Democratic Developments in the Arab Upheavals

The Arab upheavals of 2011 have been very different from one another across countries, but have in common a language of parliamentary democracy as the ultimate ideal (albeit one that sounds more like the old West German Social Democratic Party ideal than like the Neoliberal parliamentary regimes of the US and its close allies). Democracy is not a black and white quality but rather a range of practices that can be highly mature (“consolidated”) or still imperfect and fragile (“unconsolidated”). Whether the aspirations of many Arab young people and intellectuals for greater political freedom will be realized or not, the breadth, depth and fervor of the aspiration is remarkable in itself.

Events are moving quickly in the region, and here are some notable developments with implications for democracy in the Middle East:

1. Despite the Interior Ministry’s crackdown on protesters last week, Egypt held the first round of elections for the lower house of parliament on Monday. Some activists had called for a(n inevitably self-defeating) boycott of Monday’s polls, but luckily the Egyptian public paid no attention. The LAT says that the turnout at the voting booth was heavy. As Ahmed Amr argued here Monday, the ruling military council has attempted to undermine the outbreak of democracy. But an elected parliament has a great deal of legitimacy and it won’t be as easy to over-rule as youth protesting in a square. Over time, there is at least a chance that civilian politicians with great popularity can begin whittling away at military perquisites, as happened in Turkey.

2. Yemen has witnessed some surprising developments in the past week. Ali Abdullah Saleh finally signed on the dotted line and accepted the Gulf Cooperation Council’s plan for resolving that country’s crisis. Saleh agreed to step down and turn power over to his vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who in turn has set elections for February 21. The revolutionaries in Yemen are not happy with the consensual, kiss and make up, approach of Saudi Arabia and its allies. An amnesty has been announced that includes Saleh, whom the protesters want put on trial for crimes against humanity. The ruling council going into elections is made up half of dissident parties and half of members of the old ruling party. Nobelist and journalist Tawakkul Karman has led a charge to repeal the amnesty and, indeed, has asked the International Criminal Court to indict Saleh. But a month ago, it could not have been foreseen that Saleh would step down nor that elections would be set so soon. Yemen is a complex place and not out of the woods, but it would be foolish to deny that some progress has been made.

3. Morocco had elections and the Muslim fundamentalist party, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), got a little over a fourth of the seats. Turnout was light at 45 percent but up from 37 percent the last time. The big change in that country is that the king has now pledged to appoint the prime minister from the party that won the biggest number of seats. It wants to lower tax rates on the rich, earning it a seal of approval from Forbes. Thus, as in Tunisia, self-proclaimed moderate Muslim politicians will have the opportunity to show whether they can rule and face the electorate again in the next election. Morocco’s baby steps away from absolute monarchy should not be exaggerated. But it is remarkable that even the mild reforms so far enunciated by the king should ever have been enacted at all, and surely we see a faint echo of the Arab revolutions putting fear in the heart of the Moroccan Establishment.

4. The Arab League has cut off Syria’s economy and froze Syrian assets in response to what a new UN report says is the killing of some 3500 protesters since last spring.

The Arab League is no longer nothing more than a club of dictators. 4 of its 22 members have now had changes at the top induced by popular uprisings, with elections held or promised. Three (Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco) had already been classified as “partly free” by Freedom House. Another, Iraq, holds regular parliamentary elections, though its democracy is compromised in other ways. So 8 of the 22, about a third, can’t be dismissed as simple dictatorships or absolute monarchies. While the absolutist states have their own reasons for wanting the Baath Party of Syria to fall, especially its alliance with Iran, the youth and populace of the countries that have experienced upheavals are strongly anti-Bashar al-Assad and they are a constituency that the new or transitional governments cannot afford to alienate.

13 Responses

  1. Thank you for this assessment, especially now with the fervor visiting our own shores at this time.
    It is good to step back and observe the ongoing actions and consequences objectively.
    I appreciate your successful efforts in doing so.

  2. This article is no surprise to people who have been reading Professor Cole’s blog the last 2 or 3 years.

    Nobody knew better than Cole how deep the Arab basketball was being held under water by the US and the other powers enabling people like Mubarak et al. And nobody knew better how much pressure was pushing up on that basketball from the bottom than Professor Cole.

    You can hold a basketball under water for as long as you want, but sooner or later it’s going to pop up.

    So keep listening. Prof Cole says the sky is not falling. self-determination will be better for the Arabs, better for the US, and better even for Israel than the “just sit on the powder keg” plan of supporting all the Mubaraks of the Arab world.

    • I will never understand the tendency to cast the United States, operating behind the scenes, as the prime motive force of political events in the Middle East.

      The other day, someone described the House of Saud as “obedient” to the United States. Yeah, right – have you seen gas prices lately?

      Dick Cheney’s fantasies aside, the MENA region in the second decade of the 21st century is not Central America in the 1950s, and it’s just misleading to describe the internal politics of a country like Egypt that way.

  3. Three (Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco) had already been classified as “partly free” by Freedom House.

    Dr. Cole:

    Who is Freedom House and why are you outsourcing your analysis to them? Do you hold the position yourself that Kuwait, Morocco and Lebanon are “partly free”?

    What does “partly free” mean to you?

    • The Arab League is no longer nothing more than a club of dictators. 4 of its 22 members have now had changes at the top induced by popular uprisings, with elections held or promised. Three (Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco) had already been classified as “partly free” by Freedom House. Another, Iraq, holds regular parliamentary elections, though its democracy is compromised in other ways. So 8 of the 22, about a third, can’t be dismissed as simple dictatorships or absolute monarchies.

      Freedom House’s scoring system doesn’t seem, at least to me, as a meaningful measure of democracy. Contrary to Freedom House’s scores, Kuwait is neither more democratic than Iran or about as democratic as Lebanon.

      link to freedomhouse.org

      4 of 22 members have had uprisings that may or may not lead to democratic outcomes in the future. But we can include Syria in that also since Assad as committed to open elections in February and presidential elections in 2014. So 5 of 22 members are currently non-democratic, but have had recent uprisings and may become democratic or fully transfer post to democratic bodies at some point.

      Iraq is more or less democratic, despite currently being occupied by a country with an intense agenda regarding its policies in the region. That occupation is scheduled to end this year. US leverage over Iraqi government policies is declining, but one cannot say that it either has become or can be expected to become trivial for the foreseeable future.

      Lebanon holds elections but has a voting system that deprives the Shiites, the country’s largest ethnic group of political power proportionate to the size of its population. Other than this systematic oppression of Shiites, Lebanon can be called democratic.

      Kuwait and Morocco, like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and most of the other countries rightly described as dictatorships (including Mubarak’s Egypt and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), have a parliamentary veneer that can be and typically is overruled by unaccountable monarchs or dictators. It is laughable to call any of these countries either democratic or “partly free” in the context of a discussion about dictatorship.

      And so the Arab league actually is a club of dictators. Two of its member countries are currently not dictatorships: Iraq and Lebanon. But neither of even those two has a political system that can create policy that reflects, without distortion, the views and sensibilities of its people.

      The United States seems to be working to achieve an Egypt that is “partly free” like Kuwait and Morocco. Which is to say not free. By the standards of the US moral system, that is absolutely disgraceful.

      This club of dictators that has voted to suspend Syria did not do so out of fear of alienating their student protesters. Another absurd idea. They did so because the US is hostile against Syria and has more leverage over the policies of almost every Arab league state than any domestic constituency.

      • Almost everything you allege here is incorrect. A rigid ideology is not a very effective tool for understanding the rest of the world.

      • Arnold, you said-” But neither of even those two has a political system that can create policy that reflects, without distortion, the views and sensibilities of its people.”
        That could also be said about the USA, as well as Canada and many other western “democracies” so is there a democracy out there somewhere that lives up to your standards?

      • Well, how many free societies were there in Europe before World War I by these standards? Britain had just overridden the House of Lords’ veto power and women were still fighting for the vote, Germany’s constitutional monarchy looked good on paper but was fatally flawed by the power of its military, France had too many elections for its own good while the bureaucrats remained in place and ruled. Yet it was better than things had been a few generations earlier.

        Unless one finds it unacceptable that Arab democracy should progress at a similar crawl, the question is whether the powerful forces that put more and more power into the hands of elected parliaments in an industrializing Europe is what we find at work in the Arab world today.

  4. Prof Cole.

    It would be interesting to hear what your comments are regarding Glenn Greenwald’s latest column at salon.com where he says that the various regimes toppled during the arab spring are disturbingly similar to those listed by neonconservative political operatives in Washington during the Bush years when they first proposed their grand strategy to “bring democracy” to the middle east just after the Iraq War. Mr. Greenwald seems to suggest that either

    1)neoconservatives, far from being dead within the security and intelligence establishments, have managed to instigate or influence secret US government agencies into bringing to fruition their unfulfilled political dreams or 2) the Obama administration’s intelligence and military apparatus has been and is devising very elaborate schemes including various types of psychological and other types of covert intelligence operations to manipulate Arab masses into rising up against regimes considered uncooperative or hostile towards US interests in the region.

    Is there any truth to his suggestions Prof. Cole? or is Mr Greenwald once again having a case of conspiratorial paranoia brought about by his militant anti-imperalistic mindset?

    • Tunisia, which started it, was not on the list.

      Egypt was only mildly pressured. Jordan was not on the list. Libya fell off the list when Qaddafi came in from the cold and became a CIA asset.

      I haven’t seen the piece, but as you report it, it is bizarre

    • 1. Then were are Iran and Saudi Arabia?

      2. I don’t recall ever hearing Hosni Mubarak or ben Ali described as “uncooperative or hostile towards US interests in the region.”

      If this had been an Iranian-Sudanese-Syrian Spring, that would be different.

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