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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Two Years of the Arab Spring: Reflections about Democracy in the Arab World

Filed under: The Middle East

During a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and several American senators, Rabin was asked how he could envisage signing a peace agreement with Arab regimes that did not profess democracy, but rather acted as oppressors of their own people. Rabin responded: “If we have to wait till democracy prevails in the Arab countries, then Israel will have to wait for a hundred years at least.”

Since its very first days, Israel has been surrounded by authoritarian regimes where there is no freedom of speech, no personal freedom, or freedom of any kind. The citizens of the surrounding countries live in a world where many things are forbidden, where they must guess what is acceptable and suitable in order to survive. Instead of speaking their mind, they let their rulers hear what they want to hear and kept the truth to themselves, deep inside.

In the years following the end of Western colonialism, the Arab world was divided into monarchies and dictatorial regimes based on sectarian divisions, with the sole exception of Lebanon as a sectarian republic. In a later phase, the Arab world lost some of its monarchies to military juntas and dictatorships that further deepened the sense of lack of individual freedoms. This process did not spare other Arab regimes where military rebellions alternated with civilian regimes.

In any case, the result was the same: the core of the Arab world was ruled by the military, whereas the rest were ruled by hereditary monarchies supposedly chosen by Allah. In either option, the concept of Western democracy was never implemented since it could never be accepted by Arab rulers and was a concept foreign to Islamic tradition. The closest concept to Western democracy in Islam is the Shura institution, which is a sort of advisory board with no real powers, since authority is vested in the ruler himself. The adoption of Western institutions such as parliaments only mimicked the West, while in fact the authority and power to decide remained in the hands of the ruling junta.

In this reality, where opponents find themselves jailed for years without trial; where opposition groups are persecuted, tortured to death, and eliminated with no trace by the ruling authorities; where minorities suffer from blatant discrimination and their political rights are ignored, denied, or put aside and their leaders imprisoned with no reason; where the press is the mere reflection of the deeds of the ruling class and serves mainly to magnify its role; where human rights are insignificant; where citizens are punished by flogging if caught not worshiping Allah during the times of prayer; where more than 10 percent of the population is part of the internal security apparatus; where Shari’a rule calls for amputations, beheading, or throwing the accused from the highest tower in town; where adultery or being gay is condemned by capital punishment either by hanging or stoning; and where women have to undergo a “virginity test” performed by male military doctors just because they took part in a popular demonstration –  there is no room for democracy. The only option for the opposition is to rebel and to take over the reins of power from the ruling junta and continue the same political language as before, because it has been so for years, decades, centuries.

Two years after the outburst of what was naively called the “Arab Spring” by romantics and wishful thinkers who thought the Arab world was about to witness a new era of liberty and democracy, one can only be disappointed by the realities on the ground:

  • Tunisia is ruled by a coalition led by an Islamist who, if he could, would apply Islamic law in the country. His main opposition is the Salafists who seek an even stricter approach to Islam.
  • Libya was not the scene of a revolution. Rather this was a rebellion of the eastern provinces against the authority of Gaddafi. A year later, Libya has almost disintegrated as a state, is ruled by Islamic militias, and is far from being a democracy.
  • Egypt has replaced the dictatorship of President Mubarak with the dictatorship of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi who, unlike his predecessor who inherited a military regime established in 1952, appropriated most of the executive powers less than six months after his election. Almost 50 percent of Egyptians voted against him, but lost to the Islamic majority. The losing Egyptians are fighting today to preserve some of their rights, while democracy is not around the corner.
  •  In Syria, the Alawite dictatorship is fighting for survival and is likely to fade away in the near future. Still, one can assess with some degree of certainty that its successors will not be advocates of democracy, since most of the fighting is carried out by fundamentalists pushed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Most probably, as in the Egyptian case, the Islamists, being better organized, will succeed in hijacking the rebellion and install themselves as the next rulers of Syria.
  •  Iraq, after the withdrawal of American forces, has not turned into a flamboyant democracy. The ruling Shiites are being harassed by al-Qaeda, whose main aim is to re-establish Sunni supremacy in Iraq, as it was during the days of Saddam Hussein. None of the combatants are raising the flag of democracy.
  • In Yemen, the departed Ali Saleh was not succeeded by a democrat. In fact, his deputy is maintaining the same tribal policy as his predecessor, with the slight difference that he is now succeeding in quelling the rebellion of the Shiite tribes in the north and the other rebellious tribes in Sanaa.
  • Being far from the limelight, Bahrain enjoys the fact that the international press is not focused on its politics. Still, the ruling Sunni minority has trespassed every limit of democracy. Its brutal treatment of the opposition and its questionable behavior while quelling the manifestations of the Shiite opposition cannot be accepted in any measure as a legitimate means to protect democracy, since it is nonexistent in the kingdom. The Bahraini monarch asked his Saudi and Emirates neighbors to send troops in order to preserve his regime. Fortunately for the king, Bahrain is the home of the American Fifth Fleet and, as such, has enjoyed a softer approach from the Obama administration, which quite rightly is not interested in alienating an ally facing Iran, the most bitter enemy of the U.S.
  • Saudi Arabia has always been ruled according to Islamic law. Democracy is foreign to its institutions and its political thinking and is not on the agenda of the Wahhabi king. His brutal behavior against the Shiites in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia facing Iran is only a reminder of what sort of democracy the Saudis have in mind when they deal with opposition. Amazingly, it is Saudi as well as Qatari money that fuels some of the revolts in the Arab world.  Specifically, this money serves to finance the Salafists and other Islamic groups around the Arab world in their quest to topple “heretic” regimes.

Almost two years after the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” the Arab world is more divided than ever. Most of the regimes that witnessed this blossoming “spring” have imploded or are on the verge of implosion. The disintegration of Libya, instead of creating a democracy, has created a situation where weapons from the Libyan arsenal have enabled the Tuaregs and their allies to cut Mali in two. Libyan weapons have also reached Hamas in Gaza and the rebels in Syria. North Mali (or Azawad as it is called today) under the Islamists has become a haven for Islamic terrorism led by al-Qaeda and a regional threat to the integrity of the countries of the Sahel. The forthcoming disintegration of Syria, far from bringing democracy, carries with it a potential existential threat to Israel (if Syria’s huge stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons fall into the hands of Islamists) and to its neighbors, specifically Lebanon and Jordan.

The “Arab Spring” has proven beyond any doubt that the Arab world is far from ready to accept the concept of democracy. The effort spent to marry democracy and Islam has not borne fruit at all and it is still an open question whether such a scenario can be envisaged in the future.

Professing democracy in the Arab world is a futile exercise in today’s reality. Too many crimes have been committed under the banner of democracy, while respecting human rights has proved to be a formidable challenge.