Can arab revolutions create a stable democracy
Ben Ali the Tunisian dictator for 23 years has been overthrown in the first popular revolution in a modern Arab state. All previous such overthrows have been coups carried out by other members of the elite or the military. Following the Tunisian people’s example the Egyptians are protesting against their autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak who has been President since 1981. Mubarak has so far been unwilling to go and the protests are getting bigger and tensions are rising increasing the possibility of violence. But even if Mubarak and other dictators go are these countries likely to manage a transition to a stable democracy. There are very few examples of democracy functioning successfully in Arab countries that can be drawn upon to provide experience for any attempt to create one. The past however cannot be our only guide to the future, if there can be a popular revolution where there have previously been none then the Arab world may finally be on the path towards functioning democratic states.
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Pre existing institutions
Many middle eastern states already have institutions that are similar to the representative institutions that a stable democracy needs. Arab dictators have grown adept at holding elections, setting up parliaments, constitutional courts etc as window dressing to show either to their people or to the outside world that they are reforming and are ‘democratic’. No matter how undemocratic these regimes have been the simple existence of these institutions is useful when there is a revolution as they allow some continuity and the possibility of a transition to democracy.
To take Egypt where protests with the intention of toppling the Mubarak regime are underway as an example. It has a parliament with the Majilis Al-Sha’ab (People’s Assembly) as its lower house and Majilis Al-Shura (Shura Council) as its upper house. In both houses a majority of the members are directly elected.[[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliament_of_Egypt]] Egypt held elections for its parliament as recently as November 2010, these elections had very poor turnout and blatant ballot rigging while the main opposition the Muslim Brotherhood have to stand as independents.[[Egypt hold parliamentary poll, 28/11/2010, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11855691%5D%5D Egypt also has local elections for 52,000 municipal council seats in some 4,500 towns and cities. These elections are just as fraudulent as those for the national parliament
[[Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani Opposition Squeezed in Local Elections, IPS News, 17/3/08, http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=41618%5D%5D Similarly Egypt has a Supreme Constitutional Court that is supposed to be independent.[[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supreme_Constitutional_Court_of_Egypt%5D%5D
While these institutions may not currently be working in a democratic way they could quite easily be changed in to being fully democratic. This would create the necessary checks and balances to sustain democracy over the long term. The people are used to elections and will know what to do when they have the option to vote freely, they would vote in a broad range of candidates. Many of them may be islamist but it would be democratic.
While the presence of pre-existing institutions is an advantage in transitioning to a democracy, that advantage may be compromised when these institutions are largely seen as illegitimate and have not fostered a democratic political culture. Key to the development of a democratic political culture is confidence in institutions and a wilingness to accept the popular will as carried out by those institutions. While some citizens in democratic countries may consider themselves uncompromising-- compromise, the willingness to accept that you don't get everything you want, is at the very heart of what makes democracy possible.
Progress has been made
There was a referendum in Egypt in March on amending the constitution that passed with a yes vote of 77.2%. That there was a referendum at all surely counts as progress. It limits the number of presidential terms to two, promises to strengthen the judiciary and abolish some of the emergency laws.
On the other hand it is not hard to see why many of those who demonstrated in Tahrir square were in the no camp for this referendum. 'The president remains extraordinarily powerful. The amendments do nothing about due process and neglect other authoritarian aspects of the state' [[http://www.cfr.org/egypt/egypts-referendum-nervous-steps-forward/p24452]]
Outside powers want oil so support dictatorial regimes who can deliver it
Oil creates interdependence between the producing states in the Middle East and the consumers in Asia and the West. Although rising prices are good for producers they can also threaten the world economy and create inflation that in turn will damage the producers by reducing demand.[[Daniel Yergin, The Prize The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (New York, N.Y., 1993), p.703.]] The consumers have to listen to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab regimes who provide their oil whereas they often don’t for poor countries in Africa who would otherwise be no different. Oil is the main reason for external interest in Arab regimes some of the strongest alliances in the Middle East are built with oil as their foundations.[[Eric Watkins, ‘The Unfolding US Policy in the Middle East’, International Affairs, Vol.73, No.1 (Jan., 1997), pp.1-14, p.1]] Saudi Arabia is a US ally due to it being a major supplier while Egypt is a ally due to its vital position controlling a major trade route – the Suez canal. In neither case would any external powers such as the EU or US really want a long an unstable transition to a democracy making a strong man a much easier option. This is shown by how the Obama administration has always been behind events, being unwilling to call for democracy in Egypt and President Mubarak to go. Instead the administration made statements like
[[John Barry, Inside the White House’s Egypt scramble, Newsweek, 30/1/2011, http://www.newsweek.com/2011/01/30/inside-the-white-house-s-egypt-scramble.html%5D%5D Many previous administrations would probably have been even more supportive of Mubarak.
In the Libyan case the dictator remains (as of 20th April 2011) but cannot sell oil even if he retakes the refineries. The rebels cannot sell oil either (legally) even though they control most of the infrastructure. The sanctions imposed against Gaddafi apply to the whole of the country.[[http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFJOE73J04Q20110420]] Therefore the desire for oil pushes for further support of the rebels in this case as the sanction regime is only likely to be deconstructed following a rebel victory. Should Gaddafi remain in power the west may have to cut itself off from Libyan oil for years to come.
Obviously the above case represents a regime in flux. Once a regime is toppled then anything can happen. There is then no reason why outside actors should want to encourage another dictatorship rather than a democracy. A dictatorship may bring stability faster but a democracy is much more stable in the long run. Countries ideas of their strategic interests can be very divergent. An example is the Suez crisis. Prime Minister Eden considered it
[[Sir Anthony Eden, Full Circle: The Memoirs (Cambridge, 1960), p.533.]] As Nasser promised “freedom of navigation would not be affected by nationalisation” reducing the matter in the view of the US Secretary of Defence to “a ripple”.[[Dwight D. Eisenhower, Waging Peace 1956-1961 (New York, N.Y., 1965), pp.39, 41-3.]] So while Britain was still willing to fight for control over the Suez canal the US condemned that very action forcing a withdrawal.
Rentier economies lead to dictatorships
Most economies in the middle east are oligarchic with the wealth in the hands of a few. Oil has created rentier economies. These economies rely upon systems of patronage relying upon kinship groups, merchant communities and patron-client relationships, economic considerations become subservient to political considerations.[[Michel Chatelus and Yves Scehmeil, ‘Towards a New Political Economy of State Industrialisation in the Arab Middle East’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2 (May, 1984), pp.251-265, pp.261-262]] This occurred because of the small size of Middle Eastern private sectors forced the creation of state centred development programs.[[Timur Kuran, ‘Why the Middle East is Economically Underdeveloped: Historical Mechanisms of Institutional Stagnation’, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol.18, No.3 (Summer, 2004), pp.71-90, p.87.]] While it remains the case there is a very small group of people in each Arab country that need to keep political power in order to perpetuate their economic power. As they already have the economic power and are often the best educated they are the most capable of forming any new government. In such an oligarchic society it would be very risky for these people to allow the creation of a democracy that may well wish to redistribute resources more equally.
For these states perpetuating the resources that give their regime its legitimacy, as a provider, is absolutely vital, the regime needs to be able to fulfil its side of the bargain with the people.[[Gerd Nonneman, ‘Rentiers and Autocrats, Monarchs and Democrats, State and Society: The Middle East between Globalisation, Human “Agency”, and Europe’, International Affairs, Vol.77, No.1 (Jan., 2001), pp.141-162, pp.146-147.]] This is exactly what Egypt and other Middle Eastern states have been failing to do for the last couple of decades. Increasing food prices sparking riots shows that this is the case. Instead they have to rely more and more on force.
Once a rentier system has begun to break down there may well be an opportunity for a more democratic system to take hold and better redistribute the economic resources of the state that have previously been so concentrated in a few hands.
The west only supports democracies that fit with its world view.
While support from outside is not absolutely vital to a stable democracy, it could be a great asset. However the west’s record in support for democracy in the Middle East is not as great as it might be. In the ongoing negotiations to form a new government in Lebanon the US has stated if it were dominated by Hizbollah, aid to the nation could be jeopardised. [[http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2bfc75cc-2b1f-11e0-a65f-00144feab49a.html#axzz1Cbja53oL]] The US has a history of confrontation with the party that is the main political representation for the shia element of Lebanese society which has eroded rather than supported lebanese stability. [[http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/jan/14/lebanese-government-collapse-us-policy]] The victory of Hamas in 2006, wining 76 of 132 seats, did not result in any rapprochement with the Bush administration despite their professed desire to see democracy in the mid east. [[http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/26/AR2006012600372.html]] The result was that aid from Europe and the US was reduced to humanitarian aid only, rather than as before being a major element of Palestinian government income and expenditure. [[http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/palestine/pa-elections2006.htm]] The result being that in 2007 the ‘country’ was rent in two as Hamas seized control of Gaza. Of course another middle eastern state that holds democratic elections, Iran, is the very model of a pariah state from the western point of view.
Democracy is a western concept. As I recall a U.S president invaded Iraq, on the pretext of bringing democracy to, and ousting a dictator from Iraq.
Obama has repeatedly voiced his support for the protesters in Egypt and Hilary Clinton commended the Tunisians on their move(the move that instigated a domino effect of toppling dictators all over the middle east) towards an honest democracy.
The Suez canal is under Egyptian control and the U.S which has many trade interests in the region (mainly oil-related) will do her best to maintain amicable ties with whatever new government the Egyptians will elect.
Jordon is another U.S-Israel ally in the 'axis of evil' undergoing a change of government. Jordon is too geographically close to the Palestine-Israel area, for the U.S to be juggling with relations to her.
Did an Egypt ruled by military persons fit with America's world view up until now?
No, the U.S maintains positive ties where the U.S sees military and economic benefit. The motivation for hacking ties is the same.
Current arab democracies hardly encourage hopes of stability.
The few democracies in the Arab world that there are at the moment hardly stand as shining beacons of stability and rectitude. The current Iraqi government took 249 days to form. [[http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/dec/24/iraq-government-maliki?INTCMP=SRCH]] The conditions for creating a stable government in Iraq seem to be based more on appeasing all the relevant groups than creating a working government. Lebanon, another democratic Arab country also has its problems, the national unity government collapsed this month after 11 ministers from Hezbollah and its allies resigned. [[http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12170608]] The third example of an arab democracy is of course Palestine. President Mahmoud Abbas, elected in 2005, continues in office despite his term having expired in January 2009. He extended his term, which opponents say breached the Palestinian Basic Law. [[http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=115988]]
ineffectiveness does not rule out stability, dictatorships/kingships/sheikh-ships in the Middle East were stable for centuries despite being ineffective.
The west controls the stability of governments in the middle East, toppling and crowning dictators, shahs and the like when it is economically and militarily fruitful. Dictatorships/Monarchies have been and continue to be stabilized with weapons floated in by western countries. Iraq's democracy and that of other countries in the middle-east will be stabilized via the same means.
The West and its allies in the region would prefer a dictator that they can control and keep Islamist parties out of control.
The United States, Israel, and their allies were once the main supporters and trainers of the Islamist revolutionaries whom they now are fighting. As most people know, the mujihadeen who are now at war with the US in Afghanistan were armed and trained to defeat the Soviets in the country. They bit the hand that fed them. The same happened in Iraq with Sadaam Hussein and with the Shah of Iran who was ousted by Islamist revolutionaries. The West wants access to the oil and natural minerals in the Middle East. They also want to protect Israel from its neighbours. They are therefore caught in a bind. Democracy is currently defined as a government elected by the people through elected representatives; political, social or legal equality. Can a country which is governed by a party that discriminates against women or certain ethnic groups truly claim that it espouses democracy? It is not so certain that extremist Islamist parties can or want to deliver that brand of Western democracy. And its obvious the US wants to retain its stranglehold on the oil and military supremacy in the region. Therefore, due to outside pressures, it will be very difficult to transform the countries in the Middle East into democracies over night that will not be corrupted by outside interference in the process. And even if they do transform themselves from monarchies or dictatorships, it is doubtful whether their parties will deliver democracy to the entire populace.
A stable democracy would almost certainly be best for most western countries, particularly the European Union. However they are likely to prefer dictatorship to prolonged instability so the question for western governments is really how quickly they think democracy can be entrenched in the country and whether it can happen without violence. (of course this probably does not apply to Israel who have justifyable strategic reasons for not wanting an Egyptian democracy - and the US may simply follow the Israeli line)
Too much conflict with western concepts and religious concepts.
As many arab states are considered to be Islamic many of the religious believes which these "revolutinaries" value will come under threat. For example, woman will begin wanting to enter professions, begin have a more dominant public figure in eyes of the society, and things such as homosexuality will become creeping into these revolutionised states.
However if these Arab states want a stable democracy running through their government and society it is important that they find a common grounds for setting aside these conflict. But I do not beleive that Arab states will be capable of this due to their strong religious values. Shari'a law is one that does not agree with many western democracies, and to have a democratic system in place with Shari'a law would be incredibly difficult. It would conflict with so many peoples beliefs and freedoms, and the possiblity of more civil wars could break out.
Thus if Arab states are to develop a stable democracy they should consider abandoning aspects such as Shari'a law, encouraging multi-culturalism (with intergration), whilst abandoning traditional beliefs which conflict with many freedoms.
What do you think?