Arab voices address challenges of New Middle East


Five years after the Arab Spring, the crisis of legitimacy that helped precipitate it has lost neither its resonance nor its urgency, according to a qualitative survey of Arab experts conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program. The experts are almost unanimous in their extreme dissatisfaction with their governments’ responses to the many challenges they face, write Carnegie analysts Perry Cammack and Marwan Muasher.

The objects of their ire take many forms, from authoritarianism and militarism to corruption and cronyism to external interference. These varied sources of discontent highlight the underlying absence of meaningful social contracts between states and citizens in most Middle Eastern countries, as well as the lack of a common understanding of the ingredients necessary to rejuvenate them, they suggest:

The experts generally view democratic governance not as an end in itself but as an instrument for improving accountability and addressing corruption. Although they overwhelmingly support representative democracy, the experts tend to distinguish between democratic institutions and those bodies’ more superficial trappings. They express considerable discontent with the lost opportunities resulting from governance failures, and they see direct linkages between the lack of political pluralism and the rise of extremist waves confronting the Middle East…..

Consistent with Arab public opinion polling, the experts overwhelmingly support representative democracy, but not without reservations, Cammack and Muasher add:

Experts were asked about the applicability of democracy to their countries. Only six of 101 experts—two from Yemen and one each from Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and the UAE—believe that democracy is not suitable for their country. “This narrative of Arab exceptionalism is not only racist but factually wrong,” says one Egyptian female.

However, Arab societies have a good deal of experience with authoritarian regimes that skillfully manipulate democratic trappings to create a thin veneer of legitimacy. Few experts speak of democracy in idealized tones. Significant numbers make clear that democratic governance is not an end in itself but rather a mechanism for improving accountability and addressing corruption.

Several experts express concerns about the risk of illiberal democracy, the challenge of protecting political or demographic minorities, and the tendency for authoritarian regimes to carefully stage-manage elections.


Perry Cammack is an associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he focuses on long-term regional trends and their implications for American foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @perrycammack.

Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at Carnegie, where he oversees research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @MarwanMuasher.

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