Be­tween the “Arab Spring“and the Thai elec­tions

*Anis H. Ba­jrek­tare­vic

The Diplomatic Insight - - Contents -

The months long re­port­ing on the un­rest in the arab world misses one im­por­tant point: each and ev­ery coun­try en­gulfed by the pop­u­lar re­volt is a repub­lic, while monar­chies (sit­u­ated pre­dom­i­nantly on the Ara­bian Penin­sula, GCC) re­main largely in­tact. The dif­fer­ence be­tween coun­tries like Libya or Tu­nisia and en­ti­ties such as Saudi Ara­bia or the u.a.e. is not only ge­o­graphic it is fun­da­men­tal. The first are for­mal democ­ra­cies of a re­pub­li­can type, orig­i­nally pro­mot­ing a sec­u­lar (and egal­i­tar­ian) pan-ara­bism. The lat­ter are real au­toc­ra­cies of the hered­i­tary monar­chy type, closer to the right­ist Is­lamic than pan-ara­bic ide­ol­ogy. Ever since in­de­pen­dence, Tu­nisia, Libya and Egypt have kept a demo­cratic elec­tion process and the in­sti­tu­tional setup of ex­ec­u­tive, ju­di­cial and leg­isla­tive branch in for­mal sense. How­ever, in re­al­ity th­ese na­tions have of­ten been run by the alien­ated power struc­tures of over-dom­i­nant party lead­ers (so­called 'guardians of rev­o­lu­tion', or some other 'fa­ther of the na­tion' des­ig­na­tion). Au­thor­i­tar­ian monar­chies have been, and still are, ruled by direct royal de­cree without even for­mally electable demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions. Mod­ern po­lit­i­cal his­tory analy­ses give us a pow­er­ful re­minder that the most ex­posed and most vul­ner­a­ble states are coun­tries tran­si­tion­ing from a for­mal to a real democ­racy. Despotic, ab­so­lutist regimes are fast, bru­tal and de­ci­sive in sup­press­ing pop­u­lar re­volt, some of them even de­clin­ing over decades to ob­serve the fun­da­men­tal Char­ter on Hu­man Rights. Af­ter all, the source of their le­git­i­macy is an om­nipresent and om­nipo­tent ap­pa­ra­tus of co­er­cion (po­lice, royal guard, army), not a demo­crat­i­cally con­tested pop­u­lar sup­port in the mul­ti­party scenery, that is rep­re­sented in the civil state or­gans. Real democ­ra­cies with well-con­sol­i­dated in­sti­tu­tions, civil so­ci­ety and ma­tured po­lit­i­cal cul­ture of elec­torate en­joy larger sys­tem le­git­i­macy. They are electable and able to chan­nel any pop­u­lar griev­ances into the main­stream po­lit­i­cal process. Demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions with a large par­tic­i­pa­tion base also in­crease the trans­parency of par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions, and are ca­pac­i­tated to place nec­es­sary con­straints on any even­tual alien­ation of the ex­ec­u­tive branch (be it its armed or­gans or fi­nan­cial seg­ment). No­tably, the con­sol­i­dated real democ­ra­cies can trans­late mass protests from a street event into a demo­cratic, par­tic­i­pa­tory, in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized process of so­cio-eco­nomic com­pro­mise and po­lit­i­cal re­form for the last­ing ben­e­fit of all so­ci­etal seg­ments and an ac­cept­able, en­dur­ing out­come for most, if not all, stake­hold­ers. An au­thor­i­tar­ian regime will bru­tally crack any protest and de­ploy army and po­lice without any hes­i­ta­tion, as to pre­serve the sta­tus quo (e.g. Bahrain). Even if the street pre­vails over the regime's forces, trans­for­ma­tion will be a per­sonal, not a struc­tural change, and of­ten only when the armed forces (or other alien­ated struc­tures) them­selves de­cide to tilt their sup­port and back an­other fron­trun­ner. For the frag­ile sys­tems that are tran­si­tion­ing from for­mal to real democ­ra­cies with de­vel­op­ing, but still weak in­sti­tu­tions and evolv­ing po­lit­i­cal cul­ture, the street re­volts are pos­ing a par­tic­u­larly te­dious chal­lenge. Nei­ther can they turn the street events into a vi­able in­sti­tu­tional process, nor can they bru­tally sup­press the pop­u­lar re­volt. This nei­ther-nor afloat sit­u­a­tion is ex­actly what we are now wit­ness­ing in Egypt andTu­nisia. Along the bar­ri­cades, op­pos­ing pro­test­ers (or­ga­nized or spon­ta­neous) are in­ex­pe­ri­enced as well: Free­dom is more com­plex than the Face­book feed-news and Aljazeera may tell. The essence of free­dom is greater than free choice; it is ac­tu­ally to hold full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the choice made. Tak­ing arms and block­ing key city av­enues for months is nei­ther an ex­pres­sion of free­dom nor of demo­cratic choice it is an au­tar­kic an­ar­chy, de­prived from any re­spon­si­bil­ity. Mak­ing a choice without con­se­quence is an­ar­chy. By the same to­ken, democ­racy is more than a lame slo­gan from the so­cial net­work site, which lately in­spires and mo­bi­lizes the street pro­test­ers; it is not a one-time 'cool' flash­mob so­cial­iz­ing event. (Af­ter all, FB is just a com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool, not a re­place­ment for crit­i­cal in­de­pen­dent think­ing.) Democ­racy is both: the pro­ce­dure and the con­tent. It is a finecal­i­brated so­cial con­tract that ties all hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal seg­ments of so­ci­ety. This is a truly com­pre­hen­sive and sus­tain­able way to con­ceive its past, live the pres­ence and pur­suit the fu­ture of a na­tion. Many pro­test­ers sweep­ing the streets of Arab cities, or cities else­where are of­ten mix­ing an­ar­chy with free­dom. The end game fleshes a painful, para­dox­i­cal les­son: there is no democ­racy at the ex­pense of the sov­er­eign in­tegrity of the state. Frac­tured so­cial co­he­sion does not build up the na­tion. In short, this over­heated spring might end up in a cold long win­ter. Libya is los­ing its ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity, Egypt is los­ing its eco­nomic sovereignty, Syria and Ye­men, frac­tur­ing their co­he­sion, are each on a dan­ger­ous col­li­sion course to lose both, andTu­nisia is un­apt to trans­late the wishes of the street into badly needed po­lit­i­cal re­form. One of the most ev­i­dent side ef­fects of na­tion build­ing (es­pe­cially in early, con­sti­tut­ing years of nationhood) is the even­tual alien­ation of the despotic or/and om­nipo­tent heads of states. Lega­cies are al­ways mixed, and pub­lic opinion is per def­i­ni­tion emo­tional when re­flect­ing upon th­ese past lead­ers. In the af­ter­math of th­ese regimes, un­s­e­lec­tive con­dem­na­tion flies over fu­ri­ously, and re­spon­si­bil­ity shifts on a hand­ful of in­di­vid­u­als. Nev­er­the­less, a cult of per­son­al­ity ap­pears when a leader's per­sonal charisma meets the rings of nu­mer­ous, ea­ger poltroons and en­dur­ing tacit sup­port­ers. In­tel­lec­tu­als and me­dia in the post cult years play an in­dis­pens­able role. Schol­ars and me­dia should

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