By Hasan Afif El-Hasan
By the end of the last century, more people than ever before in human history lived in countries whose governments were democratic except for postcolonial Arabs. Arabs were living under authoritarian regimes that had been remarkably successful in sustaining their rule by repressing dissents and controlling public opinion through state-run institutions. And in oil-rich states, the state maintains patriarchal rule over its citizens by taking advantage of the ability to dole out generous financial bonuses when it chooses to insure support by the general public despite the corruption, and lack of human rights and individual liberties.
Only Arabs have absolute monarchies and the Arab leaders legitimized the concept of republics with inherited presidential office. The rulers of Egypt, Libya and Yemen openly prepared their children to succeed them. In the Arabian Peninsula, a woman has no political right and goes to jail if she tries to drive a car. Her crime is being born as a woman.
Corruption and influence peddling became accepted practices and a way of life. The regimes’ political elite reaped wealth through corruption and cronyism, inhibited economic growth and created poverty and hopelessness. Institutionalized authoritarian rule in the Arab states led prominent scholars to suggest that some aspects of democratic practices ran against deeply held values of the sanctified major religion and traditions in the Arab World.
Because of the prospects of democracy in the Arab World, we will have a look at the challenges it faces, especially in Egypt, the most populated and the leader of the Arab World.
Egypt was ruled by authoritarian regime, under the military and a dominant government established party, for more than sixty years. The 1952 Egyptian military coup was staged by members of “Free Officers” group under Jamal Abdel-Nasser’s leadership who believed Egypt needed a dictatorship because the political parties would not support the “Free Officers” socioeconomic reform program. The political right “Al-Wafd” would resist change, the left “Communists” was too radical, the “Muslim Brothers” would not accept modernization and the masses would support the traditional leadership. Political parties were abolished, freedom of speech was restricted, and political opposition was forced to go underground.
Despite the absence of any pluralistic political participation, Nasser’s regime enjoyed personal legitimacy mostly due to the land reform and a string of foreign policy successes. Its constituency included the small farmers, the new class of officers and technocratic elites, largely recruited from the urban middle class. The rural middle class dominated the local branches of the ruling party and filled the lower and middle ranks of the bureaucracy. Nasser could have made the transition to democracy, ran on his domestic and foreign policy record and won elections, but he did not. That was Nasser’s biggest political blunder. Unlike his successors, Sadat and Mubarak, Nasser and his family lived a simple life more like any middle class rather than rich upper class Egyptians, and never sought personal wealth. Even with the best intentions of Nasser 1952 military coup, his rule planted the seeds of corruption and abuse of power that ensued.
In the last forty years, the dominant party in Egypt was transformed into the center of bureaucratic privileged institution rather than a political party with an ideology or a national program. The dominant party provided the regime with a means for recruiting the oppressive regime subordinates to maintain control of the government through fraudulent elections and emergency laws within the state apparatus. The regime restricted the activities of independent interest groups and political opponents; created and institutionalized a form of crony capitalism to accommodate the interests of its privileged supporters; thus the regime was unable to have coherent economic and foreign policies. The regime leadership self-serving economic policy carried the country toward agricultural, commercial and industrial economies state of stagnation.
After the recent democratic uprising, the question is whether there will be a transition to liberal democracy, economic reform and end to corruption, and whether such democracy will be sustainable. Democracy will be consolidated when fear ceased to be employed as political currency; competition replaces monopolized political decision-making; alternation in office takes place peacefully between political adversaries; and government officials will be accountable for their actions.
Democracies, however, may be weakened or break down for many reasons: wars, economic depression, and ideological and communal conflicts. Historically, established democracies sometimes degenerated into new forms of tyranny or a façade democracy.
Most of Latin America fell into the hands of military tyrants in the 1960s and early 1970s including countries which had a long tradition of democratic practices. These included Argentina, Brazil, Chile and even Uruguay which had been known for its democracy as the Switzerland of Latin America. Only Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela were ruled by democratic governments by the mid-1970s. In Europe, Greece was seized by its military in the mid-1960s. In Asia, the Turkish military staged coups in 1960 and 1971; and ethnic violence that erupted among Malaysia’s people in late 1960s undermined its democratic system and moved it into something close to authoritarian rule.
There is always a possibility of transition to a fraudulent democracy even with democratic features of parties, elections, parliamentary bodies, generous suffrage and constitutions. Democracy in Mexico between 1929 and 2000 is an example.
The 1917 Mexican constitution was structured more like that of the US but the government practices since 1929 till 2000 were far different from the US model. The president controlled both houses of the legislature through a hegemonic party, exercised his authority with no restraints and designated his successor. Mexico was ruled by an authoritarian regime through a dominant party based on corporatist structure even while its constitution limited the president to one six years term. This happened even when highly educated civilians ruled Mexico since 1946. Mexico made the transition by giving the presidency to the opposition party candidate for the first time in the 2000 presidential elections.
Parties are requirement for transition, but the problem with the political parties in democratic systems is that they do not win elections in order to carry out their campaign promises; they formulate their programs to win elections.
In some so called democracies, foreign ambassadors often wield more authority than the elected president. Iraq is the latest example of client state that will have limited freedom in making decisions even under elected government. Why is the US embassy in Baghdad bigger than the state department in Washington?
The democracy reformers in Egypy have to alleviate the deteriorating economic conditions of poverty, unemployment and homelessness that they inherited from the authoritarian regime. But democratic leaders who depend on consent rather than coercion will face a major dilemma in reforming the economy. They will face the pressure to postpone corrective action or even to abandon programs that are required to deal with the economy once their immediate cost becomes palpable. Voters are unlikely to evaluate the costs and benefits of the reform programs against the alternatives.
I argue that the success of a nascent democracy in Egypt will be constrained by authoritarian enclaves that have been institutionalized through the years, supporters of the old regime who control business and capital, weak exercise of citizen rights due to illiteracy and exclusion, and the intolerable levels of poverty. Egypt’s democratic transition faces pressures from new groups entering the political arena, the uncertainty about the democratic loyalty of the political groups associated with the old authoritarian regime, and the number of political and economic problems inherited from the old order.
The economic crisis due to the corruption and cronyism was a major reason behind the uprising by the middle class and the poor. The bad state of the economy reduced the capacity of the authoritarian regime ruling elites to control the process of political change including the terms on which they could have exited. And under democracy, the politically influential groups that had benefitted from the authoritarian regime institutional arrangements will attempt to maintain the status quo by opposing the economic policy adjustment. The prospects for consolidating democracy will be difficult to achieve when the government is not able to successfully fix its economic inheritance. And transition from authoritarian rule rarely spells the end of military intervention in political affairs.
But there are two reasons for optimism. First, unlike the authoritarian rule, the Egyptian democracy draws on reservoirs of legitimacy and support from the public at large during periods of crisis. Second reason for optimism is the widely recognized support of the military to the popular revolution which is likely to enhance, rather than undermine civil-military relations. It is most likely that the military will gradually recede to backstage; state will bolster the strength of the civilian government institutions; and the civilian leaders will make sure that their militaries remain focused on external missions and eschew internal rules.
– Hasan Afif El-Hasan is a political analyst. His latest book, Is The Two-State Solution Already Dead? (Algora Publishing, New York), now available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.