberance followed by despair-is that it misses gradual but real changes occurring in the region. There are many deep political problems in the Arab world. But that should not mask a variety of political openings in the region-many of which are only visible when one takes a longer-range view. Despite rising disenchantment outside the Arab world regarding Arab democratization, regional political dynamics have been driven to a great extent by an indigenous freedom agenda. In the level of intellectual debate, the battle for democracy has been fought-and won. Some have even fashioned rhetoric oddly similar to that of the Bush Administration. Asked in 2005 what Egypt needs most, Supreme Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Muhammad Mahdi Akif responded, "Freedom. Freedom." And among the broader public, there is growing support for political openness. The problem is that democracies are not built in salons and on satellite channels.

Dreams of democratic openings, competitive elections, the rule of law and wider political freedoms have captured the imagination of clear majorities in the Arab world. The dominance of the idea of democracy in the public space has even forced authoritarian ruling establishments to cast about for new pro-reform language in order to communicate their policies to the populace. Even Islamist and leftist opposition movements have, at least rhetorically, dropped most of their skepticism about political rights, freedoms and pluralist mechanisms, developing a strategic commitment to gradual democratic reform.

The rise of democracy is not confined to rhetoric; limited but real changes are taking place. Some of these changes have occurred so slowly and unevenly that they are often missed. But over the past two decades in much of the Arab world, ruling establishments have substantially eased the restrictions imposed on freedom of expression. Media outlets, intellectual forums and academic institutions have become venues of pluralist argumentation. The era of state monopolies over information and ideas has ended. Ordinary Arab citizens have gained access to multiple sources of information and become systematically exposed to competing perspectives of domestic and international events. Of course, significant differences continue among countries: The press in Morocco and Egypt has grown highly diverse, but pluralism is more limited in Syria and some of the Gulf countries. Furthermore, repressive practices against opinion-makers and state ownership of media outlets have hardly ceased-in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, the state reins in dissent less predictably than in the past, but occasionally quite severely.

Is it analytically legitimate or sound to describe these changes as democratization? Are they merely cosmetic changes, or have they increased the probability of successful democratic reform in the Arab world? While the situation differs from country to country, there can be no doubt that ruling establishments' views of reforms are extremely constrained. On occasion they even seem Orwellian-such as when the Egyptian regime discovers a new interest in "citizenship", not to empower Egyptians, but to discredit its main opposition (the Muslim Brotherhood, which is accused of dividing Egyptians along religious lines).

But we must move beyond understanding all political outcomes solely in terms of the intentions of leaders. Real change has occurred, but will it continue? And if so, will it be change for the better?

ARAB REGIMES can be divided into three basic political categories: weak or failing states, strict authoritarian states and semi-authoritarian states. Much of the current despair comes from the odd focus on the first two categories-and these are precisely the least likely places for democratizing change to occur. It is in the third category, the semi-authoritarian states, that we find the best chances for reform. In all three cases, there is at least the thread of possibility for reform, but we need to be realistic about what kind of change is feasible.

Much of the renewed cynicism about democracy is based on mistaking the region's most problematic states for the norm-weak, failing or (in one case) incomplete: Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. Indeed, democratic mechanisms have hardly solved their problems. In many ways they have made matters worse by bringing deep divisions to the forefront without offering the prospect of resolution. In all three cases, state weakness has encouraged international actors to favor specific parties, fomenting internecine conflict.

In Iraq, the mechanics of democratic politics actually hastened the country's descent into civil war and sectarian bloodletting. The dismantling of the country's fearsome authoritarian institutions, the bloodthirsty and ruthless insurgency, and the eagerness of the country's Shi‘a population to use its majority status have left little semblance of civil, much less reformed, politics.

Palestinian democracy was far more robust, but the international community recoiled at an embryonic democratic transition because of the victorious Hamas movement's extreme words and deeds regarding Israel. With Hamas's victory, the era of international support for Palestinian political reform ended, and the United States embarked on the task of bringing down any government-by illegal means if necessary-that did not meet international conditions, including acceptance of past agreements and recognition of Israel. Of course, American concerns about Hamas were quite soundly based, but what was remarkable about American policy was how quickly democracy shifted in American eyes (if not in official rhetoric) from being part of the solution to being the core of the problem.

Lebanon seems stable only by comparison to Iraq and Palestine, but even the Lebanese state is torn between two roughly balanced political coalitions-each with strong democratic claims but far more limited democratic credentials. Each also has powerful international backers more interested in the triumph of their side than in mediation and political compromise.

Such states present the most difficult challenge for would-be democratizers. Fostering democracy while simultaneously strengthening state institutions is a difficult task in any setting. In the midst of unresolved international conflicts, it may be nearly impossible.

STRICT AUTHORITARIAN systems-a minority in the Arab world-have been largely impervious to any liberalization. But there are some opportunities for limited change. In Libya and Syria, the regimes have not left any space for the formation of organized opposition groups, and real domestic pressures to ease this repression have remained largely absent. Yet even among such closed polities, variation is emerging. In Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), monarchies have allowed greater media pluralism and experimented with minor reform measures while keeping their traditional mix of patrimonial policies and repressive security apparatuses. Between 2002 and 2006, Saudi Arabia held its first (partial) municipal elections since the 1960s and allowed various small openings in civil society, including granting women the right to vote and to run as candidates for newly legalized professional associations and chambers of commerce. In Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said turned the appointed national consultative council, the Shura Council, into an elected body in 2003 and granted the right to vote to all Omani citizens over the age of 21, male and female. Although the elected Shura Council continues to lack any real oversight powers, the elections exposed the population to the imagery of pluralist politics. The government of the uae adopted a national reform plan and held the country's first partial elections in 2006.

In such countries-where politics has been void of any competition between rulers and oppositions for a long time-it makes little sense to speculate about fundamental democratic reforms in the near future. But it is not unrealistic to imagine that a combination of internal demands and external pressure might nudge some into gradually allowing a greater degree of pluralism in the political sphere and granting citizens some basic political rights, such as freer association or expression-these forces already induced lower-end reforms. Past generations of Arab leaders have allowed a measure of liberalization when they became convinced that it was beneficial in currying international support, balancing or taming would-be rivals and managing conflicts within the political elite. An international environment supporting political reform can make a difference in such cases, especially in the Gulf countries, where the leadership has tied national security to Western powers. But we must be aware that such changes would not bring democracy but only a more liberalized authoritarianism, which has been quite stable regionally. And it is to such semi-authoritarian regimes that we now turn.

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