Politically Incorrect Questions about Arab Politics

Politically Incorrect Questions about Arab Politics

Can some form of democracy prosper in the Arab world? Can Islamists be democrats?


Almost two years into the Arab Spring, it’s time to ask a politically incorrect and inconvenient question about the state of Arab politics: Can some form of democracy—one that includes power sharing, inclusive institutions, and respect for freedom of religion, speech and conscience—prosper in a region still dominated by religious strictures, regional conflicts, and tribal and provincial divisions?

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first.


In theory, Arabs are just as capable of setting up transparent, accountable, democratic institutions as much of the rest of the world. But we should not judge Arab politics and chances for democratization in terms of our own. America is an exceptional country, but that exceptionalism stops at the water’s edge. It’s not for export, certainly not to a region where countries differ fundamentally from one another, not to mention from our own. If the Arabs democratize, they will do so in their own unique way consistent with their politics, culture and history—just as the United States did.

The arc of history is bound to be a long one on democratization, and we need to let it play out before making categorical judgments. After all, it took 150 years, a civil war and seven hundred thousand Americans dead to even begin to reconcile the promise of the Declaration of Independence with a Constitution that protected slavery and to start putting an end racial discrimination. And we’re not there yet.

Building democracies and sustaining them requires time. Indeed, by this standard Club Democracy is a very small one. Since 1950, only twenty-two countries in the world have maintained their democratic character continuously. Not even India—the world’s largest democracy—or Turkey makes the cut due to temporary suspension of and interference with the democratic process.

Still, I worry that in our desire to see things come out the right way in Egypt and other places, there’s too much whistling past the graveyard on the democracy question. Patience and perspective are critical. Right now what’s important aren’t the results but the trend lines. And we need to be honest: Are they running in the right direction?

In this regard, at least three core questions present themselves. If the answers turn up yes, the Arabs are in business; if they come out no, you might as well hang a “closed for the season” sign on the hopes for real democratic change in this region. The problem, of course, is that we may not know the answers for a very long time.

Can Arabs Share Power?

The Arab regimes have proven themselves masters at acquiring and holding on to power. But can they truly share it?

At the time of his death, more than a decade ago, Jordan’s King Hussein was the longest-governing monarch in the world. Only two presidents ruled Egypt from its 1952 revolution to the Arab Spring. Since independence, the Assad family has ruled Syria longer than all of its predecessors combined. The Saudis and Kuwaiti royals have controlled their countries since the eighteenth century.

You get the picture. The Arab world does indeed have a tradition of competitive and institutionalized party politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But for the past half century, the golden rule has prevailed in this region: he who has the gold rules.

From Egypt to Syria and throughout the Gulf, Arab rulers have been attached to the accretion of power like barnacles to the side of a boat. Some of these regimes have had more legitimacy than others; some have been less cruel and more enlightened, to be sure. But the notion that these leaders would share power competitively with others was an idea whose time they all hoped would never come.

Whether it’s come now remains to be seen. It’s true that both the acquiescent authoritarian leaders (Mubarak, Ben Ali, Abdullah Saleh) and the adversarial ones (Saddam, Qaddafi, Assad) are gone or going. And new pressures exist to open up the system. But we’re still a long way away from Tipperary on this one.

In several places, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, leaders rule in kingly and authoritarian fashion. In Iraq, where aspects of a nascent democracy have taken hold, there is also a disturbing trend line toward a strong-arm authoritarian style. Lebanon and Palestine are exceptions—nonstates, really. But Hezbollah’s dominance and splits within the Palestinian national movement combined with Israel’s occupation don’t augur well for stability or democracy. Yemen isn’t a failed state yet, but isn’t going to be a successful one any time soon either. And in Syria—the black box on the eastern Mediterranean—nobody has much of an idea what or who will follow the Assads. But it’s almost certainly going to look a lot more like Iraq and Lebanon than Switzerland. In Libya, despite the popular reaction against the militias in the wake of the attacks on U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the country remains without effective governance and security.

This much is clear and fortuitous: the era of the Arab caudillo will be hard to reconstruct. No single Big Cheese, El Jefe, Numero Uno or Mr. Big will rule over all. The false stability of the authoritarians has come to an end. Whether or not real stability and prosperity for these nations will emerge isn’t at all clear. But at least there’s a chance.

The question is whether those who now compete for power can manage to construct a system in which that power—and the good governance that is supposed to drive it—can be shared in an institutionalized and democratic fashion for the benefit of the citizens of the state.

The trend lines—short as they’ve been—aren’t very promising. Tunisia and Libya may well defy the odds. Each occupies a special place in the Arab Spring’s pantheon. Tunisia surprised the world by sparking the region’s historic changes; Libya distinguished itself by actually holding credible elections that—alone among the countries of the region—didn’t produce a politically dominant Islamist outcome.

Egypt, on the other hand, which might have been considered the best prospect for a functional transition, is not off to the best start. Competitive politics clearly prevail, but the two most important competitors, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, may well be the most antidemocratic forces in the country. If this rivalry could be channeled in a framework that produced real power sharing, it might actually lead to a constructive approach to govern the country. It’s not at all clear that the Muslim Brothers, now the country’s dominant political force, will agree. There’s a pretty good chance that this exclusivity combined with inevitable maneuvering between the military and the Islamists will produce a competition in which Egypt’s economy, security and overall prosperity suffer. And part of the reason is the absence of credible and respected institutions that regulate political life and set rules of the road for political elites and the public alike.

Can Arabs Build Inclusive and Effective Institutions?

That the Great Leader has now gone the way of the dodo will help some in shifting the focus to building institutions. The worst of all outcomes would be an Arab world bereft of strong authoritative leaders and also without legitimate and functional institutions rooted in some kind of popular will or consensus. Nations fail, we’re told, because institutions are molded not for the benefit of the majority but for the extractive leaders or groups who use them to distract, manipulate, control, perpetuate their power and enrich themselves.

Democratic structures that are more than the playthings of extractive leaders require a common set of political principles, a constitution, a series of basic laws and a bill of rights on which those institutions can credibly rest. To put it more simply, you need rules of the road—and that road, as we know from our own experience, can be a long a winding one.

How all of this is going to work—particularly in a region where tribal, sectarian and religious differences are still primary sources of loyalty and identification—is anyone’s guess.

Egypt has a history of viable institutions. Yet right now those institutions face an uncertain future and easily could be hijacked by the power struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood or by the Brotherhood’s own exclusivist tendencies. In Yemen, tribal culture actually has worked to fill the vacuum left by a dysfunctional and missing state, but it’s unclear how Yemen becomes a functional country in view of those tribal divides, resource constraints and its Al Qaeda problem. In the new Syria—whatever and whenever that emerges—sectarian divides might be catastrophic. Indeed, the real challenge there will be to avoid the Sunni payback that the Shia sought in post-Saddam Iraq and the emergence of a vengeful or even entitled Sunni majority that will seek to dominate the Alawis, Christians and Kurds. In Bahrain, the desire of the ruling Sunni family and elites to maintain political and economic control will keep the Sunni-Shia pot boiling for some time.

The fact is that in the period ahead, many of these countries will be lucky if they can avoid continued violence and move toward some measure of stability and economic order and prosperity. This isn’t political or cultural determinism; it’s a sober recognition of the challenges they face and the odds they need to overcome to succeed.