Democracy has become a catchword of Middle Eastern politics, replacing in some ways the concern with Arab socialism of the 1950s and 1960s. Can a combination of political and economic liberalism, of multi-party democracy and a market economy, help Arab governments enhance their efficiency and acquire legitimacy? Will it reduce the appalling level of violence in intra- as well as inter-state relations? The discussion is marked by deep skepticism, emphasizing the limitations rather than the prospects of democracy or, to be more precise, of political liberalization in the Arab Middle East. The experiments in controlled liberalization that have occurred so far seem to be notable for the absence of what are commonly regarded as basic socioeconomic, political and cultural prerequisites of liberal democracy, such as involvement of broad sections of “civil society,” government dependence on internal mobilization of resources rather than oil or political rent, and a stable regional environment.

We are dealing not only with hard facts of poverty and inequality, regional disparities, illiteracy, ethnic and religious cleavages, clientelism and corruption. Educational systems stress conformity and repetition at the expense of critical inquiry. Patterns of authority and deference pervade the political sphere proper and all levels of family, social and economic life. In addition, cultural-religious factors have, over the last two decades, shifted the emphasis from a discussion of the sociopolitical foundations of a liberal democratic order to its cultural-religious dimension, focusing on the acceptability of the model rather than its feasibility and efficiency.

Decades after emancipation from colonial rule, the quest for independence still figures highly on the Arab agenda, and in this quest the pursuit of authenticity has moved to center stage. Authenticity represents, of course, a highly complex concept, more complex at any rate than many of its partisans would have their audiences believe. While some debate the relative weight of Arabism versus local attachments (Egyptian identity, Iraqi nationalism), Islamist activists have a simple answer: Authenticity is identical with Islam — not the Islam actually practiced by the so-called popular masses, an Islam already corrupted by misconceptions, magic and superstition, but the true Islam of the age of the Prophet and his Companions, or rather their image of that true Islam. This Islam, so they claim, is the solution to all problems of private and public life, of state and society, the yardstick by which to measure values, goals and institutions. Western techniques and modes of organization may be acceptable, but there is a strict refusal to adopt un-Islamic values. The distinction at once complicates the matter, for liberal democracy clearly involves both techniques and values.

Distorted Debate

Because it is associated with Western modes of thinking and behavior, liberal democracy is always in danger of being associated with Western misdeeds, real and alleged. To many Arabs and Muslims, Western economic, political and cultural influence appears more pernicious than ever. The so-called intellectual onslaught (al-ghazw al-fikri) on Arab-Islamic culture and identity is a main theme of the day, and many see liberal democracy as part of that assault. Its advocates risk being charged with cultural mimicry, importing non-Islamic, unauthentic models of thought and organization. Hence the necessity either to authenticate liberal and democratic notions, structures and procedures by establishing their Islamic pedigree, or else to prove that Arab-Islamic tradition is in fact superior to Western liberal democracy, on a moral as well as a practical level. This accounts for much of the uneasy, if not distorted, character of the debate, its accusations, apologetics and mutual recrimination.

Western debate frequently mirrors the themes, concerns and obsessions of the Islamist one, albeit with different connotations. The more sophisticated skeptics usually refer to Islam as an effective barrier against development, modernity and democracy; the less sophisticated to “the Arab mind,” which is allegedly inclined toward authoritarianism and incapable of accepting pluralism and self-critique.

In spite of these reservations, distinct moves toward liberalization have occurred in the area, with political, social and religious groups (“civil society”) demanding the effective protection of human rights and political participation on the one hand, and a growing number of Arab governments embarking on cautious and severely circumscribed courses of economic-cum-political liberalization on the other. The demand for human rights, participation and democracy comes from across the political spectrum, from the nationalist and secularist Arab left, including a limited number of liberals, to the broad Islamist movement that over the last two decades has emerged as a dominant voice in intellectual and political life. The call for democracy is the subject of meetings, conferences and academic studies, is inscribed in party platforms and is supported by professional clubs and associations which the educated urban middle classes organize. [1] It appears to be less rooted in trade unions, which in most Arab countries are incorporated into and closely supervised by the state apparatus. It also seems that today students figure less prominently in the pro-democracy movement than they did up to the 1960s.

Together with the Arab-Palestinian cause, democracy now constitutes a common theme for all political movements, irrespective of the socioeconomic order and the foreign policies they advocate. A closer look reveals widely divergent conceptions. Whereas the Egyptian New Wafd calls for multi-party democracy and a market economy, the neo-Nasserists uphold basic elements of Arab socialism. Islamist activists propagate what they call an Islamic economic system, which might best be described as a free market economy based on private ownership but emphasizing the moral and social obligations of private property. While the Wafdists call for democracy on the liberal-pluralist Western model, the Islamists call for shura, the Islamic model of participation-qua-consultation. The two converge on the issues of human rights and political participation. [2]

It is easy to see why, in the course of the 1970s and 1980s, concern for the structure of political rule should have reemerged after decades of preoccupation with Arab unity and Arab socialism. The events in Eastern Europe have no doubt confirmed Arab intellectuals and activists in their quest for freedom and participation, but they have not caused it. The advocates of shura or democracy have themselves lived under authoritarian rule and experienced the expansion of informal personal networks and hidden “power centers.” Many have suffered from political repression and physical torture. All witnessed the defeat of the Arab armies at the hands of Israel.

Like Islamic resurgence, the appeal of democracy is thus the fruit of what has been widely perceived as the “failure” of Arab socialism. Yet it is not only that Arab socialism has failed to achieve its self-declared objectives. Demands on the regimes have increased tremendously. The Nasserist formula, offering equity, development and collective strength against foreign aggression, without autonomous political articulation and organization, and with reference to values and principles which critics claim are adopted from the West (or East) and hence unauthentic, is no longer valid. In this perspective, democracy is not a value by itself, but a means towards an end, part and parcel of a comprehensive reform of the individual, state and society.

In a number of states, notably Iraq and Syria, the pressure for government accountability and political participation has met with strong regime resistance; limited economic liberalization has not been accompanied by political liberalization. No autonomous political activity is tolerated, and all public criticism and organized opposition is ruthlessly suppressed.

Classic Mechanisms

But repression is not the only response to the growing demand for social justice, economic development and political reform. A number of Arab regimes have supplemented economic with political liberalization. Egypt in the mid-1970s inaugurated the policy of economic “opening” (infitah), followed shortly after by the installation of a multi-party system with relatively free elections. A wave of popular unrest in the late 1980s revived a strategy of controlled political liberalization.

While it may be too early to speak of a pattern, certain common traits characterize the experience in countries ranging from traditional monarchies such as Jordan to the single-party regimes of Tunisia and Algeria. Socioeconomic tension, accumulating over time and coinciding with reduced state-financed social services, erupted in urban riots which threatened the regimes’ legitimacy and survival and were quelled by the army. Yet the response also included important concessions. In order to restore calm, the governments promised to preserve key social welfare policies and to modify structural adjustment programs recommended by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The regimes also promised greater political freedom, respect for human rights, elections, participation in decision-making — promises all the more remarkable because, in contrast to the subsidies, they would have to be paid for by the regimes themselves rather than by outside donors. In spite of the alleged incompatibility of democracy with Arab culture and society, they clearly recognized that allowing the population, or at any rate urban segments of the population, greater political expression and organization would help overcome a crisis that embodied social, economic and, to an extent, cultural dimensions.

The mechanisms are classic. A first step offers greater freedom of expression, especially of the press. Opposition papers are licensed, public meetings authorized, the margin for criticism greatly widened. In Egypt, some opposition papers have published reports on individual army and police officers charged with torturing critics of the regime. A second step removes some restrictions on freedom of organization, legalizing social and religious associations as well as certain political parties.

The limitations of this process, however, are equally classic. Some topics remain taboo — primarily God, army, king or president. Formal constraints also limit the scope of legitimate political expression and action, usually a party law restricting the bases of party formation and a national charter defining the common and inviolable intellectual and political ground. The party law, as a rule, obliges applicants to adhere to basic principles defined by the government and the ruling party (e.g., adherence to the values of religion, national unity or inevitability of the socialist solution). It also bars parties based on class, sex, religion, ethnicity or geography (leading to the obvious paradox that while all parties have to base their program on the values of religion, Islamic or Christian parties are expressly ruled out). The national charter is worked out with representatives of major political movements and associations from the left to the “moderate” Islamic camp. The purpose of both party law and national charter is evident: to delegitimize all those refusing to subscribe and hence to restrict the margin of legitimate political action.

And yet one characteristic of the current stage of liberalization in key Arab countries is the fact that political organizations which by the letter of the law should be barred are in fact tolerated by the regime — notably the Islamist advocates of “moderate,” integrative strategies. In Egypt, the Society of Muslim Brothers has no legal existence, yet its members openly engage in social, economic, cultural and political activities, entering Parliament under its traditional slogans and banners. In Jordan, where the Brothers have always been registered as a socio-religious association though not as a political party, the situation is similar. The major exception to the rule of intended ambiguity, putting overt Islamist activity entirely at the government’s discretion, is Algeria, where a number of Islamist parties have been legalized.

Liberalization as System Maintenance

Liberalization, however, stops short of affecting the pillars of state control over society and the economy, including the electronic media, the army and security services, and the distribution of power between the head of state and Parliament. Unlike the print media, radio and television — the media reaching the illiterate and semi-illiterate majority of the population — remain under firm government control. If the size and role of the army and security apparatus are reduced, it is for economic rather than political reasons. Political activity inside the armed forces, if not banned altogether, is restricted to the ruling party. The head of state remains unaffected on formal as well as informal levels, the ultimate arbiter of liberalization or restriction. The informal clientelist networks and power centers remain largely intact.

The main purpose of liberalization from above is system maintenance in a situation of acute socioeconomic crisis, by coopting wider circles of the political public, distributing responsibility for future austerity policies more broadly, directing political and religious organizations into controllable channels and excluding all those outside the “national consensus” defined by the regime. Opportunities for political articulation are distinctly enlarged, and chances of legal association and organization improved. An alert public and an independent judiciary can sporadically check abuses of power. But it is not the intention of the regime to tolerate criticism of the basic lines of domestic and foreign policies (e.g., economic, political and military cooperation with the US or peace or hostility with Israel), and even less to accept a change in government as a result of free and democratic elections.

This does not mean that the regimes will actually be able to contain the process within the imposed limits. The process of liberalization may set off dynamics in which political forces trespass those limits, attack the basic lines of official policy and even seize power. Algeria illustrates some of the risks. In the first phase of liberalization, social unrest will intensify rather than subside. Protest, often voiced in religious language, will become more strident. Political liberalization alone will not resolve the enormous social and economic problems of the societies concerned, but can only help to create better conditions for resolving them without resorting to the use or threat of force. The risks to stability are particularly great in those societies riven not only by social disparities but also by ethnic and religious divisions.

It does not follow from this catalogue of obstacles that the political, socioeconomic and cultural characteristics of Arab society (if it is at all acceptable to talk of Arab society in general) render all attempts at political liberalization futile. The Jordanian parliamentary elections of November 1989 demonstrated that even in a society generally described as highly traditional, solidly Islamic, based on tribal loyalties, lacking a tradition of consultation (shura) or political participation, let alone democracy, new elements of electoral behavior can emerge that are dictated less by clientelist ties than by ideologically motivated decisions. [3] This is not to say that Jordanian society has been transformed into a “modern” society in which family, clan and village ties have lost their social and political relevance, but merely to point to certain aspects of sociopolitical change. Kuwait provides another example of a traditional society ruled by tribal and/or family-oriented loyalties, in which voluntary professional, cultural and charitable associations, reflecting various ideological currents, may pave the way for a pluralist political order. [4]

The main beneficiaries of political liberalization, government partisans apart, are Arab nationalists and Islamist activists, whose democratic credentials are considered to be weak. There are indeed serious doubts whether today’s advocates of democracy, once having attained power, would still respect the principles of pluralism, accept criticism and grant others the right to participate. The experience so far from various broad-based opposition alliances formed in Egypt, Syria and Iraq suggests that while Islamist activists cooperate with political actors claiming adherence to the values of religion in general and Islam in particular (nationalists, liberals, royalists, dissenting Baathists, Nasserists or sympathizers of Algeria’s National Liberation Front), they regularly exclude sympathizers of “atheist” leftist ideologies, i.e., communists and Marxists. If this is true while they are in opposition, their critics ask, what would happen if the Islamists were in power? They also suffer from a lack of credibility in terms of their program. While both Islamist activists and Arab nationalists have made great demands on their governments, they have few coherent concepts or practical solutions for coping with the crises of their societies.

What both have in common is their emphasis on self-assertion (“authenticity”) and self-reliance, if not autarky. Under the present circumstances, autarky seems to be out of the question, even for an Islamic state. Self-reliance, by contrast, need not imply total dissociation from the world market. The quest for sovereignty and authenticity need not imply a total break with Western models of political organization, democracy included. What seems more likely is a gradual process of incorporation, in the course of which concepts, structures and mechanisms adopted from outside are, as it were, “authenticated.” Even an Islamic political order may be able to incorporate Western notions of political participation and human rights.

But friction with the West is inevitable as far as foreign and security matters are concerned. The dilemma of all Arab regimes trying to respond to the socioeconomic crisis and cultural malaise with a strategy of political liberalization is evident: Liberalization will inevitably give more room for maneuver to political actors critical of the West and openly hostile toward Israel. While the public demands greater distance from the West and a tough stand vis-a-vis Israel, the socioeconomic crisis intensifies dependence on Western governments and international agencies. Jordan is a case in point: The US, Europe and its conservative Arab neighbors expect Jordan to distance itself from radical Arab politics pursued by Saddam Hussein and to join the “peace process.” Vocal elements of the political public, inside as well as outside the recently elected parliament, demand the opposite.

In a long-term perspective, liberalization and democracy are desirable and even necessary to enhance economic efficiency, political legitimacy and stability in the Arab world. Regimes that previously were able to monopolize political decision-making by relying on rent and repression seem at last to have acknowledged their vulnerability and impotence in the face of the socioeconomic crisis at home and political challenges abroad. But as long as political liberalization is initiated from the top, as a preemptive strategy of system maintenance to win urban middle-class support for economic austerity measures affecting first and foremost the living standard of the poorest sections of society, stability and democracy remain at risk. Nor is a reduction of regional tension guaranteed. Given the deep resentment of foreign intervention and Israeli policies among Arab nationalists and Islamist activists, even limited liberalization increases opposition to pro-Western policies and a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict — unless the Israeli government does indeed offer land for peace and acknowledge the Palestinians’ right of national self-determination. More liberal regimes in the Arab world. therefore, are likely to be less accommodating regarding Western economic and strategic interests than authoritarian regimes that do not openly challenge the regional balance of power. Economic constraints, regional conflict and global strategic interests therefore interact in such a way as to render the path toward a more liberal political order extremely difficult even for those regimes and movements seriously committed to it — and they are as yet a minority.


[1] See Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-‘Arabiyya, Azmat al-dimuqratiyya fi al-watan al-‘arabi (Beirut, 1984); Saadeddin Ibrahim, al-Mujtama‘ wa al-dawla fi al-watan al-‘arabi (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-‘Arabiyya, 1988); and edited by the same author, al-Ta‘addudiyya al-siyasiyya wa al-dimuqratiyya fi l-watan al-‘arabi (Amman: Muntada al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, 1989).
[2] Gudrun Kramer, Egypt Under Mubarak: Identity and National Interest (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 1988), pp. 109-116.
[3] See Kamel S. Abu Jaber and Schirin Fathi, “The 1989 Jordanian Parliamentary Elections,” Orient 4 (1990).
[4] See, for example, Shafeeq Ghabra, “Voluntary Associations in Kuwait: The Foundations of a New System,” Middle East Journal 45/2 (Spring 1991); also John E. Peterson, The Arab Gulf States: Steps Toward Political Participation (New York: Praeger, 1988).

How to cite this article:

Gudrun Kramer "Liberalization and Democratization in the Arab World," Middle East Report 174 (January/February 1992).

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