In spite of cautious reforms in several Arab countries, most of the authoritarian rulers in the region have not been ready to restrict their wide powers over state and society. Noureddine Jebnoun looks at why this region is quite so unwilling to engage in reform
The 22 member countries of the Arab League form the only major region in the world totally deprived of democratic government. Since the 1980s, political Islamism has been challenging the region's autocratic and military regimes.
Until the end of the 1990s, the Moroccan monarchy had preserved the illusion of an internal opposition with the nationalist Istiqlal Party. Until 2003, less attentive observers could imagine that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a secular state. Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan still gave hope for democratization.
Between the hammer and the anvil
These illusions are now ruined. Throughout the Arab world, the local population lives under the joint supervision of an authoritarian regime and an Islamist opposition, between the anvil and the hammer.
At a time when dictatorships confront the growing violence of Islamic radicalism with an iron fist, the end result is an inevitable shift of impoverished urban populations toward political Islamism.
Two political experiments have tried to stem the flow: in Morocco, supported by France, and in Iraq, supported by the Americans.
For more than a decade, the Moroccan monarchy has been trying to evade the double threat, both against itself and against Moroccan society, from a pervasive political Islam, and an entrepreneurial army determined to maintain at all costs the order that it serves. The attempt has not been without difficulty: the legislative elections in 2007 seem to have extended a process which was already underway.
At the other end of the Arab world too, the American army's "importation" of democracy into Iraq has failed, at least in the five years since the invasion.
The end of Arab utopias
The evident failures of these utopian policies are fraught with threats to Arab peoples. Supporters of the Iraq war had imagined that the overthrow of the worst dictator in the region would mean the beginning of a wave of democratization. The reasoning was simple: the Arab masses are Islamists because Islam is the only way to oppose dictatorship, and only Islam can shatter it in the name of God.
The fall of a dictator should calm social relations and political-religious tension. And of course it will sweep away the devastating effects of the dictatorship, as well as ethnic and sectarian strife.
Dictatorship or chaos?
The toll has been high and the results tragic. Those who were skeptical about the ability of Arab societies to embrace democracy have seen their doubts reinforced. Cynics, who believe that only force can regulate Arab societies, have seen their prejudice confirmed. The naïve, who held the utopian belief that the fall of a dictator would bring social peace, are ready to give up all hope.
The authoritarian Arab regimes, for decades engaged in a continuous political repression (often within the legal framework of a state of emergency), see their political positions legitimized – a position which can be summarized under the slogan: "It is us or chaos!"
Rule by the gerontocrats
Arab supporters of democracy, whether they are republicans, socialists, liberals or Islamists, saw their hopes of emancipation and liberalization evaporate. Their only hope was exile.
This tragic situation brings us back to the Arab leaders, who are examples of authoritarianism in its most minute details. Judging by the average age of its leaders, the Arab world is a forum of gerontocrats,. Among them are two octogenarians (Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and four more in their 70s (Algeria, Kuwait, Oman and Tunisia); the "dean" of the Arab heads of state, Libyan Colonel Moammar Gadhafi holds the record for political longevity with 39 years of power.
It would seem that the Arab leaders do not realize the severity of their situation, the disintegration of their states and the paralysis of the Arab political system. Instead they occupy themselves with their own intranecine "Cold War."
A region held in geopolitcal tension
U.S. geopolitical strategy has emerged from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the united front that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq. This strategy was one of the two main pillars of the American-Saudi axis in the Muslim world.
This alliance has had the effect of being the justification for a new form of transnational anti-Western subversion. If it were not for that, the example of the US-Saudi strategy might have led Arab leaders to break with the old Arab order.
The strategy adopted by these two former key partners from the days of the US-Soviet Cold War – the anti-Soviet Islamist Saudi government and its American sponsor – has indeed proved especially corrosive, and it has been instrumental in the abuse of religion as a weapon of political struggle.
At the same time, this strategy has caused American foreign policy to be blind to reality and has increased the country's vulnerability. It has showcased the incompetence of Arab leaders and the intellectual emptiness of their elites, and cracked the façade of the Arab political system as it has operated since the Arab countries became independent after the Second World War.
Despite this upheaval, there has been no major overhaul of the Arab political system to date. The rejuvenation of the Arab leadership in the wake of political succession in the last two years of the 20th century – Abdullah II in Jordan, Mohammad VI in Morocco, Bashar Assad in Syria and Hamad Ben-Issa in Bahrain – combined with the media explosion that the Arab countries have witnessed over the past quarter century, have given credence to the idea of an Arab world in harmony with modernity.
If it did not adhere to real democracy, at least it paid respects to its substitute, its modern and formal expression: "screen democracy" driven by the information society.
These changes however were mere illusions. The dynasties have ensured a smooth transition between the generations, as opposed to the coups d'état of previous decades. But the rejuvenation of leadership has not led to a regeneration of the system of governance.
© Qantara.de 2008
Noureddine Jebnoun is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.