Political discourse in the Arab world

Last ditch democracy

In this essay, Lebanese journalist Karam Hilo asks whether it is possible to apply the Western concept of democracy – as is – to the countries of the Arab world. Or does the unique political culture of this corner of the globe call for a certain degree of adaptation?

Since the 1980s, the world has experienced the fall of many dictatorial regimes. Among Arab intellectuals and cultural elites this has given rise to a near obsession with the idea of democracy.

This can be seen, for example, in the numerous symposia and conferences held on the topic, as well as in the extensive literature dealing with democratic transformation in Arab countries and the difficulties it entails. The mass uprisings in the Arab world in 2010 are without a doubt an expression of this obsessive pursuit, which continues despite the many set-backs.

What is also remarkable, however, is that supporters of the Arab modernisation project have come to the conclusion that the democratic form of government is best for the further development of Arab societies. With this democratic orientation, the current movement is in marked contrast to its nationalistic predecessors.

And yet this democracy-oriented approach can't disguise the fact that many factors still run counter to the democratic ideal when it comes to key issues such as freedom, social justice and the "unity of the Arab states".

Further lines of conflict can be found between the universal demand for democracy with its fundamental values and principles such as freedom, rationality and equality on the one hand and the special characteristics of Arab culture on the other.  

In this ideological context, democracy doesn't necessarily lead to freedom; it functions merely as a neutral mechanism for the transfer of power. Thus it can happen that power is transferred from one dictatorship into the hands of another, as we have seen happen in many post-revolutionary Arab states.

Tolerating tyranny

Democracy entails, according to Alain Toraine, not only majority decisions, but first and foremost respect for individual ways of life and aspirations. Bureaucracies in the Arab states that have faced upheavals did not take this aspect into account, causing divisions in society to deepen even further.

Tunisian demonstrators protest against the Ben-Ali regime in Tunis (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Disappointed revolutionaries: for many countries caught up in the Arabellion, the ′spring of freedom′ proved of short duration, as authoritarian regimes re-established control. Tunisia, which has successfully managed to transition to a democratic multi-party system, remains one of the rare exceptions

In addition to this conflict between democracy and freedom, the relationship of democracy to social justice is fraught and can even weigh heavier in certain circumstances. The important question to consider here is whether democracy really leads to equal opportunities for all. And whether the claim to equality that is propagated implies a just distribution of public goods.

Criticism of the Arab democracy discourse also touches on the pan-Arab nationalist discourse. In the latter, the idea prevails that, given the fragmentation of the Arab world, democratisation is not feasible – or rather that it would only be necessary after the unification of the Arab states. This is because, according to the Lebanese historian Nadim Al-Bitar, the noble aim of creating Arab unity justifies restrictions on freedoms and the toleration of tyranny.

Nevertheless, it must be noted that the tension between the universal values of democracy and the typical character of Arab culture is the key issue dominating the present-day Arab democracy discourse.

Democracy – a value in itself?

The pan-Arab visionary Ziad Hafez reflects on these tensions in his "Texts on the Arab modernisation project" (Centre for Arab Unity Studies, 2016): "Who says that democracy is a universal value in itself? Why should we accept the conditions of modern Western influence? Why should we assume that Western values and principles are better than our own?"

Hafez ultimately pleads for fundamentally calling the concept of democracy into question and for conceiving an Arab system of government that does justice to the realities and the cultural heritage of the Arab countries. Furthermore, an Arab value system must be created, based on the values and principles of the Arab cultural heritage, which would then take precedence over the Western system.

Slum in Ramlet Bulaq, Cairo (photo: Reuters)
In addition to this conflict between democracy and freedom, the relationship of democracy to social justice is fraught and can even weigh heavier in certain circumstances. The important question to consider here is whether democracy really leads to equal opportunities for all. And whether the claim to equality that is propagated implies a just distribution of public goods

In the leading journal "The Arab Future" (October 2016), Saeed Al-Mallah writes that the existence of a global culture is a Western invention that contradicts the specific characteristics of the different peoples. We must stop linking democracy only to the Western system of values, he says, as secularism, rationalism and individuality are not of equal value to all people.

Democracy as an instrument to prevent monopolies

In Al-Mallah's view, democracy doesn't have to be bound to liberalism; it can simply be used as a tool to regulate the transfer of power, without aspiring to changing societies. In this way it becomes an instrument for power distribution, designed to prevent the formation of monopolies. Thus, every nation can conceive a democratic instrument aligned with its own specific history and cultural traditions.

Conclusions such as these undoubtedly try to ignore the achievements of modern democracies. And it is these very achievements, says Algerian reform thinker Mohammed Arkoun, that first allowed people to be seen as individuals and then as citizens. Citizens who are bound to the modern state through a social and legal contract. Nor should we forget that it was modern democracy that abolished slavery and established the concept of citizenship in the first place.

As much as we try to build on the valuable achievements of our own cultural heritage, it would be mistaken to believe that the modern ideas of a democratic constitutional state will find strong support in this legacy.

In the face of all these uncertainties and questions, which make the current Arab democratic discourse so complex, it is in my opinion vital to refrain from all such considerations and to focus instead on a comprehensive critique. A profound critique that penetrates down to the roots and brings about a new, affirmative attitude toward democracy. Therein lies perhaps the chance for Arab societies to break out of this current devastating cycle of violence.

Karam Hilo

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Karam Hilo is a Lebanese writer and well-known journalist.

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