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The Arab world and democracy

January 24, 2014 at 10:04 am

The Arab Spring hit the Middle East to the core but has come unstuck in Syria. Nevertheless, the issue of democracy is now to the fore with demonstrations calling for more freedom and human rights, even though a number of dictators have been toppled.

Not surprisingly, the groups who weren’t elected in the resultant elections have accused the winners of fraud. This is not unique to the Arab world. What is different is that the losing parties have encouraged demonstrations intended to overthrow elected governments or thwart their efforts to run the country.

Understanding the situation requires a historical overview and how democracy is applied in the Arab world.

Democracy has been defined as a system of government by which political sovereignty is retained by the people and exercised directly by citizens. The term comes from the Greek; demos, the “people”, and kratos, meaning “rule”, “power” or “strength”. Hence, the literal meaning of democracy is “rule by the people”, culminating in a popular form of government. The crux of democracy is that people choose who governs them and those elected rulers will be held accountable for their actions and decisions. There is no one definite structure for a democratic government: they can rule in republics, as in France; kingdoms, as in the UK; and even empires like Japan.

Initially, democracy was an alternative to monarchies wherein the ruler had absolute power which was passed on from father to son (and occasionally daughter), creating dynasties. These were more or less replaced by republics and constitutional monarchies in which the head of state has an extremely limited political role; it is often purely ceremonial.

In the Arab world, the early Caliphs of Islam were chosen by senior members of the community and endorsed by the people. This was replaced by dynastic Caliphates in the Umayyad and Ottoman eras. Although a consultative process was in place with Shura Councils, the final word rested with the Caliph or Amir, whose word was law.

Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire during World War One, colonial powers ruled most of the Arab region and introduced European practices, culture and concepts, including democracy. The colonial powers created nation states and governments in the Arab world which resembled European elected governments in format, although they have been described scathingly as “sham parliamentary regimes installed and bequeathed by British and French empires” by historian Bernard Lewis.

The post-colonial era witnessed the establishment of new republics in the Arab region with rulers who inherited and stuck to the “installed” culture and practices. Such leaders have at times defended democracy in their speeches even as their own governments and policies were far from democratic.

The advent of the Arab Spring saw people pinning their hopes on democracy as practiced and implemented in the West. This led to calls to adopt Western, Turkish or Islamic democratic models across the Middle East.

As I write, the path of democracy in the Middle East is far from smooth. After holding apparently free and fair democratic elections some new opposition groups have called for elected rulers to step down; new governments are given little or no time to right the wrongs of years of dictatorship and corruption. Accusations of cronyism abound as new government leaders are accused of using the ballot box to strengthen their grip on power.

It is clear that neither governments nor opposition groups have a clear understanding of what democracy is all about. Although some may try to blame external factors for this state of affairs, I believe that the problems are created and fostered internally.

For a start, societies across the Arab world have had no opportunity to put democracy into practice since the death of the fourth Caliph of Islam, Ali Bin Abi Talib more than 1,300 years ago. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, there has been no genuinely democratic experience within living memory to provide a frame of reference.

Community readiness for democracy is essential, requiring a social environment which has been prepared for democracy. According to Ziya Öniş, “The domestic nature of the political system, where the civil society had already been developed, and an elite convergence for democracy is absent in the Arab world.” She compared the situation with democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe.

The result is that the Arab world has gone from dictatorship to elected government in a very short time as people seek to have mature democracies similar to those in the West. This is not always such a good idea and there are no guarantees of success. Learning from others is one thing, but each society is unique and has its own peculiarities and societal conditions which require the development of localised democratic solutions.

Europe paid a heavy price for its current mature democracies, including destructive wars and revolutions. The Turks have acknowledged this fact and say that they too have paid a price to develop their own brand of democracy. Erşat Hürmüzlü, chief advisor to the Turkish president, said at a recent democracy workshop that the Turks have designed their own destiny, including democratic standards and institutions to uphold the rights of individuals. Hürmüzlü also admitted that along the path to democracy in Turkey many mistakes were made but that learning from those mistakes was the best tool for ensuring better results.

In a nutshell, one can say that the democratic process is very similar everywhere but the nuance lies in the experiences of different societies in developing a democracy of their own. As old habits die hard, it will take the Arabs some time to get over the deformed government procedures put in place by the now-deposed dictators as the people develop their own democracies.

Such a transformation is far from being a negative connotation; it is an essential component of the change required before a nascent democracy can be bedded down. The longer this process lasts, the more opportunities there will be for hope and enthusiasm to be depleted. The situation in Syria is a warning to us of what can happen when things go wrong.

Fadi F. Elhusseini is a Political and Media Counselor at the Embassy of Palestine in Turkey. He is an Associate Research Fellow (ESRC) at the Institute for Middle East Studies-Canada. He has served as the Director of the Bureau of Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and as a media advisor at the Palestinian Presidency. Twitter @FElhusseini

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