What is the Arabic for democracy?



The collapse of the post-colonial Arab system is, at its heart, a crisis of legitimacy. The impact of colonialism, often blamed by Arabs for their woes, should not be an impediment; the world is full of countries with bleak histories and odd borders. Arab governments will have to regain the trust of their citizens, The Economist notes, in a special issue on the Arab world:

First, they will have to deliver better standards of living by overcoming the rentier system. Gulf states will have to get over their dependence on oil. All should do much less subsidising and controlling of production, and much more safeguarding of the market to make sure that cronies do not capture the economy.

Second, governments have to gain consent through democracy. Monarchies have done better, but they still cannot claim the right to rule on the basis of inheritance.

That said, democracy in the Arab world faces two peculiar hurdles, the paper adds:

The first is the fear of Islamist parties taking power. But suppressing them can be worse. Algeria lamentably cancelled a general election to head off a victory by Islamists in 1992, unleashing a long insurgency. With their semi-autonomy, Palestinians fell into a pale version of Arab authoritarianism; the refusal by the nationalist Fatah movement to accept the victory by Hamas in the parliamentary election of 2006 led to internal strife, and the severing of Gaza from the West Bank. The military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, meanwhile, has created an even more oppressive and dysfunctional state……

A second stumbling block for democracy is the diversity of Arab peoples. In good times it makes for an admirable multiculturalism. But these days all groups behave like embattled minorities…. In the Arab world each group fears that rivals will capture the state, its economic resources and above all its guns.

The breakdown of Arab states

Arab states are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. In a way, they have never got over the fall of the Ottoman empire. The prominent ideologies—Arabism, Islamism and now jihadism—have all sought some greater statehood beyond the frontiers left by the colonisers. Now that states are collapsing, Arabs are reverting to ethnic and religious identities, The Economist adds. Facile solutions are dangerous. Four ideas, in particular, need to be repudiated, the paper suggests:

  • First, many blame the mayhem on Western powers—from Sykes-Picot to the creation of Israel, the Franco-British takeover of the Suez Canal in 1956 and repeated American interventions. Foreigners have often made things worse; America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 released its sectarian demons. But the idea that America should turn away from the region—which Barack Obama seems to embrace—can be as destabilising as intervention, as the catastrophe in Syria shows. ….Lots of countries have blossomed despite traumatic histories: South Korea and Poland—not to mention Israel. As our special report (seearticle) sets out, the Arab world has suffered from many failures of its own making. ….
  • A second wrong-headed notion is that redrawing the borders of Arab countries will create more stable states that match the ethnic and religious contours of the population. Not so: there are no neat lines in a region where ethnic groups and sects can change from one village or one street to the next. A new Sykes-Picot risks creating as many injustices as it resolves, and may provoke more bloodshed as all try to grab land and expel rivals. …..
  • A third ill-advised idea is that Arab autocracy is the way to hold back extremism and chaos. In Egypt Mr Sisi’s rule is proving as oppressive as it is arbitrary and economically incompetent. Popular discontent is growing. In Syria Bashar al-Assad and his allies would like to portray his regime as the only force that can control disorder. The contrary is true: Mr Assad’s violence is the primary cause of the turmoil. Arab authoritarianism is no basis for stability. ….
  • The fourth bad argument is that the disarray is the fault of Islam. …. Which Islam would that be? The head-chopping sort espoused by IS, the revolutionary-state variety that is decaying in Iran or the political version advocated by the besuited leaders of Ennahda in Tunisia, who now call themselves “Muslim democrats”? To demonise Islam is to strengthen the Manichean vision of IS. The world should instead recognise the variety of thought within Islam, support moderate trends and challenge extremists. Without Islam, no solution is likely to endure. RTWT


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