After popular uprisings toppled authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011 and precipitated a negotiated power transfer in Yemen in early 2012, it quickly became commonplace to observe that ousting a disliked regime was easier than replacing it with something better, write RAND analysts Laurel E. Miller and Jeffrey Martini.
A new RAND workshop report addresses the challenges that emerge after regime change, as politicians, activists, and publics at large struggle to define new rules for wielding power and new relationships between states and societies. That change has come neither quickly nor easily has frustrated many leaders and citizens. Indeed, the dramatic and participatory nature of the Arab Spring uprisings seems to have made the gap between popular expectations and actual results particularly pronounced.
Against this backdrop, the RAND Corporation and the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) jointly convened a workshop in Istanbul, Turkey. An ideologically-diverse group of participants from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Jordan, included political party leaders, former ministers, current officials and senior political advisers, heads of research institutions, academics, and columnists.
Under the broad banner of the workshop title—Building Democracy on the Ashes of Autocracy: The Way Ahead for Arab Countries in Transition—participants focused on four main topics: approaches to developing new political systems and political parties; security threats to democratization; the role of regional neighbors and the international community in supporting democratization; and lessons that can be learned from past experiences in other parts of the world.
Newly elected leaders in Arab transition states are facing enormous popular demands that go beyond political reforms to include improvements in economic outcomes and the provision of public services.
• The unity engendered by the Arab revolutions has given way, in several countries, to severe political polarization. Forging cross-ideological coalitions among Islamist and secular groups is critical to avoiding this dynamic.
• The effects of authoritarian legacies are country- specific, and it is not clear that any Arab transition state is more disadvantaged than another. But each state must address its authoritarian legacies in order to build a functioning democratic system.
• Political transitions bring the promise of positive change but also introduce the risk of excessive attachment to identities during periods of uncertainty. Respect for minority rights and some decentralization of power are useful for allaying the concerns of potential spoilers and building national identities.
• New Arab leaders are facing a balancing act in their implementation of transitional justice. They must prioritize reconciliation to build inclusive, stable political orders, while demonstrating that there will be accountability for past abuses.
• All the Arab transition states are faced with a need for security system reform. This, along with election assistance, is an area where the international community is well positioned to help.
• Arab political and civil society leaders are examining historical experiences of democratization in other regions to distill best practices that can inform their own political development. Making these lessons accessible and testing their portability to the Arab world is one way the international community can support democratization.
PROBLEMS OF POLARIZATION AND THE STRUGGLE FOR CONSENSUS
Workshop participants expressed considerable anxiety about political polarization [which] was seen as setting in very soon after the uprisings and regime changes. Participants saw a need to develop consensus, but it was not apparent that there was a shared understanding of the concept. Some indicated that a consensus approach to politics would mean that a broad array of political parties would share decision-making, while others emphasized that consensus meant agreement on the rules of the political playing field. The discussion reflected the struggle to redefine the essential nature of politics in newly competitive systems.
One of the participants from Egypt noted that while it is in vogue to call for consensus, there is a lack of willingness by political groups to make the tough concessions necessary. Another Egyptian participant raised the question of whether the winners of the Egyptian revolution were incapable of building a democratic system because they themselves are undemocratic in nature.
The situation is Egypt was contrasted with Tunisia, where a slower, more deliberate transition process has produced greater consensus and stability. The ability of Tunisia’s main Islamist party and two secular parties to form a government was lauded as an example of the type of cross-ideological coalitions lacking in other transitioning countries.
Lack of experience with negotiating political differences has led to fear of disagreement. On the one hand, there was a view that political polarization was a slippery slope to civil conflict, in the absence of a deeply rooted democratic culture and in the shadow of popular uprisings—several of which, especially Libya’s, involved the use of violence. And even where civil conflict appeared unlikely, there were fears that democratization could manifest as strict majoritarianism.
As a counterpoint, the Arab Spring countries’ experiences with democratic processes are not as thin as assumed. Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya had exposure to democratic processes in the colonial and/or monarchical periods. Open political disagreement could actually be considered a major achievement of the revolutions, given the absence of open political discourse under the former regimes. In this view, disagreement could be seen as a building block of politics. Conversely, elevating consensus and stability above the fractious politics of democracy could lead to the emergence of new dictatorships.
Several participants highlighted the importance of avoiding political arrangements that reinforce sectarian and tribal affiliations. Both the Lebanese and the Iraqi political systems were referenced as negative examples [since] explicit or implicit quota systems along ethnic and sectarian lines hardened the political salience of identities and stifled the development of interest groups based on shared principles rather than lineage or blood ties.
Participants expressed varying views on whether the Arab uprisings were motivated by a desire for democracy or by other interests, including better living conditions. One participant believed the revolution in his country was basically driven by an “opportunity deficit” and that people genuinely believed freedom would translate into jobs. A common theme across the revolutions was the quest for dignity (kar?ma) but that this broad and subjective concept is a difficult one to translate into a concrete political program. At least one participant considered the absence of democratic culture to be an obstacle to national dialogue on objectives.
DISPARATE IMPACT OF AUTHORITARIAN LEGACIES
A particular focus of discussion was the differing implications of revolutions that removed the top political leadership but left the state bureaucracy intact (e.g., Egypt and Tunisia) as compared with revolutions that disposed of the entire state apparatus (e.g., Libya and potentially Syria). There was acknowledgement that in the former cases, bureaucratic continuity provides some useful measure of stability but also creates the challenge of reforming state institutions populated with individuals who have vested interests in the pre-revolution status quo.
Some participants saw institutional continuity as an advantage in checking the infusion of ideology into the new political systems, while others were more inclined to see institutional continuity as a manifestation of the “deep state.” Related to the latter view, some saw the revolutions as unfinished in many respects; in Egypt, for instance, the former system was not a one-man show performed by former President Hosni Mubarak alone, so many elements of his regime remain in place.
Despite the differences in the nature of authoritarian legacies across the transition countries, participants echoed similar themes on their impact, noting that one of the most debilitating legacies imparted by authoritarian rule was the reinforcement of a winner-take-all mentality among political competitors. This has manifested itself in institutions staffed on the basis of political loyalty rather than merit, and in the politicization of the apparatus of the state. Among ascendant political forces, this dynamic is reflected in a propensity toward unilateral decision-making rather than coalition-building. Among opposition forces, symptoms of this winner-take-all attitude include election boycotts, street politics, and use of force. As yet, the concept of political coalitions lacks roots.
As to how to overcome authoritarian legacies, one participant noted the need to change incentive structures to foster a culture of investment in the future as opposed to short-term rent seeking. In an especially blunt assessment, one participant noted that many Arab societies have evolved directly from Bedouin societies to welfare states, arguing that there is a need for new thinking in which Arabs take pride in creating productive enterprises and building governing arrangements based on consent.
SECURITY THREATS TO DEMOCRATIZATION
Insecurity or the potential for insecurity in the transition countries could be used as an excuse to prevent democratization. Internal insecurity in Libya was regarded as an especially significant risk to democratization.
A participant described the militia problem in Libya as a “Frankenstein” partly created by the transitional authorities’ approach to demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration.
More broadly in the region, insecurity could undermine democratization by reinforcing ethnic and sectarian identities. The Syrian civil war is having this deeply damaging effect. A Syrian participant noted that the Assads had destroyed “social solidarity,” pitting community against community in a way that atomized society, resulting in a Hobbesian situation in which there was a complete absence of trust.
INTERNATIONAL AND REGIONAL RESPONSES
In Libya, participants perceived regional powers to be meddling in dangerous ways rather than helping the new government—for example, by supporting militia groups and encouraging political parties to create their own militias. In Yemen, too, participants saw many regional as well as international actors playing for their own interests. A participant noted that all Yemeni politics takes place within the shadow of Saudi Arabia and that some conflicts in Yemen, like the Houthi rebellion in the north, are really a product of strategic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It was emphasized that the international community should support transition processes, not individuals or parties, and should not try to pick “winners” of the Arab Spring. One participant framed the fine line the international community must walk as “mediating but not intervening.”
The international community received high marks on electoral support in Tunisia and Libya, and participants acknowledged the work of United Nations missions such as the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and help from groups such as the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the National Democratic Institute, and the Carter Center. Credit was also given to the United Nations Development Program for raising awareness through the series of Arab Human Development Reports that documented the various “deficits” in the region. One participant cited the European Union partnership negotiations as an impetus for the original Damascus Spring in 2000, which he saw as a precursor to the current uprising.
The United States, however, was seen by participants as having lost interest in the region, leaving its destiny to regional actors. A Libyan participant bemoaned the “light footprint” approach as an overcorrection for U.S. missteps in Iraq.
Several participants flipped the assumed direction of international assistance on its head. One argued that a resource-rich transitioning country like Libya should actually be a source as much as a recipient of international assistance. In particular, this participant saw an opportunity for Libya to invest in its poorer neighbors to the south as a way of enhancing stability on its borders. Another participant noted that the transitioning countries in the region have as much to learn from each other as from outside actors. He asked rhetorically, “if there is not cooperation between Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia now, when will there be?”
COMPARING ARAB POLITICAL TRANSITIONS TO PAST EXAMPLES
A common theme was that there is no single model for democratization; rather, there are a variety of comparative experiences to draw upon and an assortment of good practices from which to select. So, for example, a participant working on judicial reform in Egypt was interested in what lessons could be gleaned from Latin America’s experience. Several participants were looking to different European states with presidential, parliamentary, or mixed systems to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of each system of governance.
Participants struck a note of caution about latching on to models or ideal types. Several noted that publics were seeking to emulate the “Dubai model” without considering the unique conditions that have allowed Dubai to flourish economically. Similar points were made about overly simplistic readings of Turkey’s democratization experience, an oft-cited regional model. Participants noted the need to differentiate between different aspects of the so-called Turkish model—e.g., Islamist inclusion, economic success, and the military as a stabilizing force. Others noted the limits of transferring lessons from Turkey to the Arab world given what they saw as differences in the depth of religiosity in public life.
It is important not to think about Arab countries’ lack of experience with democratic culture in an “orientalist” way. Western countries such as Spain, for instance, did not have a democratic culture before democratization.
Past democratization experiences demonstrate that the political transitions in their own countries will take many years to unfold. One participant observed that, because the revolutions were not intellectual revolutions, acquiring “democratic knowledge”—the “what” and the “how” of democracy—is only beginning. This sort of knowledge does not fall from the sky; it must be cultivated over time.
This extract is taken from a longer version available here.