Is Democracy out of Reach for Much of the Middle East?

01.24.17
Hossam el-Hamalawy
World News /24 Jan 2017
01.24.17

Is Democracy out of Reach for Much of the Middle East?

The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 have touched all corners of the Middle East and have affected all countries in different ways, resulting in anything from small scale protests against governments to full blown revolutions to overthrow dictators. Most protestors’ calls were for an end to the dictatorships that had ruled over them for years and for them to be replaced with democracy. However, it takes a lot of time, work, and commitment for a country to achieve democracy and unfortunately none of these countries has achieved it yet. There is hope, though. There is hope…

Democracy, mon amour

When the Arab Spring uprisings began, most of these countries were reliant on their dictators and citizens did not play a role in the political process. The country’s dictator was the main leader and any members of the government were appointed by him, not elected by the citizens. In some countries like Libya, citizens even depended on their dictator to regulate the economy and provide cash handouts, ensuring that many didn’t need to work. This led to complete reliance on the leaders and citizens were not prepared for their removal from power.

After all of the protests and calls for the removal of dictators, several countries did depose their leaders. While in some countries this was followed by elections for a new leadership, in other countries it resulted in complete chaos.

Both Tunisia and Egypt followed the removal of their leaders with elections. While Tunisia has had the most success and is the closest to Western democracy, Egypt’s election was a failure and led to another uprising against the democratically-elected replacement government. There has been a surge by several groups to claim power in the country which has led to continued violence and confusion.

So even in countries that have been able to make a move towards democracy, it hasn’t been completely successful. However, The Economist believes that both Morocco and Tunisia can serve as models for democracy in the Arab World: “Democratic progress and economic reform should be encouraged in Tunisia and Morocco. These are small countries, but the uprisings of 2011 show that small countries can serve as a model for others. Next, pressure needs to be exerted on Egypt to return to the path of reform. One in four Arabs is Egyptian. If the country does well, it will lift the region; its collapse would be a threat to all, including Europe.”

Chaos, mon amour

The situation only gets worse for countries like Libya and Syria who have no “official” government but have experienced Islamist groups taking control. This reality is obviously far from democracy and has been disastrous for these and other countries that have continued civil war as in Iraq. The Islamist groups in these countries seek to create their own rules that are not democratic and would not be good for the citizens. Besides being merely “not good,” these groups are actually very harmful to the people of these Middle Eastern nations in that the casualties of their conflicts are numerous. Unfortunately, these Islamist groups are not being stopped by national or international forces, further limiting the possible chances for democracy.

Achieving democracy is a difficult task and doesn’t necessarily have the same result in each country. While Western countries are considered democratic, there exist flaws in the systems such as corruption and for example the push in the United States for voter ID laws–laws that claim to limit voter fraud, but actually only serve to exclude minorities in poorer areas who tend not to have all necessary forms of ID. There isn’t an example of “perfect” and “full” democracy in the world today.

For Shadi Hamid, a Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, the West was never interested in the actual realization of democracy in the Arab world, for selfish interests and reasons: “The United States and other Western powers supported ‘reform,’ but they were not interested in overturning an order which had given them pliant, if illegitimate, Arab regimes. Those regimes became part of a comfortable strategic arrangement that secured Western interests in the region, including a forward military posture, access to energy resources and security for the state of Israel. Furthermore, the West feared that the alternative was a radical Islamist takeover reminiscent of the Iranian revolution of 1979.”

Is there hope at all?

Even though there are many obstacles preventing the nations of the Arab Spring uprisings from achieving democracy, there is still hope. It will take a lot of help from the rest of the world, but the first step is to remove the Islamist and other terrorist groups that have a hold in these countries and are trying to seize control. This will be the hardest task and may conceivably never be fully completed because the ideals might simmer below the surface waiting for another chance to rise up. But once stability is given back to these countries, the next step is to set up elections that are well monitored in order to insure their success.

For The Economist, integration of the Arab states in some supranational organization like the European Union could well be a prelude to a permanent democracy: “Arab states could do with more supranational integration to open markets and spur growth. As a political body, the Arab League is a failure. But many Arabs admire the European Union, even as it loses its appeal to a growing number of Europeans, not least because of Arab refugees. European history provides some solace to Arabs: before the continent united, it waged wars even bloodier than those the Arabs are enduring. And as some are starting to acknowledge, there is another lesson from Europe: democracy is the basis for future unity.”

Another aspect to achieving democracy is for the citizens of a nation to actually want it. Just because the West is composed of democratic nations does not mean that the nations of the Middle East want to replicate their systems. It is not right for a Western nation to get involved in promoting democracy in another country if that country doesn’t even want it. So the biggest and most important step of achieving democracy is for the population to want it. If an Arab nation wants democracy, it will be able to overcome the obstacles and achieve it. It may take time and help, but they can surely do it.

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