Political liberalization, if not democracy, seems to be on Arab agendas. Algeria is about to conduct national elections that could alter the character of the regime there. Jordan’s monarchy must now take account of a parliament in which opposition forces have considerable sway, following the first elections in a quarter of a century. In newly unified Yemen, citizens in May 1991 approved a constitution guaranteeing basic rights and freedoms and the rule of law, and providing for a legislature with some power independent of the presidency. Six states (Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Yemen), accounting for more than half the population in the Arab world, have recently experienced multi-party electoral competitions and open oppositional presence in the political field.

At the same time, most of these openings have been controlled, if not calibrated, by the respective regimes. Gudrun Kramer and Ahmed Abdalla, in their contributions to this issue, make the limits of these experiences abundantly clear, and Volker Perthes’ discussion of Syria illustrates the folly of equating elections with democracy. Even where elections have encompassed wide sectors of the population and included opposition forces, they have been for parliaments with little power vis-à-vis the president or king.

The “shepherds of democracy” are, without exception, monarchs or military men. While Algeria may prove to be the exception, no Arab state has actually used electoral institutions and procedures to replace one government by another, as recently occurred in neighboring Turkey. In Sudan, where in 1985 widespread activity among sectors of civil society overthrew the Numayri dictatorship, a military regime has been back in power since June 1989.

The reforms that have occurred scarcely warrant the label “democratic,” in the sense of allowing for popular or majority rule. “Democratization” and “liberalization” tend to be used interchangeably, but they refer to two distinct, if related, processes. Democracy denotes a mode of governance in which decision-making power is shared by “the people” rather than concentrated in the hands of a clique. In its modern usage it refers almost exclusively to representative democracy, in which “the people” yield power to a political elite, checked by periodic elections. The issue of who comprises “the people” eligible to participate — women as well as men, poor as well as propertied — has been the focus of recurring struggles in Western societies that have long appropriated the adjective “democratic.” Western usage generally fails to relate democracy to control of property, including non-official institutions of power such as the media.

“Liberal,” in the classical sense, refers to limitations on the power of a state — democratic or otherwise — to intervene in the individual and collective lives of people. Historically identified with individual rights of property, liberalism also underlies modern doctrines of political and human rights as expressed in the amendments to the US Constitution, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and more recent documents such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights. A democratic state, though, is not necessarily liberal, and until the twentieth century democracy has had a distinctly pejorative connotation in the West, in the class sense of a popular majority “oppressing” a wealthy minority.

Regime Restructuring

To what extent has liberalization, in the sense of limits on internal interventionary state power, occurred in the Arab world? The steps taken so far hardly go beyond regime tactics to cope with economic and social crises. Political reform is on the agenda in key Arab states because important sectors of the population have forcefully put it there. The Arab region is in the midst of a profound crisis of political legitimation, rooted in the marked downturn in material conditions. Each regime that has instituted elections and similar reforms, except perhaps Yemen, has been compelled to do so by mass insurrections (Egypt in 1977 and 1986; Tunisia and Morocco in 1984; Algeria in 1988; Jordan in 1989). Less dramatic but equally crucial has been the defection of key merchant, professional and political families in the face of falling living standards, inequities of wealth and opportunity, corruption and the lack of regime accountability.

Regimes have responded with reforms designed to entice key elites to share responsibility for devising and implementing austerity measures. The regimes have seen political liberalization as a vehicle for reestablishing the legitimacy that had, since the late 1960s, rested on access to oil monies, either directly or via state-to-state aid and worker remittances.

In virtually every case, these reforms have been abetted by the intervention of institutions representing international capital, notably the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The most extensive of these negotiations have involved Egypt. Restructuring (liberalizing) Egypt’s economy requires the participation of Egypt’s business people, lawyers and other professionals, and multinational corporate investors. The US Agency for International Development has launched what it calls a “Democracy Initiative” to support “the transition to market-oriented economies.” Democracy, for these purposes, is the political component of a transition from state to private ownership of productive resources. World Bank vice president Moeen Qureshi asserts that his institution is simply responding to “fast-growing demands of people for the rapid transformation of their societies to market-oriented principles.”

It is not evident that this restructuring-cum-political reform will work. Neither US nor Egyptian private investors have demonstrated much confidence by undertaking significant investment, and the situation is similar in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Politically the results are equally uncertain, and regime initiatives equally cautious. But while we should not exaggerate the significance of what has occurred so far, neither should we see the control exercised so far by the regimes as a fixed and immutable feature. The socioeconomic conditions that reinforced the old political order are changing. These societies have become more complex, and that complexity has not yet found institutionalized political expression. Changing economic conditions — not only changes in oil rent but also the capacity of outside powers like the Soviet Union and even the US to pay strategic rent — force regimes to rely on local rather than external revenues, and pressure them to broaden the base of governance as well. In a reversal of the slogan of the American colonial revolt against Britain, the theme of Arab politics in the period ahead may well be “no representation without taxation.” The changing fiscal requirements of the Arab states will be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for any extension of democratic politics in the region.

The relationship between economic liberalization and democracy is hardly as simple as the free marketeers, fresh from their “triumph” over Soviet bloc Communism, would have it. There is, first of all, a habit of taking the state as the only relevant social category. Other forms of political organization, such as local councils, professional associations and the like, are extremely relevant. In the Arab world today, human rights organizations and women’s organizations are at the forefront of efforts to break up the authoritarian patterns of control. Palestinians have displayed a considerable measure of democratic practice in the absence of their own state. The issue of democracy relates to how these organizations function internally and with each other, as well as their ability to function as critical agents vis-à-vis the regimes.

Most problematic for any easy equation of democracy and economic liberalization is the place of trade unions and other forms of worker organizations. These are not simply equivalent to professional associations of, say, lawyers or librarians, or chambers of commerce and industry, given the station of business people in society and their opportunities for organization and representation in the political arena. Workers must be able to organize differently to protect themselves not just against the state but against exploitative owners and managers. The liberalization touted by the IMF and USAID usually does not even grant lip service to workers’ rights of organization. Characteristically these structural adjustment programs directly reduce benefits and social services, hitting workers and the unemployed hardest. The dismantling of overt state control of labor, as it is occurring, is certainly no gain for workers’ rights; it merely depoliticizes forms of coercion.

Religion and Democracy

Our intervention in the debate over democracy and its impediments in the Arab world requires consideration of three additional factors: religion, oil, and foreign intervention. The discussion of these issues, as it is taking place in policymaking circles in the United States, by and large justifies the destructive Western interventions of the past several decades, marginalizes the role of popular forces, and establishes a framework for promoting further intervention against political change in the region, all in the name of combating the adversaries of democracy.

One key element in the prevailing ideological construct is a conception of Islam, and by extension Muslim societies, as inherently authoritarian and incompatible with democracy. This emphasis on Muslim cultural hostility to democracy has never lacked for influential proponents: “Do not let us for one moment imagine that the fatally simple idea of despotic rule will readily give way to the far more complex conception of ordered liberty,” wrote Lord Cromer in a 1908 essay, “The Government of Subject Races,” no doubt reflecting his experience as the head agent of British colonial authority in Egypt. The current articulation goes something like this: While democracy sweeps the globe, from Latin America through much of Africa and Asia and now the former Soviet bloc, the Middle East, or at least its Arab core, has fallen off the curve of history. Those feeble manifestations of liberalization that have appeared are simply responses to developments outside the region — the US political victory over Communism and the military victory against Iraq. They are at best superficial and probably futile grafts. Worse than this, they are dangerous, for they risk bringing to power Islamist forces which are fanatically and intolerantly anti-West.

This notion of the incompatibility of Islam and democracy is propounded in remarkably similar terms by those same Islamist forces. Abla Amawi, writing here on Jordan, implicitly recognizes the distinction between democratization and liberalization and expresses the dilemma of many Arab secularist progressives: how to reconcile the prominent role of Islamist forces in the political opposition with the need to secure guarantees for liberalization which many Islamist programs oppose. It is a dilemma which various rulers — notably Tunisia’s Ben Ali — have exploited skillfully to maintain their relatively unfettered domination of the political field.

The fact that Islamist views mirror and reinforce essentialist contentions of Western Orientalism does not validate those contentions. No religion is democratic, and no political culture is solely determined by the religion of its majority. The language of religion can be and is used, in the Arab world as elsewhere, both to support and to oppose the prevailing order. Islam is politically, theologically and culturally diverse, and a strong egalitarian component has contributed to the vitality of Islamist politics from Iran to Algeria. As in Western and other societies, religion can play a role in expressing social contradictions and political conflicts. The high profile of Islamist groups today owes more to the character of state repression in the past than to the exceptional religiosity of Muslim societies. In the Arab world, many Islamist formations pose a symbolic opposition to the West without contesting the main axes of domination. Land reform, for instance, does not stand out as a demand on Islamist platforms. Political Islam will affect the parameters and possibilities of democratic politics in the Arab world. But it does not represent a majority of Arab Muslims, it is not a unitary phenomenon, and it does not explain why today authoritarianism rather than democracy prevails in the region.

Oil and Intervention

The key question is not whether democracy is compatible with Islam but whether democracy is compatible with oil. The bases of Arab authoritarianism lie first of all in the socioeconomic structures of the post-World War II era. The timing of the present crisis testifies to these material roots. The infusion of oil-based money wealth into the region in the 1970s and early 1980s helped the regimes in the Arab world to defer the consequences of economic crisis that provoked earlier political reform movements in Latin America and Asia. Oil has had an embalming effect on the societies of the Arab world. What postponed the crisis in the Middle East was not Islam but socioeconomic structures and a political order fed by oil revenues and by military and financial support from outside powers. The states that have experienced the socioeconomic crisis most acutely, and that have responded with liberalizing reforms, are those where the wash of oil monies has most quickly and most completely receded, well before the impoverishing consequences of the Gulf war exacerbated these conditions.

The self-congratulatory tendency in the West to see pressures for liberalization in the Arab world as coming from the examples of Eastern Europe recalls the view of “Arab socialism” in the 1950s and 1960s exclusively as an imported political fashion. Even less appropriate is the view that the West can take credit for such positive developments as have occurred. In this sense we can speak of an historic incompatibility of oil and democracy: Western determination to control the region’s oil resources which accounts for persistent Western political and military intervention in the region against any and all movements for popular self-determination.

In its twentieth-century engagement with the Middle East, Washington has consistently opposed and subverted those forces pursuing any measure of a democratic program. As Christopher Hitchens observes in these pages, the intervention in Iran in 1953 to restore the Shah to power is the archetypal expression of the US attitude toward democratic possibilities in the region. Or consider Jordan in 1957, the last time a popularly elected parliamentary regime there tried to assert an independent role: Against a backdrop of arms deliveries, economic aid and saber rattling from Washington, the king arrested the parliament, outlawed political parties, established martial law and rounded up scores of “enemies.” The semi-official Council on Foreign Relations version of these events refers shamelessly to all this as a “happy ending.” US policy toward the Palestinians has been steadfastly contemptuous toward any notion of popular sovereignty and democratic practice.

The policy of the Bush administration toward the Iraqi uprisings in the spring of 1991 is only the latest expression of a policy that crudely subordinates the political will of a popular majority to the preservation of a profoundly undemocratic status quo. At a time when Washington finds it convenient to promote elections from Nicaragua to Kampuchea, and when the Bush administration insists on intruding in every other aspect of Iraqi internal affairs, the absence of a demand for internationally supervised elections there is telling. Washington’s identity of views with its Saudi and other Persian Gulf allies on issues of popular sovereignty makes it abundantly clear that whatever indigenous obstacles confront the champions of democracy in the Middle East, they still have to contend with US fear of what popular rule may mean for its oil interests.

Washington endorses much of the liberalization that has occurred as a necessary adjunct to the international restructuring of capital imposed via the IMF, and to the extent that it is far removed from the Persian Gulf, more or less confined to North Africa. For Washington and for the Arab regimes, the specter of Iran’s revolution still hangs over the region, with meanings that are complex and contradictory: the first modern mass urban revolution in the region, establishing Western-derived political institutions, but subordinating those institutions and mechanisms to a theocratic expression of nationalist ideology.

This may be a moment of great transformation in the region. The post-1967 political order has been severely weakened, less and less able to meet basic social needs. The possible political scenarios in the Arab world are unlikely to be restricted to a regression to the authoritarianism of the past or a smooth, relatively unproblematic evolution to a stable participatory regime that engages most elite sectors in governance. Any serious consideration of democratic possibilities in the Arab world, as elsewhere, must acknowledge that the question of revolution is still relevant. Many, among both the powerful and those contesting power, are likely to invoke the slogan of democracy. We take these developments and possibilities seriously, not with a naive confidence in the outcomes but with an appreciation of the struggles with which people in the Arab world have resisted, over many decades and at great cost, the imposition of existing tyrannies.

How to cite this article:

The Editors "The Democracy Agenda in the Arab World," Middle East Report 174 (January/February 1992).

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