Worries about the Arab Democratic Renaissance

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan

The struggle for the future of the Arab nations has just begun. The best thing that can be said about their uprising is that it was truly ‘made in the Arab lands by the Arab youth.’ The West including the US can influence events but they learnt from the war on Iraq to do so quietly, behind the scenes. The West especially the US cannot be a reliable supporter of democracy unless its interests are served.

The US overturned the democracies of 1953 Muhammad Mossadegh in Iran, 1954 Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, 1973 Salvador Allende in Chile, the 1984-89 Sandinistas government in Nicaragua and most recently 2006 Hamas government in the West Bank and Gaza. Whatever the merits of these regimes, there was no protest or criticism by the US public. The US may use its old tricks to abort or dilute democracy in the Arab states to ensure small impassioned groups (moderates according to the US) to dominate the politics of the Middle East rather than the nationalists or the Islamists who are perceived to have near monopoly on passion (extremists according to the US).

From the moment the Tunisian demonstrators succeeded in overthrowing Ibn-Ali, optimism has dominated reporting and commentaries on what are called the “Arab democratic renaissance”. There is hope for a future of equal rights and justice in constitutional liberal democratic pluralist societies especially in Egypt.

The resignation of President Husni Mubarak was an astonishing victory for the young Egyptian revolutionaries. But the struggle for the future of Egypt is just beginning. The constitution and the election laws must be rewritten, the shaken liberal economy that lacks a system of checks and balances has to be rebuilt, the grinding poverty, massive unemployment, housing shortages, injustice and inequality must be addressed and stability restored.

Many past revolutions that overthrew tyrannical or corrupt regimes replaced them with more of the same. The 1789 French Revolution that called for democracy was terminated with the establishment of an emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. The American Revolution of 1775-83 created a slavery system that took a civil war to abolish. The fledgling democratic constitutions in the US excluded women and slaves from voting, and in France, the poor, women and servants were excluded in most elections. The movement that drew on broad ideas of addressing social injustice in late-nineteenth-century coalesced into the tyrannical Bolshevik movement in Russia.

Eastern European countries revolution of 1989 that overthrew Soviet style communism invalidate this rule; perhaps because the dictatorships were imposed by outsiders, the Soviet Union, democracy prospered after overthrowing the communist dictatorship.

There are questions about the US democracy even today: candidates with most money to spend are most likely to win elections; the election structural rules in the US national presidential elections may not allow the candidate preferred by the majority of voters to become president. And when more than two candidates run for the office of president, the winning candidate may have a plurality but not a majority. In twelve cases since the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, “the winning candidate has not been the first choice of a majority of voters.” This makes the system even less democratic since the president’s power has been growing at the expense of the legislative branch.

It may take years for liberal democracy to succeed in the Arab world including Egypt because liberty and political tolerance has seldom been practiced in generations. Egypt’s 1952 military coup by Nasser created a template of the strong leader cult (dictatorship) that has been emulated by Sadat and Mubarak and most regimes in the Middle East. It inhibited the development of formal political opposition that might have challenged the regime by demanding political reform. The new Egyptian generation that overthrew Mubarak should avoid replacing a tyranny system with another.

The electoral process is central to democratic legitimation, but democracy cannot be reduced to elections even if they were fair. Elections in Iraq and even Afghanistan were hailed by the US politicians and some commentators as success stories of democracy, but Iraq and Afghanistan can only be accurately described after the elections as failed states.

The constitutions of Egypt under Mubarak and Tunis under Ben-Ali did not call for running the country by repressive corrupt dictators, but their system of governing became dysfunctional when the so called elected leaders maintained control through unfair elections, corruption, banning of opposition political parties, persecution of critics and declaring emergency laws. There are reasons for worrying about the future of democracy in Egypt even if I believe that the Egyptian youth yearning for freedom is too powerful to settle for less than real democracy.

The historical events raise long-standing question of whether the new democracies can manage the daunting economic crises. Viewed at this time of the Arab youth revolution, once the democratic government institutions are reformed, under what economic and institutional conditions is democracy going to be consolidated to meet the needs and aspirations of the masses in each state?

Arab people in the Middle East have been trained to consider the government as the provider of subsidized food stuff, employment, health care and education. If given the choice between the market-driven economy and Scandinavian welfare model, Arab masses would approve the welfare model. But choosing the type of economy has international dimension that may limit the reformers’ options. The World Bank, the International Money Fund and foreign aid donors are known for supporting only free market economy even if it leads to economic dislocation.

There was a popular uprising in Egypt when the price of subsidized food items in Egypt was raised in 1977 by Sadat. For two days, January 17-18, order broke down in Cairo, rioters attacked police stations and foreign interests, the regime was traumatized by the violence and Sadat called it “the thieves’ uprising.”      

The entrenched bureaucracies, that issue regulations and administer policies, will be a major challenge to the democratic process. The voice of the people may be heard on the election-day, but it may not be heard by the bureaucrats. Professional bureaucrats, whose careers do not depend on their political fortunes, are known for violating the will of the electorates. The core of their discipline is based on their acquired experiences and receiving bribes. Carl Friedrich argues in his book, ”Constitutional Government and Democracy” that whether a government is responsible to the people depends on “a responsible bureaucracy.” 

Politicizing religion by imposing a religious doctrine as the sole official faith, as some Egyptians demand, will be a serious setback to the political liberalism and the constitutional democratic state which is a major objective of the Egyptian uprising. Imposing a religious doctrine, even if it is the faith of the majority, opens conflicts and arouses sectarian hostilities. Liberal democracy does not dismiss spiritual questions as unimportant, but because of its importance, it should be left for each citizen to decide for himself or herself.

Despite optimism, the future of democracy in the Arab World is hardly secure because it carries within it the problems of the present moment and the legacy of the past.

– 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.

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