Friday, June 3, 2011

Difficult Path To Arab Democracy

Marwan Al Kabalan writes: Popular governments need time to take hold, but it is important that the first step has been taken
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 03/06/2011 

Despite what appears to be a genuine democratic movement in the Arab world, western analysts remain largely sceptical about whether this will lead to a full-fledge democratic transformation. In an article published in the current issue of the prestigious magazine Foreign Affairs, Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Director of Stanford University's Centre on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, cast doubts on the future of the so-called Arab Spring. Under the title A Fourth Wave or False Start?, he questioned the possibility that the march towards democratic change in the Arab world might end up producing any sort of political system but not democracy. Similarly, George Friedman of Stratfor presented more or less the same argument. "The Middle East has seen many demonstrations of late, but that does not make them revolutions". Furthermore, all demonstrations are not revolutions. All revolutions are not democratic revolutions. All democratic revolutions do not lead to constitutional democracy. That might very well be the case in the Arab world, Friedman argued.

The challenges facing the transition to democracy in the Arab world are very real indeed. There is increasing doubt that the Egyptian army, which ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, might not want to facilitate a genuine democratic transition. It may try to prevent it by generating conditions on the ground that discredit democracy and make Egyptians beg for another autocracy. The ruling officers have, for example, turned a blind eye to mounting religious and sectarian strife in addition to the rising crimes. The military has also arrested dozens of peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square and tried them in military tribunals over the last two months. In April, one such detainee was sentenced to three years in prison for "insulting the military establishment". Yet it claims that it cannot rein in rising insecurity. Many Egyptians see this as part of the military's grand design to undermine democracy before it takes hold.
In Tunisia, the conditions are different but might nonetheless produce similar outcomes. The parliamentary elections slated for this autumn are unlikely to help change the political map of the country in a fundamental way. New political forces, representing the younger generation, those who made change possible, have no chance of being able to build competitive party and campaign structures in time. If the electoral system remains unchanged too, it might well allow the cronies of the former president win a thumping majority of the seats in parliament.

Hurdles persist
Elsewhere in the region, the transition to democracy appears to be much more difficult. In places where regimes have turned arms against their own people to prevent change, different sets of conditions have led to freezing the march towards the emergence of more representative governments.

In Syria, instead of negotiating some future power-sharing deal, the regime has opted for a heavy-handed approach to quash the uprising. In Yemen, the country is slowly but surely drifting towards civil war. Having seen the fate of Mubarak, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is playing for time, notwithstanding the risk of widespread violence, foreign interference or even partition. Libya has been a unique case from the very beginning. Here, the picture has become complicated to the extent that made many believe that the existence of the country itself might be hanging in the balance.
Indeed, the transition to democracy will not be easy in the Arab world, but western scholars tend to forget that it has not been easy anywhere in the world. In Europe, for example, it took several decades, and in cases centuries, for democracy to take hold. In England, the cradle of world democracy, the quest for a parliamentarian system took 40 years of violent conflict. Constitutional monarchy needed two revolutions to be established (in 1642 and 1688). It was interrupted by autocratic rule several times during this period and after it. In France, the final victory of the French revolution came after a century of bloody conflict, revolutions, counter revolutions and foreign military interventions. Democracy was firmly established and accepted as the most viable form of government only after the 1870 military defeat against Germany. In Russia, two decades after the fall of Communism, the country is still largely seen as being undemocratic.

There are many other examples about the difficult path of democratic change from Latin America to Southern Europe. The Arab path will not be any easy. The most important fact is, however, that Arabs have taken the first step on the long way towards democracy and that is what matters here.
Marwan Al Kabalan is Lecturer in Media and International Relations at Damascus University, Syria.

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