Can democracy take root in the Arab world? asks Michael Wahid Hanna. How long will it take? Ten years, 20…50? The ultimate success of the Arab uprisings will depend heavily on the development of seven core areas, he writes for the Democracy journal: economic growth and equality; education policy; security-sector reform; transitional justice; decentralization; the development of regional norms on democratization; and—in many ways, the linchpin for everything—the flourishing of a more pluralistic politics.
In an important sense, all the preceding factors depend to varying degrees on these societies becoming more pluralistic—allowing more democracy, more dissent, more breathing room for secularism. The ongoing transitions, however, have made clear that the future of open, pluralistic politics is far from assured.
In fact, key political actors in the region have made it their goal to support notions of religious supremacy and to restrict rights and freedoms based on regressive interpretations of Islam and Islamic law. Coupled with the region’s zero-sum politics, the challenge of pluralism can be seen in terms of preserving space for dissenting political opinions and protecting equal citizenship for religious and ethnic minorities.
At root, much of this discussion is grounded in the approach of Islamist political parties to constitutional construction and ideas of citizenship.
The slow glide toward repression is a key concern, as the region’s Islamist parties have a highly majoritarian definition of democratic politics. This emphasis on the mandate of the ballot box at the expense of rights protection is further aggravated by the rightward pull of more rigid Salafi parties.
In both Tunisia and Egypt, Ennahdha and the Muslim Brotherhood have been loath to alienate these actors, seeing them as both allies against non-Islamists and rivals in the electoral setting. The region’s mainline Islamists would also have to make clear that violence has no place in democratic politics. While these groups have long abandoned violence as a tool, cynically allowing other actors to intimidate and coerce political opponents will fuel cycles of violence.
The region’s lack of experience with practical politics, inclusion, and democratic discourse has led to a zero-sum understanding of political power and an abiding allergy to direct criticism. The difficult art of compromise is not a self-evident practice and will be dependent on robust representation of non-Islamists in elected positions, the rise of effective civil-society groups, and the slow acculturation to a more dynamic political life.
Lessons for U.S. Policy: Conditional Engagement
The uneven performance of the region’s democratically elected Islamist leaders also suggests a policy approach toward states that have suppressed the forces for change—namely, encouragement of bottom-up democratization. Doing this would include taking steps such as pressing for municipal and provincial elections as a precursor to broader reforms. In pushing such a course on countries that have avoided regime change, the United States can explore anew the feasibility of more gradual reform, which has often been employed rhetorically by authoritarians to avoid actual reform. Further, an approach that seeks to impart governing responsibilities upon opposition groups will ease their potential transition to national leadership.
Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where he focuses on international security, human rights, and U.S. foreign policy in the broader Middle East and South Asia.
This extract is taken from a longer article for Democracy. RTWT