What kind of Arab democracy?


The Arab Spring largely failed to reduce the scope of sectarian and religious radicalism in Arab societies, notes Khaled Sulaiman. However, will this failure lead to a reevaluation about the challenges still facing Arab societies after 2011? Will the political elite examine the outdated educational system that did not promote citizenship, justice, and political participation? Educational reform must be the first step, he writes for Fikra Forum:

Radicalism in Arab and Islamic countries has many causes: tyranny, monopolization of freedoms, civil war, poverty and illiteracy, the 1979 occupation of Afghanistan and the 2003 occupation of Iraq, and the spread of Wahhabism funded by Saudi oil money. However, the most important among them all is education. Books on the Arabic language, religious education, civics, general culture, and religious texts do not only prevent students from having a moderate, open-minded point of view that accepts the other, but also encourage in them an extremist mentality that rejects the other…..

Arab respondents mostly reject the brand of formal liberal democracy in which elections are essential, but civil and political rights remain decoupled from unprioritised social and economic rights, according to the University of Aberdeen’s Pamela Abbott and Andrea Teti, scientific lead for the Arab Transformations Project at the University of Aberdeen, and Senior Fellow at the Brussels-based European Centre for International Affairs.

Findings from the Arab Transformation survey carried out in 2014 in six developing Arab states – Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia – suggest that the EU assumption of democratisation as a value shared with Arab states is misplaced. Few respondents wanted the EU brand of ‘thin’, procedural democracy in which civil and political rights remain decoupled from social and economic rights. Furthermore, few respondents thought the EU had done a good job of facilitating a transition to democracy in their country or had much appetite for EU involvement in the domestic politics of their countries, they write for Open Democracy:

What does emerge quite clearly is that there is no strong demand for procedural democracy as promoted by the EU. In general, Arab citizens are much more concerned about the economic situation, corruption and inequalities, and in the case of Iraq and Libya also  security, than they are about authoritarianism. When people in MENA say that democracy is the best system despite its faults or that it is suitable for their country, it is not a political system they have in mind but a way of life. MENA citizens would like to live decent lives in decent societies, with good economic and welfare support and freedom to engage in politics, if they wish to do so, without fear of arrest, assault or social exclusion. The two sides of their image of the decent society are related to each other insofar as lack of resource and access to necessary goods, services and support excludes people from the society of their fellow citizens.

This has two consequences, Abbott and Teti add:

  • The first, already recognised in European policy, is the need to work with non-state civil society organisations as well as with governments. This may entail training the populace in advocacy for their own positions and their critique of government policy, which will not endear Europe to governments, but it is the only way to change values sustainably. The EU can establish common ground with MENA partners by focusing on the main concerns of citizens – an economic order that is more just and less corrupt and guarantees socio-economic rights.
  • When it becomes an issue of EU aid and support, all countries prefer financial aid – to create jobs, to train people for them or more generally to support education, health etc. There is little appetite for explicit or direct interference in national policy, and they are not impressed so far by the EU’s influence on democratisation.

See the full briefing in The Arab Transformations Policy Briefs. No.1 from the University of Aberdeen. The research on which the article is based was funded by the European Union under FP7.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email