The Arab Revolts and the Liberal Order
It is difficult to pass judgment on the health of democracy today without an assessment of the Arab revolts. Despite the stirring images of courageous, sophisticated, and articulate protesters running great personal risk for a less-repressed future, the essential meaning of the region’s reforms is still profoundly contested. Some insist that the reform momentum that has gathered since 2011 constitutes a major fillip to core liberal values. In contrast, skeptics warn that authoritarian dynamics remain entrenched across the region and that where change has occurred, it actually presages deeper illiberalism.
For all the optimism, two years on from Tunisia’s revolution, only four out of the nineteen Middle East and North African (MENA) states have ejected their autocratic leaders. And none of these has made unsullied progress toward well-embedded and quality democracy. Egypt struggles to shake off authoritarian dynamics, Libya to construct core state capacities, Yemen to move beyond the tutelage of the supposedly ousted regime, and Tunisia to embed its gains in a new constitution. Other states exhibit fierce resilience to change, from Algeria to the Gulf monarchies and partially reforming Jordan and Morocco, to imploded Syria, and increasingly autocratic Iraq.
No single reading of the Arab Spring is yet possible. Some trends in the MENA region since 2011 clearly add ballast to central liberal features of the current international order, while others detract from its vitality. Still others may best be interpreted on a different metric altogether: concerns over whether ongoing changes in the MENA region reinforce or threaten the Western liberal order ignore the fact that debates in the region are today couched in entirely different terms. The issue is not one of democracy not being apt for the region. Rather, familiar problems persist with authoritarian regimes being fiendishly difficult to dislodge.
Skeptics have attributed a whole host of problems to incipient political liberalization in MENA states, but more often than not these are problems that result not from democracy per se but from authoritarianism’s legacy. The genie that has been released irreversibly from the bottle is that of irreverent social mobilization. But, concomitant institutional change lags behind, a manifestation of the Democratic Disconnect. A second question is whether those states that have reformed are headed toward more illiberal forms of democracy. This will be a defining debate for the region. Many see Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leading the charge toward what is often referred to as “Islamist democracy” but the advent of illiberal democracy is by no means certain. President Mohamed Morsi has explicitly rejected the idea that there is a specifically Islamist form of democracy.
In Tunisia, the Ennahda party expressly did not press for sharia rules to be constitutionally enshrined. While Islamists may still use theological references, it is not clear if they seek fundamentally different institutional structures of the type that might constitute a wholesale, alternative model of democracy. Debates can become confused. Liberalism is conflated with secularism and, in turn, godlessness.
People often seem to see sharia as a path to social justice and greater fairness in public life, combined with more conservative notions of personal morals. With so much individual agitation and empowerment in today’s MENA, it is difficult to imagine that significant state restriction on rights and women’s enhanced political roles would be passively or enthusiastically accepted. A battle ensues over what an apparent preference for conservative values implies for institutional rules. The liberal-illiberal spectrum struggles to account for many of the subtleties that today color political debates across the Arab world.
Processes of change are often open-ended. While Islamist parties are emerging as key players, there is arguably a danger of over-interpreting the role of religion. Many of the impediments to democratic deepening have to do with autocratic power retrenchment, urban-rural divisions, rentier political economies, and fractured civic organization. Social movements in the region have provided an inspiring model to civic groups in the West and elsewhere. While this provides grounds for genuine optimism, the Arab revolts provide equally striking lessons in authoritarian resilience.
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.