Democracy in the Arab world continues to be besieged and denied to the vast majority of citizens by autocratic and unrepresentative systems and elites. Only a few countries, such as Lebanon, Tunisia and Iraq, allow substantial democratic practices, while others use the mere trappings of democracy to project a sense of legitimacy.
The year 2018 will see several elections in the Arab world, from North Africa to the Gulf to the Levant. Egypt held its presidential election in March, in which the incumbent president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, won a second four-year term amid reported widespread fraud, and after credible competitors were scared away or arrested. Immediately following the election, el-Sisi’s supporters in parliament began floating ideas about lifting the two-term limit and extending the presidential term to six years—essentially recreating the conditions extant during the rule of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
Tunisia is set to hold municipal elections this year, and is preparing for a presidential poll in 2019. As the only country to have given democracy a good run since the Arab Spring in 2011, Tunisia has conducted several parliamentary and presidential rounds at regular intervals, and has fully respected their outcomes. Tunisia’s success can be attributed to the principle of political compromise, which all countries transitioning from authoritarian rule are advised to follow. Despite sharp differences in their outlooks and approaches to governing, Tunisian elites and politicians were able to find the necessary common ground that spared their country many of the calamities of post-authoritarianism. What Tunisia now needs is a sustained effort at addressing economic woes, lest political compromises fall short in the long run.
Many of Libya’s politicians, seemingly oblivious to the country’s political and security troubles, hope to conduct new elections for parliament and president while Libya is de facto partitioned into east and west, as well as a jumble of militia-controlled territories. A UN-sponsored Libyan Political Agreement from December 2015 is fighting for its life as Ghassan Salamé, the UN envoy to Libya, warns that elections need to be preceded by an agreed-upon constitution on the nature of the political system. Besides, the country has no election laws, accurate and trusted voter rolls and registration, or mechanisms for legal supervision.
In the Gulf, Bahrain is also set to hold parliamentary elections this year, despite a continued crackdown on all opposition, whose participation is doubtful at best. This would be the second countrywide poll since the protests of February 2011, which ended with direct intervention by forces from the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsula Shield Force. No opposition candidates contested the 2014 elections as government-approved politicians and courtiers swept the results. It is hard to imagine that this year’s round will be a true return to the somewhat competitive races of the pre-2011 era, which in some instances allowed for the election of opposition candidates, albeit within the circumscribed space of unfettered rule.
Given the stakes, this year’s truly competitive and consequential parliamentary elections will be those in Iraq and Lebanon, both of which abut war-torn Syria and are exposed to the effects of elite competition, Iranian influence and sectarian division. Both countries have chosen different versions of consociational and sectarian political formulas; subsequently, neither election is expected to allow for broad representation of secular forces. It is also arguably expected that cross-cutting interconfessional alliances will not form, making for a less inclusive and more fractured political environment.
In Iraq, Shia political forces have been the main drivers of political developments since the writing of the country’s constitution in 2005. However, competition among them has not led to better government or stronger institutions. In fact, they have presided over and benefited from corruption, nepotism and the absence of accountability. This year, their different factions––moderates led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, challengers to his premiership and pro-Iran extremists in control of armed militias––are in a battle for final control of the organs of the Iraqi state. Other political forces, Shia, Sunni and secular, are in the political game to secure representation to use as a check on executive authority, and perhaps lend support to the moderate Abadi.
Finally, Lebanon is on the cusp of renewing its parliamentary politics, unless unwanted regional circumstances arise to prevent this exercise of democracy. The current National Assembly was originally elected in 2009, and its mandate has been renewed three times because of serious disputes over a new electoral law. But in June 2017, a new law of proportional representation that still preserved the sectarian division of parliamentary seats was enacted. It is hard to see how the new rules will affect voting and its outcomes, but the election is likely to reaffirm the old alliances. Moreover, many Lebanese doubt that the new legislature will give the government the necessary tools and power to help deal with the challenges posed by Hezbollah’s status as a state within the state, and the country’s many economic and social ills.
Elections are normal mechanisms for the renewal of democratic politics and the reinvigoration of the polity. Whether for legislative bodies or executive authority, they are yardsticks for measuring the health and sustainability of political systems. But in the Arab world, they have become mere signposts for perpetuating either autocratic rule or political alliances between elite groupings. While the Tunisian model of political compromise may be emulated, it may not be enough. For true Arab democratic development to take place, Arab regimes must realize that their current political culture and practices have failed, and that they should allow Arab citizens to help chart the region’s course out of the tunnel of authoritarianism.
Imad K. Harb is director of research and analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.