“It is our great and historic responsibility,” intoned Egyptian President Husni Mubarak on December 26, 2006, “to achieve the essential goal of developing our democracy and political life, while avoiding drifting into uncalculated steps that could threaten the stability of our country and the success of our democratic experience.” The occasion for this solemn pronouncement was the introduction of 34 constitutional amendments, later passed by Parliament, aiming at tightening the regime’s grip on power. To the informed ear, Mubarak’s words were the same old mantra of Arab autocrats: Arab peoples are not prepared for real political reform. It is not time.
The mantra, heard from Damascus to Riyadh to Tunis, has a range of rationales that regimes adapt to the circumstances of the moment. The idea of democracy itself was the demon of choice for the first post-colonial regimes: It was said that remnants of the old order would use elections to regain their former clout, or that “development” was too urgent a task to be subjected to endless parliamentary deliberation.
Today, many Arab regimes style themselves as democratic, pluralistic or popularly governed, and there is a new demon of choice: the fundamental political and economic change that would ensure a modicum of economic dignity to all citizens. Ultimately, political and economic transformations are two sides of the same coin. Without a political voice, ordinary people cannot win the right to organize independent labor unions or the right to equitable distribution of public resources. Since at least 1991, the Syrian regime has toyed with the idea of reforming Article 8 of the constitution, which designates the Baath Party as “leader of state and society,” obstructing political pluralism. Article 8 is always brought up when the scent of “reform” are in the air, but it is never the “right time” to actually reform the clause.
To grapple with the gremlin of demands for change, Arab regimes have found, if not cultivated, a partner equally fearful of the masses—the privileged social strata. Whether because the masses could vote as a bloc or because of their potential slice of the shrinking economic pie, these upper classes echo the regimes’ cautions against more openness and equity, and purvey the cultural elitism labeling the masses as riff-raff prone to demanding “uncalculated steps.”
Will it ever be time for serious reform? Demographic explosion, followed by rising poverty and unemployment, bodes ill for the future of the regimes’ time-tested stance. The usual rationales—protection from “foreign” influence, the supposed commitment of regimes to Palestine, “cultural” unreadiness—are more bankrupt than ever. Even the conservatizing effect of the catastrophe in Iraq will soon hold less sway as unassimilated youth—the plurality of many Arab populations—reach employment age.
In the past, autocratic regimes have dealt with such problems by deepening dictatorship or ratcheting up repression. Now, the regimes have no choice but to concede the extent of the crisis. Instead of moving to resolve it, however, they have fallen back upon the two decade-old notion of piecemeal change that neither shocks an allegedly tradition-bound society nor compromises authoritarian rule. The catch phrases are “gradualness,” “phasing” and “change within continuity.” Past or pending transfers of power from father to son in Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere perpetuate, if not necessitate, the use of such empty phrases.
The new rationale is the Islamist electoral victories in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq. The autocratic state, the economic elite and Western powers, not least among them the United States, now have overlapping interests in subverting forms of democracy in the Arab world. It is still not time. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said about Egyptian reforms in 2005: “Not everything moves at the same speed, and there are going to be different speeds in the Middle East.”
The assumption that Arab peoples cannot handle the leap—that their leaders must decide for them—meshes with the crude Orientalist thinking of the post-September 11 era. But it is also a function of the domestic elite’s interest in enriching themselves and their cronies, always at the expense of the masses for whom no one has time.