Analysis Amr Hamzawy

Reforms in the Arab World - The Limits of Pessimism

Those who are pushing for reform in the Middle East above all need us to believe that change is possible, writes Egyptian political scientist Amr Hamzawy.

photo: private
A crack has emerged in the authoritarian pattern of the state-society relationship in Arab countries like Egypt, says Amr Hamzawy.

​​Middle East observers are trained to be wary of political events occurring in the region, even when they indicate a potential for positive change. Throughout recent decades we witnessed a number of seemingly promising beginnings that did not end with substantial outcomes.

These include a series of peace negotiations and agreements that did not resolve persisting conflicts, measures of political liberalisation which did not pave the way for real democratic transformation and privatisation strategies that lead to stagnant crony capitalism rather than socially responsible market economies.

Above all, in the last two decades, the Middle East suffered from the systemic rise of radical religious ideologies and violent movements. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the world was embracing liberal ideals of freedom, tolerance and pluralism.

It would be a mistake to allow the same paradigm of pessimism to colour our understanding of recent events in the region. We would be doing injustice to very promising developments in Saudi-Arabia, Lebanon and Egypt if we expected them to go ultimately in the wrong direction or stamped them as mere cosmetic changes.

Saudi municipal elections

Assessments of the first phase of the Saudi municipal elections, held in Riyadh on February 10, have been overwhelmingly negative. Several factors lead most analysts to dismiss the elections' significance; notably the exclusion of women as voters and candidates, low levels of voter participation, the trivial powers assigned to the elected local councilors, and finally, the fact that voters made their choices on the basis of tribal loyalties.

From a liberal perspective, these factors clearly constitute a disheartening rejection of the basic principles of modern government. However, it would be a mistake to judge the significance of Saudi municipal elections by using liberal benchmarks and ignoring the country's historical and cultural realities.

The holding of municipal elections in Saudi-Arabia, in spite of its shortcomings, is at least an opening in an authoritarian political system and a step towards greater citizen participation. Moreover, the apparent influence of tribal loyalties and religious inclinations on voter preferences does not only represent an element of backwardness in the Saudi political spectrum but, and maybe more significantly, a source of pluralism.

Throughout the 20th century, Arab nation-states attempted to modernise their societies by refusing to recognise their ethnic and religious diversity. The re-surfacing of primordial ties as a political reality in Saudi-Arabia, as in today's Iraq, will ultimately push forward the reform process. Only a democratising, consensus-oriented polity can accommodate diversity peacefully.

Constitutional change in Egypt

By the same token, Mubarak's decision to ask the Egyptian parliament to amend article 76 of the constitution to allow for pluralist presidential elections in September represents a slight opening of a previously closed door to pluralist politics.

Clearly, Mubarak's move does not alter political realities on the Nile radically, given that emergency laws are still implemented and prominent political prisoners remain in detention. However, for the first time in contemporary Egyptian history, the ruler of the country is making concessions in the face of mounting internal calls for democratisation.

Demonstrators in Cairo, rallying a few days ago for reform, now know that it is worthwhile to contest the power of the state and that public pressure can be effective in forcing change. In terms of Egypt's prevailing political culture of passivity and fear of authority since 1952, this is a major symbolic shift with a wide range of implications.

A crack has emerged in the authoritarian pattern of the state-society relationship and there is no way of reversing its dynamics, regardless of how actively intellectual apologists of the regime attempt to portray the amendment as an act of enlightenment or generosity on the part of a benevolent ruler.

Though results of the upcoming presidential elections will probably favour Mubarak, it would be extremely misleading to interpret the constitutional amendment as a mere cosmetic strategy designed to preserve authoritarian power in the face of a hostile international environment.

The fact that Egyptian citizens will be able to choose between different presidential candidates ends for good the autocratic legacy of "one nation, one unquestioned leader."

It would also be misguided to lose the significance of the current developments by exclusively debating whether Mubarak's decision represents a concession to the Egyptian population or a submission to the Bush administration that has been pressing him on democratisation in recent months.

At the end of the day, it is evident that both internal and external factors are relevant, although I believe that without increasing internal protests, change would have been unlikely.

Popular protests in Lebanon

In Lebanon, finally, a vibrant civil society is breaking with decades of fear generated by the repressive Syrian "big brother" and its exploitation of the sectarian divide.

The uprising in Beirut and in other urban centers demonstrates the rediscovery of Lebanese citizenship and the confident hopes of the population for a democratic future without the Syrian-controlled surveillance apparatus.

There are signs that this future is within reach; the pro-Syrian government resigned a few days ago, the Baath regime in Damascus is extremely isolated, and there is no way out for Baathists but to make substantial concessions.

Equally encouraging is the fact that Hezbollah and other militant groups are not acting against the public will. Why then, are we still worrying so much about the potential resurrection of the ghosts of the civil war and why are we less inclined to give Lebanese civil society credit for what it has already achieved by believing in it and in its liberal merits?

Looking at contemporary Middle Eastern societies, analogies to Eastern Europe in 1989 are easy to make and, at times, somewhat instructive.

However, one of the major differences in the case of Poland and Hungary in 1989 as opposed to Egypt and Lebanon today is that in Eastern Europe we believed from the outset of the uprising that the two countries were heading in the right direction, whereas we tend to be very skeptical in assessing political developments in the Middle East.

In 1989 we believed in Eastern Europe's populations and by doing so we gave them faith in their power to change their reality. We should not deprive the people of the Middle East of that same gift of faith.

Amr Hamzawy

© Al Ahram weekly

photo: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

​​Amr Hamzawy is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, and a noted Egyptian political scientist who previously taught at Cairo University and the Free University of Berlin. His research interests include the changing dynamics of political participation and the prospects of democratic transformation in the Arab world, with special attention both to Egypt and the Gulf countries.

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