American Studies, Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

Did Democracy Lose this Round? And Why?

Did Democracy Lose this Round? And Why?

Azmi Bishara, General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, delivered a CIRS Monthly Dialogue lecture on the topic “Did Democracy Lose this round? And Why?” on November 28, 2016. While these questions were posed in regard to the state of democracy in the Arab world in the wake of the recent uprisings, he noted that some of these concerns could be equally applied to the failure of liberalism in the West, and the rise of increasingly right-wing tendencies.

Bishara gave four broad explanations for why this round of democratic transition has failed in the Arab world, with a background of the brutality of old regimes and the oppression of civil protests. The first of these was that Arab political elites of both the opposition and the ruling factions could not come to any compromises or agree on shared settlements in the wake of the Arab uprisings. This, he said, was because “the Arab political elite, had no democratic culture”. He rejected the tendency to blame popular culture. Democratic cultures take time to flourish in society in general, and are learned over many years through various aspects of a nation’s foundational systems, including its educational system, the institution of which is the responsibility of political elites in the transitionary phase.

To this effect, Bishara argued that there is no such thing as a “democratic revolution,” since “democracy happens afterwards through reform, not through revolutions. This includes the French Revolution. It did not lead to democracy at the beginning; it needed a long process of reform to reach democracy at the end.” It is a historical norm that after mass societal and political changes, opposing political elites enter into rounds of negotiation regarding the future direction of the country. This did not happen in the post Arab uprisings. He argued that “the young people who went out to the streets, protesting torture, humiliation, and physical abuse of human beings, thought that…they actually achieved or finished the job when Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Zine El-Abidine resigned or abdicated.” In earnest, the protestors delivered their hard won changes to the political elites in order to transform the new raw political environment into actionable, viable reforms, but no such restructuring took place.

The second reason for why democracy did not take root in the region is because of the failure to find a balance between democracy and liberalism—something that was achieved only relatively recently in Western nations in the post-World War II period. Today, we understand that “democracy in itself is not only majority rule; it is not only a question of the ballots; and it is not only a question of free elections,” Bishara argued. “Now when we speak of principles of democracy that should be respected by the majority, we actually mean liberal rights,” he said. These are the meta-constitutional principles that have not been taken to heart by Arab political movements. Even as traditionally conservative parties finally began to accept democracy in the shape of ballots and elections, they did not respect or believe in the related liberal principles. While it is understood that the more radical Islamic movements, like the Islamic State, openly reject democracy in general, in the post-Arab uprisings, “even the mainstream Islamic movements who accept democracy as majority rule underestimated how important civil liberties are for the co-called new Arab middle class, without which you cannot build anything,” and without which the urban centers will be lost—as was witnessed in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood took control.

Bishara’s third reason for the failure of democracy is due to the ways in which modern Arab regimes are engaging in the divisive and dangerous politicization—and polarization—of the multiethnic, multicultural, and sectarian social structures of their societies, especially in the countries of the Levant. Recently, there have been concerted attempts “to mobilize political loyalties to nondemocratic ruling regimes by using subnational affiliations repoliticized sects, identities, ethnicities, tribes,” which was not the case in the past, he said. This policy of so-called secular regimes elicited feelings of sectarian discrimination and confessional reaction among the people. In fact, “political sectarianism, which is exploiting these lines of identity in the struggle to control the state, is a new phenomenon.” Bishara noted that it would be impossible to build a sustainable democracy within these polarized and factionalized societies.

A fourth reason for why democracy has failed in the Arab world is due to the military’s historical stranglehold on political systems in some of these countries. When imperial powers withdrew from Arab lands, new national armies were created from the remnants of colonial military structures, and these emerged as the most organized and powerful entities from the chaos of newly forming postcolonial nations. Bishara said that “we still live the issue of politicization of the military in the Arab world,” and these armies have become increasingly politically motivated. Powerful figures within Arab militaries have strong political ambitions and think of themselves as both powerholders and as watchdogs in the balance of power. For example, in “Egypt, the army achieved a kind of autonomy before 2011,” but when the government collapsed during the Egyptian protests, “the army thought that there was an opportunity, reinforced by the inability of the elites to reach a bargain,” he explained. He drew a comparison between Sisi’s military coup in Egypt and that of Pinochet in Chile in the 1970s.

Although these many political impasses facing the Arab world might seem insurmountable, Bishara concluded on a positive note by arguing that “these hard times are suitable for rethinking,” and for encouraging a new generation of political elites who can accept disagreements and who can debate and bargain to reach compromises with each other for the sake of a future that respects democratic principles.

Azmi Bishara is the General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. A prominent researcher and writer, Bishara has published numerous books and academic papers in political thought, social theory, and philosophy, in addition to several literary works.


Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications.