Democracy and the Arab Uprisings

In February 2011, in the impoverished southern Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, Muhamad Bouazizi, a young street seller set himself on fire to protest the unfair treatment he had received from a female police officer. His self-immolation unleashed the most intense and surprising social movement that swept through the Arab world in the past 50 years. In less than a year, the autocratic, corrupt, and violent regimes of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen were brought down by a wave of young, mostly secular, and liberal crowds calling for dignity, freedom, justice, and democracy. Consequently, the monarchies of Jordan and Morocco quickly liberalised in order to avoid the fate of their neighbours. Bahrain, Algeria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia saw widespread protest. Syria is still in the midst of a full-scale revolution.

The reasons for the discontent of the populations of the Middle East were deeply rooted in decades of tyranny: the Middle East was one of the most autocratic region of the world. However, the recent food riots, the world economic crisis, the use of social media, and the widespread connectivity to satellite television (especially Al Jazeera) played a major role in initiating these revolutions. Nevertheless, the Arab street’s feeling of being deprived of its basic dignity by corrupt, despotic, and clientelist regimes is probably the element that allowed the spark lit by Mr Bouazizi to ignite the entire region into a full scale popular historical movement.

The combination of young, liberal and mostly secular crowds and demands for justice, freedom and democracy was perceived very positively in the Western media and supported by European and American public opinions. For the first time, the general perception of the protestors sweeping through the streets of the Arab world was not one associated with religious radicalism, obscurantism and uncontrolled eruptions of violence but rather, with a genuine western oriented craving for democracy and liberalism. Support for these popular revolts spanned the West, from Paris to Los Angeles, from Washington to Berlin. In a few weeks, media outlets and the general public had even forgotten these very regimes that were being overthrown live on Al Jazeera had received unconditional support from western governments for years.

However, several months later, an unexpected development came to disrupt this rosy image. Political Islam emerged as the most popular political force of the post revolutionary Arab world. Moderate Islamic parties overwhelmingly won each election in which they participated, and in countries where the population has not yet gone to the ballot box they seem to represent the most popular alternative to the corrupt regimes of the past.

Those parties were not the ones that initiated the revolutionary movements. They were not at the forefront of the demonstrations and only joined the protest in its later stages when the hardest work had already been done. However, Islamist parties have been extremely popular among the lower socio-economic stratum of the population for years. Indeed, during the decades of dictatorship, most regimes secured the interest of a small elite through despotism and corruption at the expense of the majority. The Islamic movements were at the time, the only ones providing basic educational, health and social services to the population. Those years of hard grassroots work done by dedicated volunteers under harsh conditions and repression are today being rewarded in the ballot box.

Those movements often started as radical religious groups that advocated the use of violence as a mean to overthrow the autocratic Middle Eastern regimes that in their views corrupted the values of Islam.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood committed numerous terrorist actions; one of its offshoot movements is responsible for the assassination of President Sadat. In Tunisia, the Nahda movement engaged in low-level violence against the Ben Ali regime. In Libya, Islamist movements violently opposed Gaddafi’s rule.

Yet, contrary to expectations, these movements have renounced violence in the past few years and have started describing themselves as moderate political Islamic parties. Claiming inspiration from the Turkish AKP (Freedom and Justice) Islamist party now in power in Ankara, they embraced the values of democracy as well as the rights of women and of minority groups. As they were elected to power in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, these parties have reiterated their commitment to democracy and appear to have gained legitimacy and trust from the international community and the local secular elites. But, as in the case of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, history has shown that what appear to be moderate forces can under specific circumstances radicalise once in power, becoming increasingly totalitarian.

In countries where Islamic parties have a history of moderation and where there are strong local or international counter powers, it seems that political Islam will embrace the democratic transition and adhere to the combination of democracy and religion that the populations are demanding. As such, Political Islam would seem to follow the path of the Turkish AKP in embracing democratic values at home and moderation in the international arena, while advocating a Muslim identity and prioritizing the country’s and the region’s interests over the western oriented agenda of their predecessors.

In Egypt, the army, given that it is not overthrown or fails to hijack the revolution, should attempt to moderate the Islamist parties that won roughly 70% of the votes (including almost 30% for the more radical Salafi movement). Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood, that came out on top at the ballot box has now been integrated into the political system for years and has tremendously moderated its discourse. Finally, the economic dependency of the country on the US entails a strong desire for any government in power to soften its position so as not to antagonize its main financial supporter.

In Tunisia, even though the Nahda party had been banned by the Ben Ali regime, the Islamists renounced violence years ago. Moreover, the strong secular tradition of the country combined with the influence of the powerful (and mainly secular) trade unions seems to preserve the country from a radical Islamic hijacking of the revolution. Tunisia strongly depends on France for trade and tourism creating an important incentive for moderation for any party in power.

In Morocco and Jordan, the wide legitimacy that both kings enjoy among their citizens combined with the political integration of Islamist parties seem to safeguard both regimes, for now.

In Syria, even though it is still too early to make any real predictions, it appears that the Islamist groups that make up an important part of the opposition to the Assad regime are under the influence of Turkey and would possibly be moderated by Ankara should they take power after the regime of Bashar Al-Assad falls.

Yet, in Libya and in Yemen the situation appears more complicated. In Yemen, the corrupt government of Saleh has sidelined Islamist parties for years and elements of Al Qaeda have been battling the government for just as long. Various militias, tribal groups and local insurrections have challenged the authority of the central government, increasing the risk of the country sliding into chaos. Despite the strong influence of its neighbour, Saudi Arabia, it appears that Yemen is a prime target for radical Islamic movements. We can expect that the chances of either general anarchy or of a hijacking of the revolution by Islamic groups or the military seems rather high.

In Libya, the total ban on political freedom during the Gaddafi era gave Islamist groups no alternative but violence to make their voices heard. Libyan Islamic movements therefore appear to be less likely to respect a democratic transition than in Tunisia or in Egypt. Some of those groups are today in control of key areas of the country and do not appear to be willing to relinquish the power they gained through the strength of their guns. Moreover, the total absence of any form of democratic tradition in the country combined with the current chaos is favourable ground for an Islamic take over.

The Arab Spring is not over and we do not yet know where it will lead the region. What started with a simple, but powerful act of defiance in Tunisia has now led to movements that are the bane of regimes and a hope to its subjects. Whatever its outcome ends up being, it is an event that has changed the face of the Middle East forever. The main conclusions that can be drawn from it is that the people of the region have had enough of their autocratic and debauched regimes; they want to be able to control their fate, have governments that represent their will, and do so without Western intervention. Democracy will probably take years to be fully functioning especially in large and populous countries like Egypt. As for the French Revolution, the countries might have to go through bloody and autocratic stages before they can find the form of government that best suits them. However, this is the path the region has chosen and the outside world should respect and accompany it without interfering as long as this process does not threaten the world stability. For the first time since independence, the people of the Arab World have their destiny in their hands. Let’s hope they use their hands well.

Simon Clément