Will there be Arab Democracy?

| Written By:

The world is watching with baited breath as the "Arab Spring" unfolds. While hope abounds that this is the beginning of a democratic transformation in the region, there is much concern that the Arab upheavals may lead to the same repressive result that followed the 1979 Iranian Revolution.  IDI International Advisory Council Member Prof. Vernon Bogdonor, Research Professor at the Institute of Contemporary History at King’s College in London, shares his thoughts in this op-ed, which was originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.

The beginning of the 21st century seemed to witness the global triumph of democracy. By 2000, 120 of the 192 members of the United Nations could be classed as democracies. Countries that continue to reject democracy exclude themselves from the world of civilised political discourse.

But, until very recently, one area seemed the great exception—the Middle East and, in particular, the Arab world. There, dictatorship was the norm. In 2010, the ruling group in Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia—and Iran—was exactly the same ruling group as had governed since at least 1990.

Until 2011, the Arab states, with the exception of Iraq and Lebanon, were ruled either by absolute monarchs—in the oil-rich states of the Arabian Peninsula and in Morocco and Jordan—or by secular dictatorships, as in Egypt, Libya and Syria.

Syria was the worst. The American monitoring organisation, Freedom House, consistently ranks it as one of the 18 most repressive regimes in the world. In the 2011 "Worst of the Worst" report, it was noted that the Syrian authorities "impose harsh restrictions on fundamental human rights".

The past year has seen revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and the Yemen. There have been uprisings, so far unsuccessful, in Bahrain and Syria. In Morocco, Jordan, and the Gulf States, reforms have been introduced to anticipate democratic pressures.

One important reason for the revolutions is that dictatorship, sometimes claimed to be more "efficient" than democracy, has not brought economic progress. The standard of living in the non-oil Arab states other than Tunisia is the lowest in the world, with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa. Dictators did not share the low standard of living of their peoples but hoarded wealth for themselves and their families. Standards of literacy are also low—Morocco, which is 96th out of 120 countries in the UN's Human Poverty index, has an illiteracy rate of 45 percent. Indeed, the level of literacy in Morocco is lower than that in Sudan, Haiti or Rwanda. Illiteracy in Egypt is 34 percent, in Algeria 24 percent and, in Tunisia, 23 percent.

The Arab spring has aroused hopes, perhaps excessive. In May, William Hague described it as the most significant event of the century so far. But perhaps the term, "Arab spring", is best avoided for the time being. The Moroccan foreign minister wrote in Le Monde in March that there is "no guarantee" that the Arab spring will lead to an Arab summer and that a "sobering winter" is an equally likely scenario. It does not do to be too optimistic. Many were optimistic when the Shah of Iran's dictatorship was overthrown in 1979. Yet that led not to democracy but to a worse dictatorship than the one that had preceded it.

Some commentators appear to believe that democracy is secured by just one free election. But it is worth remembering that the Nazi Party gained power after becoming the largest party in Germany in free elections, and that, in 1980, Iranians voted happily for a theocratic republic in which human rights are non-existent. The success of Hamas in just one election in Gaza in 2006 does not mean that Gaza is a democracy. If there is an Arab spring, Hamas is certainly not a part of it.

In a speech in June at Chatham House, an Egyptian ambassador at large, Nabil Fahmy, said that, "to be able to evaluate whether we succeed or not is not going to be a function of the first election, frankly. It's going to be a function of whether we are able to put together the checks and balances in our societies that will make the ultimate result—politically, economically and socially—will make that result representative of the widespread aspiration of our people".

Democracy means respect and freedom for opposition parties, free access to the press and other media, an independent judiciary with the power to check arbitrary government, civilian control of the armed forces, the removal of the military from politics, and, above all, respect for human rights—in short, a constitution with checks and balances. It also requires a strong, civil society of organised communities and pressure groups.

But civil society is still very much in its infancy in the Arab states. It is possible that, as in eastern Europe after the fall of communism, the experience of dictatorship in the Arab world will prove to have had a purging effect, inoculating those living under it against dictatorship in any form and providing a basic training in democratic processes. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have been on the whole non-violent, and the uprising in Syria began as non-violent until it was met with repression by the authorities. So there are some reasons for optimism. Nevertheless, a democratic civic culture has still to be established in the Arab world.

The signs are not unequivocally hopeful. In Libya, the leader of the Libyan Transitional Council said, shortly after the uprising began, that a law banning polygamy, passed under Colonel Gaddafi, should be repealed so that men would be allowed to have four wives, as is currently the case in Iran. He also said that other sharia laws should be enforced in Libya. One of the first actions of the Islamists in Tunisia, who won the first free elections, was to repeal an adoption law passed under former leader Ben Ali, since, under sharia law, there can be no adoption. The new regime in Tunisia has also sought to censor the media so as to prevent them showing material harmful to Islam.

In Egypt, the Islamists want to remove the western-based laws of Mubarak; the military government ordered women protesting against its rule to undertake a virginity test on the grounds that anyone opposing it must be a prostitute. Such measures, it is only fair to point out, are opposed by progressive Islamic thinkers and are by no means representative of Islam, only of an extreme version of it. Recently, a brave Iranian human-rights activist, speaking at Chatham House, quoted the prophet Mohammed, who said: "A state will last even if it's an unbeliever, but it will not last if it is unjust."

It is far too early to say whether the Arab spring will lead to fully functioning democracy or new forms of authoritarian government. There is likely to be a period of revolutionary turbulence that will not be resolved for some time—perhaps not for some years. We are living through a dangerous, transitional period.

One can perhaps say of the Arab spring what Gandhi is alleged to have said when asked what he thought of western civilisation. He replied: "I think that it would be a very good idea."

How should Israel react to this upheaval? Israelis are obviously worried by the dangers of instability. But they should not put themselves in the position of being the last defenders of corrupt and brutal Arab dictatorships. They must be on the side of liberal democracy. Of course, the average Arab in the street may be more hostile to Israel than the rulers were in countries such as Egypt.

Even so, in the last resort, it is only the Arab people who can deliver the security that Israel so desperately needs and, if a democratic Arab government achieves peace with Israel, that peace will be stable. Were liberal democracy to establish itself in the Arab world, then their governments will have a clear democratic mandate. The people will then feel they actually "own" the peace with Israel, rather than having it imposed upon them by a dictatorship. But an agreement with an authoritarian regime, such as Mubarak's Egypt, is always at risk when that regime changes. At the same time, Israel cannot afford to relax her vigilance. It is too early for euphoria.

But the best contribution that Israel can make to the coming of democracy in the Middle East is to improve her own democratic credentials, to show that democracy can tolerate and respect the rights of minorities, even when some members of these minorities may be hostile to the very existence of the state.

Many Israelis were proud when former president Moshe Katzav was convicted of rape in a court in which the chairman of the judges was a Christian Arab; they contrasted Israel with other Middle-East countries. But Israel should compare herself not with authoritarian countries but with long-established democracies such as Britain, the United States, and the Scandinavian countries. Here the record is not so good, although, of course, other democracies do not face the existential threat that confronts Israel.

A recent survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute shows that 51 percent of Israel's population agrees with the statement that speakers should be prohibited from harshly criticising the state of Israel in public; 58 percent of the Jewish population believes that university lecturers should not be permitted to publicly express political opinions, while 63 percent believes that the state should oversee the content of university courses. One of the most serious weaknesses of Israeli democracy remains its treatment of the Arab minority, which constitutes one fifth of the country. A poll carried out last November by the Institute showed that 53 percent of Jewish citizens would prefer to see Arabs leave Israel and that the state had the right to encourage Arabs to emigrate.

An editorial in Haaretz, commenting on this survey in December 2010, was concerned that "[C]racks are emerging in Israel's democracy". The survey, the newspaper believed, "paints a gloomy, worrisome picture whose gist is a lack of understanding of the basic principles of Israel's political system." It was particularly worried by the findings that a majority of Israelis believed that voting rights should depend upon a declaration of loyalty to the state, while only 17 percent of Israelis believed that the state's self-definition as a democracy should take precedence over its self-definition as Jewish.

"These findings", the editorial continued, "follow campaigns of hatred and incitement by rabbis and politicians against Israel's Arab citizens. They also follow anti-democratic bills that have been discussed, and in some cases even passed, by the Knesset. And all this happened without the voices of the prime minister, education minister and leader of the opposition being heard.

"The survey results are therefore not surprising but they are extremely disturbing. At their root lies the twisted belief that democracy means the tyranny of the majority, and that equal rights for all the state's citizens is not an integral part of the democratic system."

Haaretz concluded that "a democracy cannot have two classes of citizens, first-class and second-class. What is at stake is the very nature of Israel's society and political system. Cracks in either will endanger Israel's future no less than any external threat. The kind of society reflected by this survey will not be able to preserve democracy—or even a veneer thereof".

Israel therefore has some way to go before she can become a genuine model to Arab countries seeking to democratise themselves.

I return to my fundamental question—will the 21st century be the democratic century? If a question is easy to answer, it is not worth asking. The honest answer must be that we cannot know with any degree of certainty. Hardly anyone—whether in the world of diplomacy, politics or the academic world—predicted the Arab revolutions of 2011, just as very few depicted the demise of communism in Europe. They caught the world by surprise. Nevertheless, in the light of the spread of a global culture of democracy, something absent during the inter-war wars when democracy was on the defensive; and in the light of the spread of global communications systems, which make it difficult for governments to keep from their peoples the rights possessed by those living in advanced democracies, there are guarded grounds for optimism. I therefore believe that there is a good chance that the Arab world will follow the rest of the world in embracing the tenets of liberal democracy. 

Vernon Bogdanor is Research Professor at the Institute of Contemporary History, King's College, London, and a member of the international advisory board of the Israel Democracy Institute. This article is based on the Morris and Manja Leigh Memorial Lecture given under the auspices of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research on November 22.

This article was originally published in the Jewish Chronicle on December 5, 2011 and has been reprinted with permission.