The Democratization Process in The Middle East
In 1881, the great Muslim reformer Muhammad Abduh published in the Egyptian gazette “Al-Waqāʾiʿ al-Miṣriyya” an editorial that could have been written today. Reflecting on the democratic system of government, he gave as an example two countries that he considered opposites: the United States and Afghanistan. After praising American democracy for ensuring the rights of its citizens, Abduh spoke out against implementing such a system in the Asian country since Afghan voters would only think in the interest of their family and their tribe, and not for the common benefit. As he considers: “Such is the condition of nations that have become accustomed to the reins of power being in the hands of a king, a prince, or a vizier who does not care about the interests of the nation. For the Afghans to reach the [political] level of the Americans, it would take centuries to popularize the sciences, tame mentalities, subdue appetites and propagate ideals, so that what is called ‘public opinion’. Only then would what be right for the United States be right for Afghanistan.”
We may object to the idealization of American democracy – which, by the way, has had its difficulties in recent times – but the events of the last two decades seem to support Abduh’s doubts about the viability of democratic systems in countries where it does not arise organically.
Thus, we should evaluate two notorious examples – Afghanistan and Iraq – where the United States exported democracy and drastically failed. In the case of Afghanistan, the result has been a kleptocracy without any legitimacy that, moreover, did not survive without the military support of its sponsor. Meanwhile, Iraq has a political system almost as corrupt as the Afghan one and markedly sectarian. Its leadership is so weak, that it fostered the establishment of systematic oppression of the Sunni minority -thusly, fueling the emergence of Daesh- like Saddam Hussein did with the Shiites while forgetting the basic needs of electricity and water that ordinary Iraqi citizens need.
Within this tumultuous context, the Arab Spring brought abundant hope and created a context in which democracy was the leading banner. The Egyptian people disbanded Hosni Mubarak and rushed to hold elections which, in the face of disorganization by left-wing revolutionaries, delivered a landslide victory to the extremist Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, they ruled in an authoritarian manner, refused to dialogue with non-religious political forces, and imposed a new Constitution that did not protect the rights of minorities and women. After a year in power, the Islamists were so unpopular that the demonstrations against them exceeded in size those that ousted the dictator, allowing another strongman, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, to take over.
Despite his brutal repression of any dissenting voice, Al-Sisi won the acquiescence of many Egyptians by pointing to the bloody outcome of the revolution in places like Libya and Syria. In the North African country, Libyans revolted against Gaddafi (who was lynched by his own people), but the country was soon plunged into a civil war fueled by regional and world powers with contrary agendas that divided and impoverished it. On the other hand, Syrians failed to topple the Baathist regime, and interference from the same powers that have always been allied to the dictatorship kept Bashar al-Assad in power. The fact that an inclusive political project turned into a bloody jihad, alongside the recent seismic events, has done nothing more than wash the image of the regime and give it pure oxygen for its survival.
In Tunisia, considered the only success of the Arab Spring, years of institutional blockade and economic and health crises have led to massive demonstrations that have led to an unstable governmental administration and the suspension of Parliament. This led President Kais Saied to invoke the constitution, giving him extraordinary powers in an emergency. Hence, most Tunisian political parties and some international observers have described this action as a coup, similar to the events in Egypt.
In the Levant, Lebanon is experiencing what the World Bank has described as one of the worst economic crises in the last 150 years. The lira has lost 110% of its value in the last four years, and almost half of Lebanese live below the poverty line. The explosion in the port of Beirut overwhelmingly devastated much of the city. Doubtlessly, this was a particularly dramatic symptom of the ineptitude and lack of scruples of a political class that has been in power for decades thanks to a “democratic” system based on sectarian quotas.
These scenarios clearly confirm that elections in non-Western countries often do not result in governments being interested in the prosperity of their citizens. Whether democratically elected or not, rulers tend to use power to enrich themselves, feed patronage, and often favor one segment of the population over others. Being able to vote every four years means little to those who lack jobs, security, and essential services. The consequent frustration of the citizenry weakens the legitimacy of the democratic system, identified with corruption, arbitrariness, and inefficiency.
Free elections do not guarantee good governance in the absence of other necessary institutions. Political parties that offer ideological alternatives and recognize each other as legitimate, rather than populists that claim to speak for God and/or set themselves up as the legitimate representative of an ethnic or religious community, is the ideal healthy sociological context. An ambiance with a developed civil society -open to dialogue and conciliation, impartial courts that can ensure the rule of law, independent and responsible media outlets that enjoy the freedom of expression, and a minimally educated population, are basic pillars for the prosperity and well-being of the unity of the national sovereignty of a country. Talking about education can sound dismissive and paternalistic, especially when many Western education systems do not seem to prevent hostility towards science or the increased popularity of conspiracy theories. However, we must remember that when the U.S. army invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, the illiteracy rate reached two-thirds of the adult population in the former, and a quarter in the latter.
The same happened in Egypt, while in Syria one in five adults could not read or write after the civil war started; and even for the literate population, education in the region is based on memorization and repetition, and does not promote creativity or critical thinking. Countries with low levels of education tend to be poorer, more unequal, and more violent. Indubitably, making it is difficult for a healthy political system to exist. For this reason, Abduh closed his editorial focusing on this issue: “Our intellectuals, who want our country to imitate Europe, will fail. Time will pass, and the nation will continue in its former state, though it might have reached a better state if it had been allowed to follow its natural evolution. Whoever wants the good of the country only must perfect their education; after that, the rest will come.”
In conclusion, interfering in the affairs of other countries or, worse, trying to impose a certain way of doing things not only does not work but is counterproductive. On the contrary, assisting in the development of education and access to modern information and communication technologies can be an effective means of contributing to the organic emergence of a democratic system.