Democracy in the Arab States

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Democracy in the Middle East has always evoked serious debates among political scholars who believe that it is far from being achieved in a region that subscribes more to authoritarianism than pluralism. Some argue that democracy incompatibility in the Arabic world originates from the populace values. President Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “the government by the people for the people and of the people” (Dalacoura, 2005). This has proved to be a challenging form of government even in mature democracies with indifferences arising from both the people and politicians. On that background, this paper will analyze the compatibility of democratic ideals among the Arabic countries and the drive behind its adoption in the region.

It is evident that for the longest period, liberal democracy has failed to flourish among Arabic states. The long spells under imperial rule by France, Ottoman Empire, Britain and recent intervention by the U.S. are the reason for failure in the adoption of democratic ideals. It is clear that authoritarianism based on Islamic concepts have dominated governance in the region. Indeed, the adoption of Islamic religion ideals in the management of affairs among Arab states has made western democracy to remain a mirage that is far from reach (Dalacoura, 2005).

Over the last few decades, the region has experienced several uprising, seemingly triggered by the urge for political liberalization if not a democracy. In 2014, Algeria conducted its first elections for an extended period that were seen to be castigating for a regime change. This country is vividly exhibited exceptional traits in a region that do not give room for elections. Notably, democracy is anchored in constitutionalism, and most Arab states do not give room for free, fair, and transparent elections, which form part of its fundamental tenets. Algeria’s exceptionalism is portrayed by acknowledging the fact that, previously no Arab state had used elective procedures and institutions to replace one government by another (Tessler, 2002).

The coercive apparatus in the Middle East countries including but not limited to the security forces and military have made democracy to be unfit for the region. These apparatus stand to be the most tenacious obstacles in democratizing majority of the authoritarian regimes of Arab States. For instance, in Egypt, President Sadat’s changes in the 1970’s army were used significantly in exchange of safeguarding the leaders and regime’s interests. The Egyptian military up to date has control in nearly everything, more so economic investment. Revenues collected from the production companies are directed to the military’s coffers, and their disbursement is free from state’s intervention. Coercive apparatus are defined as instruments used by the state to exercise a monopoly of physical violence within its sovereign territory. Democracy does not have room for the use of the military in the management of a country’s internal affairs. This is because security apparatus’ compulsion and terror are the primary tools employed by a state to crush democratic initiatives and subjugate its populace. Therefore, for a democratic transition to start in the Middle East, these repressive apparatus have to be neutralized (Gause III, 2011).

The need to adopt democratic ideals among Arabic states was triggered by different factors. During the 2011 protests that swept across the Tunisian streets, it was elicited by the gruesomely symbolic suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi, referred today as the father of Tunisian Revolution. Corruption and nepotism in government were the leading causes of anti-government protests. Top government officials and their families benefitted themselves with state resources while a majority of the population were impoverished, marred with unemployment and inflation. Economic stagnation led as another cause for embracement of democratic ideals in Tunisia.

A majority of the young graduates suffered under a regime that failed to provide jobs for them, thus failing its purpose. Additionally, lack of press freedom was another factor that led to the idea of the need to embrace democracy in Tunisia. A majority of the Arabic states have always rigorously censored the press denying the public access to information. Certainly, considering these factors among many others, the Tunisian people fought for the adoption of democratic ideals in the management of their country with the election of Beji Caid Essebsi in a free, fair, and transparent election (Gause III, 2011).

In his book, the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes postulated that human life in a state of nature would be short, deprived, and solitary. A lack of guiding laws as well as the political order would give individuals indefinite natural liberties leading towards an endless war of all against all. The current war in Iraq against ISIS is a good example of this description. After the U.S intervention, which marked the end of Saddam Hussein’s’ dictatorship rule, it triggered hope that democracy would, at last, find its place in Iraq. However, upon the removal of U.S army in 2014, the chosen prime minister sidelined some parts of the country creating a sense of marginalization among the Kurds and Sunnis. Democracy has remained to be a mirage as the country has since fallen back into war against ISIS. The Islamic group fails to recognize the current political leadership and laws, thereby agreeing with the Hobbesian theory (Morris, 2000).

John Locke, one of the most illustrious political philosopher, stated that liberal democratic government should have the capacity to secure their citizen’s natural rights. Locke, a student of Hobbes in social contract theory states that civil societies are only established when people agree to gain security by subjecting themselves to an absolute sovereign, an assembly of men or even one man. However, John Locke believed that in case the absolute sovereign failed to secure public’s best interests, citizens could withdraw their obligation to obey and decide to change leadership through democratic elections or even violence where necessary. Therefore, the uprisings in Arabic states would seemingly be legitimate according to this postulation. Seemingly, the recent fights in the city of Aleppo, Syria can be said to have been caused by Syrians deciding to withdraw their obligations after President Assad government failed to be effective in providing adequate economic provisions and protection. In return, Assad’s government has resulted in using both the Russian and its military to suppress the discontent. This depicts the current regime as undemocratic since it has refused to listen to the will of the people that wants a change in leadership. Certainly, this makes democracy in the region to remain a dream that is far from realization (Morris, 2000)

Leaders such as Gadhafi, Mubarak, and Ben Alli, arguably can be said to have been responsible Hobbesian sovereigns. Hence, the uprisings in respective Arab states were in contravention of the Hobbesian school of thought. They were violating the natural law as well as breaking the terms of social contracts. Markedly, the dissent movements proved the Hobbesian need for states to have strong leadership, which is achieved through conducting transparent elections common among liberal democracies. Perhaps, the call for democracy in Arab countries that precipitated regimes downfall resulted from the states sovereigns’ weakness, thereby underlining Hobbes emphasis on a leader’s strength as well as indivisible rights (Rutherford, 2013)

The idea of government by the people, of the people and for the people takes a paradigm shift from traditional liberal democracies in the context of Arabic states. Qatar, UAE, and Saudi Arabia are examples Hobbesian states that have had peace and stability under strong sovereigns. Although their human rights record may be lamentable, they have illustrated succinct traits of successful Hobbesian states by preserving their populace and maintaining order. However, their type of democracy is different from the west because they are based on social contracts between the citizenry and ruling monarchs in the absence of elections. The social contracts exercised by Gulf monarchies have been predicated on unspoken and unwritten ruling bargains. Certainly, these bargains emphasize on the state as the dispenser of social status and wealth securing the acquiescence of their citizenries. Consequently, considering the similarity in stability and peace exhibited in both the western democracies and above stated Arab states, democracy among Arab states is best compatible when negotiated (Morris, 2000).

A majority of the western democracies led by the United States believe that stable governments in the Middle East have not been enough to depict real democratic ideals. The coexistence of a belief in democracy with a tacit acceptance of the urge to have peace and alliances in the region has always been uneasy. For instance, the U.S as a renowned global proponent of democratic ideals has continuously campaigned for the adoption of democratic principles in Arab states. It supported the ousting of President Mubarak and funded the democratically elected Morsi’s administration. Although the administration was then evicted by the military, the U.S continued to support President Sisi’s administration because it believed it was the people’s choice (Dalacoura, 2005).

To sum up, democracy in Arab states is possible based on the recent dissenting voices from the people. Firstly, fragile democratic systems are to be expected after years of repressive dictatorships. Influences from the western nations in the region will play a vital role in enshrining some of the advantages that arise from embracing democracy. Strong leadership in the region will be crucial in maintaining peace and stability for the success of Arab states.

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  1. Dalacoura, K. (2005). US democracy promotion in the Arab Middle East since 11 September 2001: a critique. International affairs81(5), 963-979.
  2. Gause III, F. G. (2011). Why Middle East studies missed the Arab Spring: The myth of authoritarian stability. Foreign Affairs, 81-90.
  3. Morris, C. W. (Ed.). (2000). The social contract theorists: critical essays on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  4. Rutherford, B. K. (2013). Egypt after Mubarak: liberalism, Islam, and democracy in the Arab world. Princeton University Press.
  5. Tessler, M. (2002). Do Islamic orientations influence attitudes toward democracy in the Arab world? Evidence from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria. International Journal of Comparative Sociology43(3-5), 229-249.
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