June/July/Aug 2012

Democracy in Arabia

A new book supplies an indispensable, yet uneven, account of the revolutions in the Middle East

Hussein Ibish


If anybody asked me, particularly in a plaintive tone of desperation, for a comprehensive backgrounder on the uprisings that have convulsed much of the Arab world since December 2010, I’d have no hesitation in pointing them to The Battle for the Arab Spring. Lin Noueihed, a Reuters editor, and Alex Warren, a consultancy expert, have joined forces to produce a remarkably far-reaching and exceptionally precise summary of the uprisings generally, but unfortunately, referred to as the “Arab Spring.” Particularly for the uninitiated or those seeking a synoptic but relatively detailed account of what has and hasn’t happened in the Arab world in the past year and a half, their book fits the bill perfectly. Dutifully and methodically, Noueihed and Warren cover all the bases. Everything is here that a specialist would expect to be provided to a popular audience seeking guidance and information, and very little that is obviously crucial is missing.

But this great strength is also the book’s most fundamental weakness. The Battle for the Arab Spring often reads like a list of lists, or a particularly well-executed Wikipedia entry, whose authors have established a logical, straightforward set of categories for its subject, and then dutifully filled them in with the appropriate facts, citations, and observations. This makes The Battle for the Arab Spring often surprisingly flat and difficult to read, particularly for anyone with a strong background in recent Middle East affairs. The combination of almost suffocating predictability and unerring reliability produces very little with which such readers can engage. Turning its pages often involves a sigh of exasperation, as the authors check box after inevitable box.

The book begins with a series of chapters on the essential conditions that led to the uprisings: political disempowerment, bad governance, and the lack of personal dignity; the socioeconomic frustrations of a skilled “middle-class poor” population in the region, condemned to un- or underemployment; and the rise of a new Arab public sphere defined by the communications revolution of pan-Arab satellite TV channels, mobile phones, and the Internet. There then follows a series of chapters on the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, presented in an almost too logical and chronological order. Finally, the book builds out a more lively analysis as it weighs the consequences of the uprisings for the shifting balance of power in the Middle East, surveying the challenges facing the (mostly) more stable Gulf states; the effects of declining American power in the region in the context of an emerging multipolar world order; and the political rise of Arab Islamists of varying stripes.

The book is at its strongest in some of its later chapters, particularly in considering the challenges facing the Gulf monarchies. In a chapter called “The Kings’ Dilemma,” Noueihed and Warren may have produced one of the best existing condensed treatments of the subject—particularly in appraising the dynamics within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is led by perennial monarchal rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The authors acknowledge that the Saudi government was deeply disturbed by the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak—and that the entire GCC is united in seeking, at all costs, to stop the spread of rebellion to any monarchies, including Morocco and Jordan. They also point out that Saudi Arabia and Qatar can now agree that “if there had to be a democracy [in any Arab republic], then better a Sunni Islamist one that could bolster the Gulf stand against Shi’ite Iran than a firebrand secular liberal one with a mission to spread freedom to the monarchies.” The bottom line, of course, is that Islamists generally can be much better accommodated by the existing social and political systems in the Gulf than liberals ever could be—which is why throughout the region Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudis have allegedly thrown support behind several Salafist groups. Noueihed and Warren also correctly note that while “all of the Arab monarchies will survive in the short term . . . oil will run out at some point, and when it does, the entire structures of some of the Gulf states will be called into question.”

Likewise, the authors provide some welcome analytic depth in their chapter titled “The Islamist Resurgence.” Here, their discussion proves quite strong in emphasizing several crucial points that are often missed in Western accounts: that the Islamists are a remarkably heterogeneous spectrum; that Arab democracies won’t be able to function without their inclusion; that Islamists would almost inevitably be the primary beneficiaries of newly opened political space in many Arab societies; and that there is nothing in theory that ought, over time, to prevent Arab Islamists from developing constitutionalist mentalities consistent with the norms of democratic functioning.

Nor do Noueihed and Warren miss the fundamental contradictions embedded within Islamist rhetoric emphasizing democracy, pluralism, human rights, and, especially, citizenship—all supposedly based on Muslim “values” as the Islamists define them. Islamist “democrats,” such as Rachid Ghannouchi and Said Ferjani of the Tunisian Ennahda party, never tire of invoking the centrality of citizenship. But even these relatively “liberal” figures within the Islamist movements have stopped well short of explicating the limitations of the rights of individuals envisaged under their religiously inspired agenda. Noueihed and Warren suggest postdictatorship Arab societies might produce “illiberal or religious democracies in which the government is elected and there is a rotation of power but where, for instance, homosexuality remains banned and minorities and women lack the same rights as Muslim men.” In such a scenario, Islamist assurances about equal citizenship will be exposed as a rhetorical Potemkin village.

Since the uprisings broke out, I’ve warned that postdictatorship Arab societies face three major pitfalls: military rule, failed states, and tyrannical majorities. While the flood of data they present can make the ultimate thrust of their argument hard to discern, Noueihed and Warren seem to be describing the third pitfall as a very likely outcome.

And indeed, a right-wing religious and political revival in the Middle East, backed by mass democratic support, is an all too likely outcome of the present unrest. As the authors note, one cannot expect Arab Islamist groups to develop into constitutionalist parties without going through a process of genuine constitutionalism—something that’s been conspicuously absent in Arab political history. Noueihed and Warren are quite right that, as a consequence of decades of brutal repression and torture, some “Islamists [have] been radicalised in prison.” But one of their few missteps is the claim that such policies have been the norm throughout the region: “Arab rulers reserved their harshest repression for the Islamists because they perceived them to be a genuine threat.”

In certain times and places, that has been the case, but, generally, Arab rulers have tended to provide more space to Islamists than to liberals or leftists. The governments have long justified the continuation of their ineffective and despotic rule to both domestic and international audiences by arguing, in essence, “it’s us or the Islamists.” They have operated under the dictum that if one must have opponents, it’s best to make them appear as threatening as possible. To expect Arab Islamists to be fully developed democrats at this stage, given their ideologies, their history, and the state of contemporary Arab political culture, is certainly unrealistic. And empowering them in the region’s ascendant democracies raises the specter of tyrannical majorities suppressing the rights of individuals, women, or minorities in the name of a popular mandate, backed up by appeals to alleged “traditions” and “authenticity.”

Noueihed and Warren write that in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya “there was a broad consensus that free and fair elections were the way forward, with little apparent disagreement over the need for a separation of powers.” The first part of this passage is probably an understatement: The idea that political legitimacy requires the consent of the governed, and that this can only be achieved by regular multiparty elections with the peaceful transfer of power, has taken root in almost all Arab political orientations—the exceptions being most of the existing ruling elites and extreme, fringe Islamists such as Al Qaeda. The Arabs, to put it in reductive American terms, “get Jefferson.” As for the separation of powers and the question of individual rights, Noueihed and Warren are far too optimistic. There’s still a very long way to go before a similarly wide consensus understands the limitations of majority rule and the need for a real separation of powers—in other words, before the Arabs “get Madison.”

For some sense of how inchoate the principle of the separation of powers remains in emerging Arab democracies, consider the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s recent decision to break its long-standing vow not to seek the presidency. In announcing this reversal, officials with the Brotherhood cited the opposition the organization was facing in the wake of its overwhelming victory in the legislative elections. That pressure, the Brotherhood maintained, was forcing a reconsideration of its role as Egypt weighs whether to shift from a presidential to a parliamentary system. That is to say, once the Brotherhood had tasted sweeping political success in Egypt’s parliamentary election, it could only hope to wield real political power via a bid to control Egypt’s executive branch as well as the country’s relatively weak legislature, since the presidential system is likely to endure.

Meanwhile, if there really were a concept of equal citizenship based on individual rights, guaranteed by a separation of powers and an independent judiciary, Noueihed and Warren’s forecast of the emergence of illiberal democracies holding regular multiparty elections while suppressing women and minorities wouldn’t be as plausible as it unfortunately is. Even if the emerging new Arab political scene is able to avoid the disastrous development of failed states and direct or thinly veiled military rule, it would be entirely possible to claim, to popular approbation, the right to suppress all kinds of individual, minority, and women’s rights in the name of a large and empowered majority expressing its intolerant will at the ballot box. This, it would be said, is merely democracy at work.

In spite of its considerable narrative and stylistic flaws, The Battle for the Arab Spring is easily the best summary of the Arab uprisings yet produced. As a primer for the uninitiated, it contains almost everything it should. It’s a shame, however, that so much of the material it synthesizes feels so familiar, overworked, and monotonous for anyone who has closely followed the historic transformations under way in the Arab political landscape and culture.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.

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