Why did this round of democratic transition fail?

Why did this round of democratic transition fail?
Dr Azmi Bishara, in his keynote speech at the Arab Center's first annual conference in Washington, offers a thorough diagnosis of the Arab Spring and US policy under Obama.
8 min read
19 Oct, 2016
Thousands of people rose up and demanded democracy, dignity and justice [AFP]
One way or another, we thought that 2011 finally debunked the oft-repeated claims of Arab exceptionalism as an "explanation" for reluctance to begin a democratic transformation.

In that year, the streets and city squares witnessed massive protests, not against any specific policy but against the regime at large, focusing on despotism and corruption.

The people's frustration was compounded by what was by now common knowledge and indeed common characteristics between Arab regimes; dynasties emerged even in republics aligned with new classes of corrupt business elites and cronies of all sorts and security apparatus encroachment on public and private life.

The demands of the protestors were just as wide-ranging. Starting with regime change, they were accompanied with calls for human dignity, justice and other values that can only be established in a free and democratic society. Democracy was raised as a slogan and political program by large groups of young activists.

We thought we were witnessing a dream materialising… today we speak about a nightmare of violence and civil war.

I believe that there is a relationship between the eruption of violence and the failure of democracy. A major conflict between Arab regimes and political opponents is unfolding that I would articulate in a condensed form as a question: is it the yearning for change or the failure to make it happen that should be blamed for this violence?

Is it the yearning for change or the failure to make it happen that should be blamed for...violence?

Roots of failure

Democrats claim that the answer lies in the failure of this round of democratic transition that had a myriad of causes, including the brutal reaction of the old regimes and the violence they deployed in suppressing the protests.

Indeed, as the whole world witnessed, the heads of state in Egypt and Tunisia were forced to abdicate.

The lesson drawn by other dictatorships was that these two regimes did not use enough force against peaceful demonstration. Indeed that is what Syria's Assad, Libya's Gaddafi and Ali (Abdullah) Saleh of Yemen concluded.

To this day, that remains the 'logic' of Assad as exemplified in the unscrupulous use of the military against his own people, turning his army to a militia. In fact, that 'logic' went deeper, taking advantage of the conditions of multiethnic, multi-religious societies and manipulating sub-state affiliations and loyalties to turn a popular upheaval by peaceful protests and demonstrations into a civil war.

The regimes in Egypt and Tunisia couldn't use more violence than they already did, because the army had its own plans

The regimes' assumptions weren't true. The regimes in Egypt and Tunisia couldn't use more violence than they already did, because the army had its own plans.

In the case of Tunisia, the small professional army was marginalised and discriminated against (in terms of numbers of soldiers recruited, budgets allocated and even in equipment) in comparison with the intelligence agencies, and was pushed out of politics.

In Egypt, the army feared the emergence of a civilian dynasty through hereditary rule in alignment with a new class of business people, (a tendency which prevailed in Arab republics like Libya, Syria [and] Yemen) which threatened its economic power. Thus it waited for the opportunity to seize power. It was afraid that democracy would not guarantee its prerogatives and privileges.

The revolutionary youth were disorganised; young people felt that their job was completed when presidents resigned.

Old political elites jostled and vied before they even agreed on the definition of the democracy whose values they claimed to share with the young people of the city squares. They wrangled and fought among themselves for a regime they didn't control yet, and before securing regime change.

Three major questions were raised and continued to be highlighted by successive developments

Existential questions

In the concatenation of discords and disputes that heightened the level of enmity among political elites, three major questions were raised and continued to be highlighted by successive developments:

1. The incompetence of old political oppositional elites in issues of reaching compromise on major issues. They went so far as to compete for alignment with the army or security agencies against each other.

They rebuffed any commitment to democratic principles despite disagreement on many other issues.

In my book the Arab Question, I wrote that what can hinder democratic transition is not the culture of the society in general but the political culture of the elites. The events of the last five years verified this thesis.

In that same book that was published in 2007 I wrote that revolutions as such do not produce democracy, they could also lead to chaos, civil war, and authoritarian regimes. A revolution can result in a democratic transition if a democratic reform program is presented and if forces of change unite to implement it.

2. The Islamic movements have shown a very problematic attitude in major questions that must be dealt with in any future democratic transition: a) the commitment to democratic principles and not only to majority rule, b) understanding the importance of civil liberties to growing segments of Arab societies.

It can be said that the issue of political Islam was central in the failure of this round of democratic transition. It was not that people are afraid from Islamisation or "Ikhwanisation" as some claim, but from the attitude of the Muslim Brothers as a closed sect with no commitment to civil liberties.

The polarisation that evolved through the turbulent transitionary period between secularism not as an ideology but as a lifestyle, and political Islam, was devastating. It turned into a type of identity politics. This is not pluralism but polarisation. As a result, parties of this polarisation were not deterred from opting for the army or the old regime in general to defeat their rivals for them.

3. The army in politics.
There is not enough time here to explain the difference in the structure of the armies of Arab states, their social and historical backgrounds and the degree of their involvement in politics, but this was the third question raised by the failure of this round of transition to democracy.

The fragility of Arab states stems not only from the lack of institution building but also from the historical issue of legitimacy or lack thereof from which Arab states suffer.

Hegemonic ideologies are usually above the state or supra-state ideologies. The Arab identity proved once again to play a crucial role as an anti-sectarian cultural national identity. When it was weakened, political sectarianism rose.

From the start of his tenure, Obama's approach to the Middle East was superficial, even shallow minded

Obama's legacy

From the start of his tenure, Obama's approach to the Middle East was superficial, even shallow-minded (unlike his approach to other regions); combining a populist and quickly conceived justification with a simple reaction to his predecessor (in simple I mean to describe Obama as doing the opposite of everything President Bush did).

The justifications were based on stereotypes of Western liberals about the Middle East: describing everything as 'difficult, complicated and factionalised in impossible ways' and accompanying this with an attitude of 'you don't want to mess around with or displease/enrage Israel!"

He turned his back to the Palestinian issue after the first Israeli "No"! Actually, Israel was given awards for its colonial apartheid policies in Palestine.

Read more: Leading academics gather to examine Obama's legacy in the Middle East

He went to the late King Abdullah "to learn from his wisdom", lectured in Cairo in the presence of Mubarak, and in the midst of the Syrian crisis he spoke about an 800-year old conflict between Shias and Sunnis accepting myths that even orientalists dismiss (even disallow) as false generalisations. He wasn't interested in the rationality of these half -truths but rather in justifying his unwillingness to get involved and end up embroiled, possibly bemired in the mess.

He simply turned his back every time he tried to do something and a problem arose, or wherever rhetoric was not enough. He even forgot truisms that were tautological for any colonial power such as that occupation is bad but it still has responsibilities to bear, and that withdrawal can be as bad and harmful as the occupation itself if it is not done with fair and well thought calculations of the vacuum it produces and it's ensuing consequences.

It is difficult to understand Islamic State without considering the combination of long years of despotism under siege, American occupation and sectarian regimes with clearly vengeful, vindictive practices

Crime and catastrophe

I don't know if the British learned something from the withdrawal from Palestine in May 1948, but for the Palestinians the occupation itself was a crime, but the timing and way the withdrawal was implemented was a catastrophe. That was the way he left Iraq, a country whose army was dissolved by an ignorant American administration, supported Maliki who did not win the elections, and didn't care how this sectarian fanatic ran the country, or how cruel and vengeful his politics were until it was too late!

It is difficult to understand Islamic State without considering the combination of long years of despotism under siege, American occupation and sectarian regimes with clearly vengeful, vindictive practices.

After the events of January 2011 in Egypt, he made some late, albeit strong statements, but was soon disappointed and turned his back on them… his administration actually didn't support democracy in Egypt and looked unconcerned vis a vis the military coup that was a turning point in the history of democratic transition in the region.

This time the Israeli lobby worked with Arab lobbies to make the military dictatorship of Sisi tolerable. Yet again, Israel's security was the fetish for whose sake rights of people were sacrificed. Egypt went over to blackmail the US by a rapprochement with Putin's Russia.

In Syria, Obama waited too long until it was late and bloody, and as a part of his simplified reaction to Bush's policy, he confused the duty of protecting civilians with the illegitimate and illegal act of changing a regime by foreign military intervention which people like me opposed in Iraq, and still oppose it.

The red lines he drew were constantly violated by Assad, who experimented successfully with the "patience" of the so-called international community. This had catastrophic consequences for the Syrian people.

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian intellectual, academic and writer. Follow him on Twitter: @AzmiBishara

This was his keynote speech at the first annual conference of the Arab Center DC, which began on Friday. Read more about the conference here.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.