How the Middle East turmoil sharpens need for democracy

By Ali Imran


Four years after the spontaneous eruption of movements for democracy, named the Arab Spring, the multi-layered troubles of the Middle East have further sharpened the choice between chaos and democracy.

The enormity of sufferings in the multiple conflicts, daily struggles for survival, implacability of the status quo powers, and brutality of the self-declared Islamic State militancy — dubbed collectively as the Arab Winter — may appear to becloud the demand for democracy in the current moment.

But, actually, each passing day of bloodshed and anarchy intensifies the realisation among moderate people that alternatives to democracy — the authoritarian rules and the IS militancy – offer no hope for a prosperous and secure future. However, there are significant segments of minorities and vested interests in the conflict-torn Arab countries that still oppose the rule of the majority due to a variety of factors including political, sectarian and ethnic reasons.

Tunisia’s success in institutionalising a constitutional and participatory democracy – despite its militancy challenges and economic hardships — and on the other hand continuation of decades-long authoritarian rule in the rich Gulf states, both contradict the notion that countries need to create economic conditions before having democratic governance.

For men and women in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Libya, their Arab Spring resolve for political empowerment, economic freedom and justice has been severely tested by hundreds of thousands of killings, including tens of thousands of children, and displacement of millions.

The saner Egyptian civil society voices’ remain steadfast in their opposition to the autocratic regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has incarcerated thousands of people including revolutionary youth in the ongoing crackdown on dissent.

“All that it takes is a tipping point. And the tipping point could come very easily and unexpectedly. It could be due to economic hardship, repression and feeling of enough is enough. And I think the trajectory that this current (Egyptian) regime is taking is actually precipitating this tipping point,” Emad Shahin, a professor of political Islam at the American University in Cairo, who escaped Sisi’s suppression, told National Public Radio in Washington.

The reversals in Egypt and gruesome massacres in Syria also indicate that the road to a functioning democracy, however conservative in the beginning, will be hard, and that moderate forces need to persevere in their struggle to overcome opposition from both entrenched elites and militants.

The current bloodstained phase in the democratic quest in much of the region is a poignant irony of the computer-revolutionised and Internet-liberated age, as it is the Arab-Muslim innovation that founded the basis for modern information systems.

In his book, The World is Flat, author Thomas L Friedman, quotes Nayan Chanda, Editor of Yale Global Online: “The entire modern information revolution, which is built to a large degree on algorithms, can trace its roots all the way back to Arab-Muslim civilisation, and the great learning centres of Baghdad and Alexandria,” which first introduced these concepts, then transferred them to Europe through Muslim Spain.

Now, centuries later, when their predecessors’ creativity has led to a democracy — enabling worldwide web revolution — the Arabs have to pay such a heavy price for even desiring democratic governance through political participation.

The self-immolation of the Tunisian vendor Muhammad Bouazizi in December 2010, which sparked a wave of new political consciousness, was a collective scream of protest against venality of the ruling elites, a cry for a fair opportunity to earn livelihood – a right to live honourably. The upheaval that followed was a sudden splurge of long-brewing protest on the stifled Arab street for “bread, freedom and social justice.”

Egypt’s young men and women converged peacefully on Cairo’s Tahrir Square to get rid of Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule. But the military establishment has dialled back some of their hard-fought gains. Among the broader regional dynamics, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, with its deadly sectarian ramifications, makes matters worse, as indeed does the world powers’ failure to work out a two-state solution to the Palestinian question.

The forces of moderation and unemployed youth in the region embraced the “Arab Spring” movements resolutely but they did not have central leadership and grass-roots cross-section organisation. The organisational ability was a key factor in the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in the 2012 Egyptian election.

Then the policies adopted by regimes of Bashar al-Assad (totalitarian rule), Sisi (violent repression) and Nouri al-Maliki (exclusionary sectarianism), deeply fractured the region, serving the cause of IS radicals.

Contrastingly, Rachid Ghannouchi, founder and chairman of Tunisia’s Ennahda, The Renaissance Party — that ruled inclusively after achieving victory in the 2011 election — symbolises sacrifice and compromise – political traits that make democracy work.

“Despite what some believe, there is no “Arab exception” to democracy, nor is there any inherent contradiction between democracy and Islam. The Middle East can indeed achieve stability and peace through a process of democratic reconciliation and consensus,” Ghannouchi wrote in The Washington Post, as Tunisia made its landmark political power transition.

According to Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian foreign minister, the people of Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt largely see political Islam and democracy as compatible.

“As different as these societies are, few people in any of them envision a purely secular state, but most endorse basic democratic principles. These fluid, complex responses indicate that not many of those polled see a fundamental contradiction between the precepts of Islam and democratic principles.”

The Egyptian U-turn from the democratic path with Cairo’s media muzzling – harsh sentencing and the grisly spectacle of Al-Jazeera journalists’ court appearances in steel cages– are seen by experts as tactics to scare the people and the world away from demanding democracy.

Tunisia, the birthplace of Arab Spring in 2010, shows the way with a power-sharing arrangement that has helped right-leaning Ennahda to complete its term and see off the virulent turmoil. Another lesson that the North African country — despite its challenges — offers is that success or failure of a democratic system depends on a broad spectrum of forces – from the rightists to moderates to secularists. That Egypt’s illiberal secularists are as much to blame for Sisi’s reign of repression as the Muslim Brotherhood’s power grab.

Besides internal conflicts, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Western and regional countries leaving the wars inconclusively, or turning away in complete abandonment in other cases, have also contributed to raking up imbroglios in Iraq, Syria and Libya. The current troubles are not just because of people’s movements for democracy. President Barack Obama’s latest statement that the IS “is a direct outgrowth of al Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion,” marks a candid assessment towards understanding the unintended consequences of wars and the Middle Eastern complexities.

That the US-led war against the IS cannot be a military-alone affair is too obvious. What is needed is a globally encouraged but locally evolved democracy that allows people in each country to grow politically and economically. The smooth democratic transition in Tunisia, political plurality and tolerance practiced by its leaders clearly establishes that democracy is very much possible in the Arab world; that democracy and Islam are mutually compatible as both stress an egalitarian society with respect for human rights; and that the self-styled IS is not a substitute for democracy.

The successful Tunisian experiment also proves that an uninterrupted advancement of democracy is in itself a process of accountability because it brings transparency, restores human dignity, serves as antidote to sectarian strife and militancy, and enables nations to resolve political disputes peacefully.

At this critical juncture, the world has an inescapable duty to support the success of democratic rule in Tunisia, and this way help spur an era of Arab democracies – a long-term solution to long-running troubles. The stakes are high in ensuring that detractors of democracy do not find any reason to extinguish the flame of freedom.

President Obama, who has pledged $1 billion in investment for Tunisia, and other countries, to help its democracy deliver jobs and enable entrepreneurs to succeed, has an opportunity to lead a sustained effort to bolster Tunisian democratic governance, and help bring about freedoms elsewhere, and with it shape his administration’s legacy on the complex Middle Eastern situation since the Arab Spring uprisings.

This piece originally appeared in Pakistan Today on March 21, 2015

Map Image of Greater ME  is from Wikipedia


Categories: Articles, Democracy, Globalization, Opinion

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