There is a wave of change sweeping across North Africa and most parts of the Middle East. The people may be looking expectantly towards democratic solutions but there are no ideal scenarios emerging and they may well prepare themselves for more frustrat
The Arab revolution does not promise stable democracy in the region.
The Arab world is in turmoil. Faced with unprecedented popular resistance to autocracy and venality, regimes that appeared stable for decades have been thrown on the defensive. In some cases, notably Tunisia and Egypt, the tyrant was overthrown after powerful elements within the ruling establishment decided to use the protests to topple their master. In other cases, most notably Libya and now Syria, regimes have responded by cracking down violently, risking protracted civil wars that have already invited Western intervention. On balance, monarchical governments have proven more flexible in dealing with the crisis offering a mix of reform and repression. There are a number of scenarios that may take shape in the Arab world as the protests and rebellions continue into the summer and beyond.
The most probable of these is that the mess in the Middle East gets a lot worse and a lot more complicated as the public demands change, whereas an absence of organized political parties and legitimate representative bodies produces escalating chaos. One thing to understand about the Arab world is that the countries within it are tribal-ideological oligarchies regardless of whether the formal structure is monarchical or republican. In such countries the alignment of military and security apparatus is key to the outcome.
In Tunisia and Egypt these powerful instruments opted to get rid of the tyrant who was the focus of public ire
in order to preserve their privileges and maintain the familiar culture and practices of tyranny. Take Egypt for example. Hosni Mubarak ruled for three decades, amassed a fortune believed to be worth seventy billion U.S. dollars, and prevented the emergence of any noteworthy liberal or moderate opposition party. The only opposition movement that managed to survive in the toxic atmosphere of the Egyptian police state was the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mubarak intelligently used the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the popular disaffection with a pro-Israeli foreign policy to project himself as the custodian of enlightened moderation. At present, possible elections in Egypt are being pushed back as political forces other than the Muslim brotherhood grapple with how badly organized they are. Meanwhile, Egypt continues to function under military rule.
The 450,000 strong Egyptian army is one of the largest in the world, while the six million strong state bureaucracy (out of a total population of 80 million) makes Egypt one of the most bureaucratic states in the developing world. The military, the internal security apparatus, and the large bureaucracy are all still there. The people have no national leaders to speak of and there doesn’t seem to be any sort of plan to manage Egypt’s sprawling security, intelligence and administrative apparatus. The counter-revolu- tion is alive and kicking in the land of the Pharaohs even if Mubarak has been shown the door. In Libya, Syria and Yemen, however, the calculus of these same instruments is that the popular rebellion must be stamped out and no power sharing or reform that dilutes the autocratic sway of the tribal-ideological dominant group is acceptable. This attitude is a recipe for civil war and external interference but it is the logical outcome of the asbiyah of the ruling elite in many of the Arab countries.
Then there is the issue of introducing democracy in the emerging scenario. The likelihood is that such dispensations, even if they somehow manage to emerge, are unlikely to survive. The Arab world is a minefield of sectarian, ethnic and tribal rivalries, complicated by deeply enmeshed western and Persian imperial interests. If some kind of democratic or constitutional dispensation is to emerge from the chaos, it will be necessary to define and understand what such a system should seek to achieve.
The basic advantage of a democratic constitutional system is that it allows for the periodic change of government through peaceful means. In order for it to work, the victorious and vanquished parties must accept the legitimacy of the election results. Valid election results cannot emerge unless the Election Commission is autonomous and the civil servants responsible for conducting the elec-
An American-style democracy could well plunge the
region into greater trouble even though that is the model that most pro-democracy
thinkers and foreign advisers seem to prefer.
tions are apolitical, professional and protected from victimization by the political executive. In this respect, the Indian election system and model of a constitutional democracy underpinned by an autonomous central higher bureaucracy may be instructive for the Arabs as they seek to redefine their politics. An Americanstyle democracy could well plunge the region into greater trouble even though that is the model that most pro-democracy thinkers and foreign advisers seem to prefer.
The Arabs should also ready themselves for more frustration. Even if an ideal scenario emerges in which credible democratic elections are held in at least some of the Arab countries and the parasitic and intrusive state bureaucracies are gradually professionalized and oriented towards merit, the behavior of the new rulers will likely be almost as arbitrary and corrupt as those they replace. It is very difficult to change the habits of the heart within a timeframe imposed by escalating popular expectations. Democratic elections also do not ensure that good leaders come to power — they only ensure that bad ones can be removed every few years.
The road to a semi-functional constitutional democracy that provides a greater measure of freedom while maintaining a semblance of order is a long one and there are many valuable lessons that the Arabs could learn from the South Asian experience, particularly from India’s modern history and the last fifty years of the British Raj.
No guarantee of credible democracy in the Arab states.