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

Weak states and closed authoritarian systems, while distressing examples of Arab politics gone wrong, are not the norm. In the third set of Arab countries, authoritarianism is well-entrenched but not unlimited. Existing semi-authoritarian regimes in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain have opposed any true democratization. Democratic institutions and practices often exist on paper but are very weak and easily outflanked by the institutions of authoritarianism.

Yet these semi-authoritarian regimes allow some space for popular participation, and in many countries that space has increased significantly over the past two decades. Opposition groups have been allowed to operate and participate in legal politics. And even if opposition groups are often divided between weak armchair secular movements and more broadly based but less clearly democratic Islamist movements, they have still been able to gradually expand their representation in the political process.

To give some examples: In Morocco, the government introduced a series of reforms at the national and municipal levels aimed at enhancing government accountability, popular participation and human-rights records. It allowed the participation of the Islamist Party for Justice and Development in the parliamentary elections of 2002, enabling the party to win 13 percent of the seats. And civil-society organizations have grown ideologically more diverse and more active in shaping public policies. In January 2004, acting upon the recommendation of the official Advisory Council on Human Rights, King Muhammad VI inaugurated, for the first time in the Arab world, a national reconciliation committee to investigate human-rights violations by state security agencies in past decades.

In Algeria, the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika partially moved beyond the militant legacy of the 1990s and tolerated the integration of non-violent Islamist parties into the political process. One of them, the Party for a Society of Peace, has participated continuously in ruling coalitions as a junior partner since 1996. In 2005, Bouteflika announced his initiative for national reconciliation and committed the regime to reform measures that are aimed to increase political competition and institutionalize checks and balances between government branches.

The ruling National Democratic Party in Egypt in 2002 announced initiatives to open up the political space and improve human-rights standards. In spite of the reluctance of different elite factions, an advisory National Council on Human Rights was established in 2002 and mandated to supervise the dealings of state institutions-including the Ministry of Interior-with regard to human rights and report any violations to the government. In 2005, the constitution was amended to allow for the country's first multi-candidate presidential elections. Parliamentary elections also took place later the same year. Despite serious violations of the norms for free and fair elections, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood seized the opportunity and lurched in a democratic direction. Its decision paid off, as the movement performed well and won a fifth of the seats. And although Islamist electoral gains have resulted in a new wave of regime repression and motivated the government in 2007 to introduce constitutional amendments that seek to limit the Muslim Brotherhood's participation, Egyptian politics still reflects growing pluralism.

The Yemeni political space grew more diverse in the last few years leading up to the pluralist presidential elections of 2006. The government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh accepted full judicial supervision of the electoral process and let in international observers. Opposition parties, most significantly the Socialist and the Islamist Islah Parties, formed a broad, cross-ideological alliance-the Yemeni Joint Meeting Parties-and fielded a joint candidate against Saleh. In spite of its defeat in the elections, the Yemeni opposition alliance remains alive, and preparations for a joint opposition list in the 2007 parliamentary elections are under way. Laws governing the establishment of political parties and NGOs were liberalized in accordance with international norms.

In Kuwait, outbursts of conflict between the elected parliament and the ruling family-which had resulted in the suspension of parliament in the 1970s and 1980s-have been met in recent years by government attempts to buy off some parliamentarians and divide the remainder. Such tactics often work, but they do so imperfectly. In 2006, the opposition managed to paste together a coalition supporting electoral reform (combining the country's tiny 25 electoral districts into five), not only forcing the ruling family to accept reform but probably undermining its ability in the future to co-opt deputies. The larger districts will introduce a more ideological flavor to Kuwaiti politics.

In all these cases, the reforms were significant but were not breakthroughs. They have been limited and difficult to build upon. Not a single dramatic democratic breakthrough has taken place.

But the dynamics unleashed by regime-managed reforms have renewed and revitalized the interest of opposition movements in the political process. The outcome is an Arab political scene that looks far more lively and much less predictable when compared to the political stasis and stagnation of the 1990s.

THE PROBLEM is not the absence of political change in the Arab world; the stagnation that prevailed for a generation has been shaken. It is whether fundamental political reform-democratization, rather than mere tactical uses of liberalization-is possible.

In such semi-authoritarian regimes, three paths to further political reform are possible. The most likely may simply be more of the same: continued incremental change within the boundaries of existing political arrangements. While semi-authoritarian regimes are often quite stable, they are characterized by weak legislative and judicial institutions as well as by red lines that limit the boundaries of tolerated political freedom and activity. While the term "red lines"-widely used in the region-implies a clear demarcation between permissible and impermissible politics, the lines are almost always vague, shifting and contested. The main residue of the Arab spring is not a new kind of democratic politics but a handful of slightly more pluralistic or ambitious parliaments in Egypt and Kuwait, and even blurrier red lines-especially regarding freedom of expression and organization-in other countries.

A second possibility for reform promises fuller democratization not through carefully managed change, but through surprise. This is a risky route, particularly because diversion to less positive outcomes is very easy. Democratic change in other parts of the world has often resulted from a shock to the political system-economic crisis, defeat in war, leadership succession. The problem, of course, is that such shocks do not necessarily bring democratic change: They are just as likely to bring about instability, deepened autocracy or even civil war. But when political opposition is well-organized and undividedly committed to democratic change, it is often successful in obtaining favorable outcomes. In short, such shocks can provoke democratic change-if opposition leaders prepare for it. In southern Europe, Latin America, South Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe, democracy has fared far better when opposition movements had the time and inclination to develop democratic ideologies and practices before they were faced with the prospect of gaining power.

The semi-authoritarian regimes in the Arab world have shown impressive abilities to weather economic and political crises in the past: They lost wars, presided over economic hardship and passed through succession crises. In none of these cases, however, did they face competent and deep-rooted democratic oppositions ready to seize the opportunities presented by regime shocks. At least in some Arab countries, this has been changing. Oppositions in Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain have grown better organized and more popular. Just as critically, secular and Islamist movements in some countries seem to be preparing-and sometimes experimenting with cooperation-for a democratic transition if the currently deeply entrenched regimes falter.

By their very nature, shocks are unpredictable, but there is one kind that is inevitable even if the timing is unknown: the incapacitation or death of an autocrat. The highly centralized political systems characterizing most Arab regimes (especially the republican ones, where the president has no royal family to report to) means that a ruler's demise can unleash a disorienting crisis, activating latent conflicts within the regime and forcing new would-be rulers to obtain popular support that the late ruler learned to dispense with. Today's Egypt seems to be in the beginning stages of such a succession crisis. While the ruling party increasingly maneuvers to secure the succession of President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal, the effort has revealed splits in the leadership, very lively and explicit public debate, and signs even that parts of the military leadership are balking or dubious about the proposed succession. Egypt's past two successions (in 1970 and 1981) were followed by political liberalization, but on both occasions the opposition was cowed and disorganized. The political scene in 2007 may lead to a less easily managed process that opens pressures for deeper democratization. Such a route is hardly inevitable; indeed, the existing regime seems to be working to preclude it by a brutal crackdown on its main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. But regime missteps at such uncertain times are not only more likely than normal but also more extensive in their repercussions. Future generations of Egyptians may pay dearly if the Egyptian government succeeds in its attempts to crush democratic dissent and block the Brotherhood's move in a democratic direction.

A final avenue for political reform is negotiated power-sharing between a pressured government and a rising but frustrated opposition that realize they cannot vanquish each other. Up to this point, no Arab society has come close to such a standoff. (Algeria showed some potential in 1992 but moved to a very different and far more violent resolution.) Realistically, it is only mainstream Islamist movements who are likely to pose a strong challenge, and regimes have generally dealt with them as security issues (to be quashed or contained) rather than political rivals (who might be bargained with). But because such movements are broadly based-hardly limited to the political arena and encompassing religious, educational, social, cultural and charitable activities-they are not easily suppressed. Some regimes have experimented with easing the security obsession, opting to manage Islamist movements as serious political actors-and therefore as candidates not simply for arrests and detention but as partners and rivals for inclusion, domestication and co-optation. Jordan experimented with this path in the past but now seems to be turning away from it; Morocco has been experimenting with it since the second half of the 1990s; Kuwait has also brought Islamists into parliament and even the cabinet; the Sunni ruling establishment of Bahrain has come to tolerate significant participation by Shi‘a Islamists in parliament and municipal councils. Such negotiations become easier when the Islamist movement is able to present itself as reformist, rather than revolutionary, and to disperse doubts about its loyalty to the nation-state framework. Several of the leading Islamist movements in the region have therefore worked over the past few years to cultivate precisely that image. What is unclear is whether such an approach can evolve-on both sides-from a short-term tactic to a long-term strategy with real power-sharing.

Essay Types: Essay