A recent study by Princeton University’s Arab Barometer network finds that the majority of Arabs believe democracy, as a system of government, has failed to meet their expectations, leading many to think it is not the right formula for their social ills. The study, in which 23,000 individuals across ten countries were asked different questions about economies, politics, cost of living and freedoms, is quite comprehensive in scope and reach.
Those surveyed are mainly people living in the Middle East and North African countries, where some form of democracy has been in place for the last few years. Elections were regularly organised or promised as a way forward. Many Arab countries were not included in the study but it still represents widely shared beliefs, indicative of the way people think.
Strikingly, most respondents said they prefer strong leaders who can lead them into better economic conditions even if that meant bending “the rules” to get things done. This comes a decade after the so called “Arab Spring”, which was supposed to have “liberated” the masses, giving them the power to decide their future. Tunisia is always a good example to consider since it was the birthplace of the “Spring” – turned winter long before it was expected, as 77 per cent of Tunisian respondents expressed preference for strong leaders over democracy itself. Why?
The simple answer is that democracy has failed to deliver in almost all countries visited by the “Arab Spring”, except Iraq, where democracy was spoon-fed into the population through a blatant American invasion in 2003.
The same Tunisians, who forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out in January 2011, elected President Kais Saied in 2019 giving up on what they were told by democracy advocates was their best chance of charting their future. They saw Mr. Saied, a complete outsider, as a saviour; after the euphoria of victory in 2011 gave way to the country’s most turbulent years in which their elected Parliament became anything but a respected chamber where elected representatives act responsibly.
Furthermore, President Saied, in 2021, was given carte blanche when he took over power last July, later dissolving the Parliament and now offering Tunisians his own constitution, replacing the democratically written and proven Constitution of 2014. He did that on the back of massive public support across the country simply because the people liked what he was doing and saw his “extraordinary measures” as their best chance to overhaul the “democratic” corrupt system that took over Tunisia over the last eight years.
In Tunisia’s eastern neighbour, Libya, another 77 per cent of those surveyed said they prefer a strong leader over the shallow democratic process that kept failing them since they first went to the polls in 2012. Unlike Tunisians, Libyans had to learn the lesson the hardest of ways as their country was invaded in 2011, when their version of the “Arab Spring” turned sour from the start. Today they compare life to how it was before 2011 under their long-time leader. Muammer Gaddafi. The man was demonised and made to look as the only hurdle between Libyans and their flourishing paradise, if only he is gone. When he was toppled they ended up less secure, disenchanted and poorer, despite their country being rich as a top oil producer.
Is this because Libyans and Tunisians and, indeed, the wider Arabs, are immune to democracy as practiced by other nations in Europe, for example? Some Western commentators certainly think so, but this could not be further from the truth.
The fact is very simple: the democracy advocated across the MENA region has either been without foundations, or became corrupt and paralysed from the start.
This is manifested in Lebanon, once considered the oasis of democracy where elections have been part of life for the most part of the country’s 79 years as an independent state. In Lebanon, which is on the brink of collapse for the last three years, 73 per cent of Lebanese respondents to the study, when it comes to economics, said they prefer a strong leader who can make things happen, regardless of how. According to the World Bank, Lebanon is going through the “most severe” economic crisis in the world since the mid-19th Century.
If anything, the study should not be taken to mean Arabs reject democracy because their way of life, Islamic culture and heritage are incompatible with the modern world and are counter to democratic practices. In fact, the findings of the study should be seen within the complete process of democratic transformation within the region. Democracy as a way of life and system of government is an educational process where co-existence and tolerance of differences takes root through decades of practice.
This has not been the case in our region, and many Western powers that have dominated the area have not been honest in supporting democratic changes. When Tunisians revolted against Ben Ali, France and the United States attempted to save him. The same happened in Egypt during the Egyptian revolution in 2011. The case of Libya was the worst example of Western double standards and hypocrisy, leading many Libyans to believe their salvation comes only through military invasion, just as was the case in Iraq in 2003. When Libya plunged into chaos after Gaddafi and Iraq disintegrated after Saddam Hussein, Westerners blamed the people, not themselves, for the outcome.
This is not an anti-colonial rhetoric but a fact of political and social change that went bad, in which individual nations are partly to blame. Democracy failed in Iraq, Tunisia, Libya and many other Arab countries simply because it was never allowed to take root.
Across the region, including in “old” regional democracies like Lebanon, democratic practices never run their natural course of evolution, like in France or the United Kingdom. The West, for example, publically advocates for Arab democracy, but only if it produces the desired outcome. Manifestation of this policy came when the West rejected Hamas’s 2006 election win, just because Israel did not like it. The same happened in Lebanon in later years. Today Libya is held hostage to the very militias the West helped to topple Gaddafi, but when they started strangling the country the West simply left the issue to its regional proxies, while blaming Libyans themselves. By the way, the current study found 62 per cent of Palestinians want a stronger leader, regardless of how he governs them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.