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Is democracy possible in the Middle East?

It is a highly charged question that has prompted years of scholarly debate. Some argue that democracy may be incompatible with Middle Eastern values. In his book “What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response”, Bernard Lewis attributes blame to “a lack of freedom”/Others, such as Edward Said, say that liberal democracy has not flourished in the Middle East because of centuries of imperial rule, by the Ottoman Empire, Britain, and France, and modern intervention by the United States.


Underpinning this theory is the idea that authoritarianism simplifies the business environment for the intervening imperialist.

Regardless of the reasoning, most agree on one fact: democracy has not been the dominant form of governance in the Middle East for many years. In 2011, all that appeared to change, as popular uprisings swept across Arab nations. Starting in Tunisia, the Arab Spring unseated dictators in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and triggered protests in Bahrain, Syria, Jordan, and Morocco. It was hailed as a democratic awakening: the vision of crowds ousting dictators was previously unthinkable, but as it happened across the Arab world, became not just a possibility but reality.

But did the wave of protests really usher in a new era? Two years later, Libya and Yemen, which both unseated their respective dictators, are chaotic and anarchic. Syria is in the throes of a bloody civil war. Bahrain’s government continues to brutally suppress protesters. Tunisia and Egypt were the two countries held up as positive examples of democratic transition. Tunisia remains the most stable of the Arab nations, but there is increasing discontent with the Islamist-led government, which has increased drastically after the death of two opposition politicians. In Egypt, jubilant crowds gathered in Tahrir Square earlier this month to cheer the fall of democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted by the army.

Many analysts have been quick to say that Egypt’s abrupt turnaround sounds the final death knell for the Arab Spring and for hopes of democracy in the Middle East. But is that too pessimistic? Current political tensions, both in Egypt and Tunisia, essentially boil down to the fact that there is a big divide between secularists and Islamists. In most Middle Eastern countries, home to decades of repressive western-backed dictatorship, the only opposition which managed to keep going was religious in ideology. The Muslim Brotherhood – a pan-Arab movement not restricted to Egypt – provided social services to the poor and had ready-built networks of support. While many of those supporting democratic change may desire a secular system, democratic votes reflect the views of the majority, and in most of these nations, the majority wants a religious government. This is either because of a sincerely held belief that this is the best method of governance, or because it is the only real alternative since secularists barely had time to organise political movements before elections, let alone gain the kind of widespread trust that religious organisations already had.

One of the reasons that the Arab Spring was so important was that it demonstrated a truly Arab take on democracy: one where Islamist politicians were part of the process. Too often, the hand of America or other western powers – real or imagined – is seen in the internal politics of countries in the Middle East. This can lead to an oversimplification: liberal democracy is a western construct, Islamism is eastern; the two are incompatible and will inevitably clash.

“One of the great triumphs of the Arab Spring was that it showed Islamists who were prepared to come into the political process and accept the democratic path forward rather than the violent jihadi future that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were espousing,” says CNN anchor Christine Amanpour. The situation in Egypt -where a democratically elected president was ousted by non-democratic means – calls this into question. Amanpour adds: “What are you going to tell Islamists: that democracy is for everybody except them?”

There is certainly that risk. Islamist groups should not be driven underground, but brought into the democratic process. Many in Egypt have already suggested western involvement in the unseating of Morsi. Associating democracy with western intervention is damaging and will only lead to secularists being viewed with suspicion: it removes the possibility of home grown liberalism.

It is too soon – and too pessimistic – to say that democracy is impossible in the Middle East. Fragile democratic systems are to be expected after years of repressive dictatorships. It takes time for these systems to become entrenched. It also takes time for a truly pluralistic political environment to evolve. For decades, opposition parties were not allowed, and many individuals who would have been natural leaders chose to leave for foreign shores. It will take more than two years for democracy to function effectively. However, if democracy is going to work in the Middle East, it must find a way of incorporating the full spectrum of mainstream views, from Islamism to secularism.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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