“The democrats of the Arab Spring did not embrace revolution to advance liberalism,” says a prominent observer. The secular youth who started the region’s protests are one of the losers of the revolts, while the intellectual elite and the region’s monarchies appear set to join them, writes Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui (right), a scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (he is also a cousin of King Mohammed VI of Morocco and third in line for the throne. )The fundamental question arising from the regional turmoil is can democracy become institutionalized?
Though progress has been uneven and the outcomes of many state-society struggles have yet to be resolved, the answer is a cautious yes,” he writes in Le Monde Diplomatique:
In at least a few countries, we are witnessing the onset of democratic institutionalization…the healthy convergence of politics around three arenas of competition: elections, parliaments and constitutions. When these institutions are robust and durable, then the democratic governments they engender are relatively safe from radical groups, reactionary forces and authoritarian backsliding.
In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, this process is unfolding, if at an unsteady pace.
The democrats of the Arab Spring did not embrace revolution to advance liberalism — which many in the West may see in the Arab context as advancing the cause of gender equality, unshackling censorship of pornography and other “immoral” materials, and otherwise widening the boundaries of expression. Liberalism is in truth a body of political thought that may give preeminence to the individual and freedom, but can only emerge from a later stage of democratic consolidation. It will not result from an early showdown between secularists and Islamists, and compromise on such values at this nascent stage is unlikely.
Democracy does not require that every citizen and every party embrace the same ideological framework, but rather that democratic rules and procedures become the definitive rules of the game. Even the Islamists are discovering that electoral triumphs require more than slogans: like democratic governments elsewhere, they need to deliver the goods through governance and policy, not empty promises of bliss and orthodoxy.
One does not need a cadre of western-educated liberal ideologues to create democracy: democracies emerged without democrats in Portugal and Spain in the 1970s, and then much of Latin America throughout the 1980s as what Samuel Huntington called the Third Wave of Democratization unfolded. The logic of democracy is agreeing to disagree within an institutional ecology bounded by accountability and pluralism — because the alternative is perpetual instability, conflict and stalemate.
Youth protesters — mostly urban, largely middle-class, and decidedly secular in the sense of not being members of any Islamist group — led the regional wave of revolutions. Today though, these youth movements have been marginalized in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and with it their particular vision of a more secular democratic future, because they failed to organize a cohesive political front once authoritarianism collapsed. Whereas Islamists took advantage of the resulting vacuum to mobilize (with varying electoral results), the youth movements refused to enter formal institutional politics.
What these youths must do is to align their interests with nascent institutions. The time has come to invest their energies, and the spirit of their activism, into formal politics such as parliaments and consultations. They can also act as surrogates for a new political scene that encourages the expression of religious opposition, nationalist tendencies, secular trends and centrist or centre-left values that span the entire spectrum of society. ….Unless these popular interests can be institutionalized into the system, there is a danger that a well-organized minority could rise to power, silence the moderate majority and slide the state back into authoritarian practices.
Yet another losing faction is the intellectual elite class, who have repeated the mistakes of their predecessors in failing to link the concrete concerns of localities and communities with their academic ideologies and grand visions.
Since the advent of Arab nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s, generations of educated elites have spoken in favor of progressive issues that have electrified the press and wooed the middle classes. Early on, many of these themes were oppositionist (against Zionism, imperialism, Orientalism, capitalism and other perceived threats). …. Arab intellectuals are far more progressive than their societies but remain crippled by their inability to organize at the grass-roots level and translate their social influence into concrete political parties.
Another reason for the intellectual elite’s marginalization is that their discourse of opposition could not fathom the possibility of an indigenous revolution. Their longstanding accusations that Zionism and western imperialism were the dual threats oppressing the Middle East were disproved when it became clear that the real problem was not the outside world, but the durability of authoritarianism and the lack of good governance.
A third set of losers is the Arab monarchies. This may seem contradictory. After all, no kingdom fell during the Arab Spring, and indeed a common refrain in the western press has been that, compared to their republican counterparts, the autocratic monarchies of the region have proven exceptionally resilient in the face of social unrest. The reasoning encompasses two arguments: these royal regimes enjoy a deeply rooted sense of cultural legitimacy that resonates throughout their societies. Unlike other authoritarian leaderships, they retain traditional acceptance with the public given their presence before or during anti-colonial struggles. Also, they are more adaptable, having a very flexible set of institutional tools with which to manipulate politics that go beyond mere repression.
However, the monarchies are running on borrowed time, and most are in worst straits than a decade ago.
Vested interests run deep in monarchies, because dynastic families develop resilient connections to influential social and political groups that provide support in exchange for patronage, ….. Drastic reforms that replace absolute monarchy with real parliamentary governance would undercut not just royals but their commoner clients too. Second, the post-colonial and post-cold war history of the region shows that monarchs have an aversion to transforming their executive power into moral authority; they will only consider constitutional monarchism after exhausting all other options and strategies. So without a concerted popular challenge, kingships have no incentive to bring anything more than cosmetic reforms to the bargaining table.
The geopolitical dimension of the Arab Spring has created a stunning paradox. Consider how it began: as a primarily local and then national-level phenomenon, it made itself heard as a call for justice and dignity by encouraging citizens to resist authoritarian brutality. Within months, it had morphed into a second stage of regionalization. No longer a purely domestic act, it spread a common set of principles and values across borders. ….. This new regional discourse, shared through social technologies and strengthened with every media broadcast, drew upon classic concepts of pan-Arab unity but rejected any firm ideology in favor of a more simple and shared frustration for authoritarian governance, and a powerful yearning for citizenship.
We are now, however, at a third stage in which this regional wave has become internationalized along sectarian and geopolitical cleavages….Iran, Syria and Hizbullah have attempted to force the transitional regimes of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to make the hard choice of joining their camp, while the pro-western Sunni alliance has also exerted pressure to win over these new regimes and their foreign policy alignments. Paradoxically, such exogenous strains have only strengthened these new regimes by convincing them to adopt a neutral foreign policy stance and take more seriously the process of institutionalization.
This paradox (that international conflict can bolster the stabilization of democratic politics at the domestic level) is quite novel in modern Middle East history. …. Even at its peak, no outside actor could frame the Arab Spring as a coherent ideological flood associated with any evil empire, opposing superpower or radical organization. It grew as an indigenous force before becoming entangled in geopolitics.
The confrontation between Sunni and Shia will be crucial to the future. However much it may be manipulated from outside, it is a clash which is likely to multiply the fault lines and cloud the horizon of the Arab Spring.
This extract is taken from a longer article on Le Monde Diplomatique.
Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui is a board member of Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and president of the Moulay Hicham Foundation.