The Road to Democracy in the Arab World

By Uriya Shavit

Liberalism has deep roots in the Middle East, if we know where to look.


The 2003 American invasion of Iraq was designed to establish a new democratic foothold in the Middle East. In so doing, it sought not only to offer an enlightening example to the oppressed peoples of the region and a warning to the autocrats who rule them, but also to set the entire region on a course toward liberalization and peaceful coexistence with the West. Yet, in the nearly four years since the invasion began, and despite the Bush administration’s promotion of democracy in other Arab states, the region has become significantly less stable from the point of view of Western interests, and more hostile towards Western values.1

To many, this reality is proof of a fundamental incompatibility between Western forms of government and Arab society. In their view, liberal democracy (or anything approaching it) cannot possibly bloom on Arab soil, since Arab societies are so profoundly different than the West.2 Thus, President Bush’s gravest mistake—and the source of his democratization initiative’s failure—lay in ignoring the uniqueness of Arab society and attempting to force an alien and unwanted form of government upon it. According to this thinking, the fate of America’s campaign in Iraq was sealed even before the first shot was fired.

This essentialist view of Arab society, while commonplace in the West, is flawed. In truth, there is nothing unique to Arab societies that results in a preference for despotic regimes. Arab society does not possess an inborn aversion to freely elected governments, and particularly ones that uphold the basic freedoms of the individual; on the contrary, there is abundant evidence that liberal democracy can exist in the Arab world. Arab societies are, as history demonstrates, as likely to undergo the process of democratization as are any other societies to which this form of government was once foreign. Neither, for that matter, are they subject to any meta-historical imperative (of the kind that some scholars dress up as “cultural heritage”) that determines their fate as free men or slaves.

President Bush was not wrong, then, to place the democratization of the Middle East at the top of his administration’s agenda. Rather, his mistake was the poor implementation of a morally and strategically good policy. In short, Bush failed to grasp the ideological foundations of Arab resistance to the Western form of government.

The lackluster appeal of the liberal idea in Arab societies is the result of a specific paradigm that equates the adoption of Western-style governance with submission to the economic interests and religious faith of the United States. It is, in fact, one of the main reasons for the persistence of undemocratic regimes in the Arab world, as well as the ideological fuel propelling jihadists both inside and outside of Iraq.

There is no truth to the claim that the Arabs have never had any contact with democracy. Just the opposite is the case: Democracy has historic, if not particularly fruitful, roots in Arab societies. In fact, it is this very experience with democracy that makes their approach to it more complex and guarded than that of other cultures.

The Arab acquaintance with democracy began as far back as 1829, when Muhammad Ali, one of the founders of modern Egypt and the governor of the Ottoman district, announced the establishment of a “consultative council” (majlis al-mashwara).3 The council was based on the Islamic principle of Shura, whose standard interpretation requires a ruler to include the community in the decision-making process. Both the council’s structure and its presentation to the public demonstrated the contradictions bound up with the question of democracy in the Middle East in subsequent decades: First, between dependence on a traditional political model on the one hand, and the establishment of outwardly Western political institutions on the other; and second, in creating ostensibly representative institutions while retaining monopolistic sovereignty in the hands of the ruler. Indeed, although the council’s members were appointed and their role purely advisery, Arab intellectuals nonetheless drew a connection between the council, parliamentarianism, and Western democracy. Egypt’s official newspaper regularly compared the council to institutions such as the British parliament and the French National Assembly, and Rifaa Rafe al-Tahtawi, principal of the Egyptian school of languages and head of the government department of translations, used the word Shura to describe institutions like the U.S. Congress.4

Until the end of the eighteenth century, in fact, liberal principles enjoyed a measure of support in Arab societies, often through emphasis on the parallels between Western-style government and Shura. The turning point came after World War I, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent establishment of the Arab states. With the West’s victory, democracy ceased to be the preserve of a handful of Western nations. Now, it was a concept with universal pretensions. Middle-class Arab society felt the first stirrings of a national, liberal consciousness: Government officials, lawyers, journalists, and merchants familiar with Western political models saw in them a suitable alternative to the traditional, yet eroding, frameworks for their own identity. Moreover, these models held out the promise of liberation from foreign rule: The West’s strength, it seemed clear, lay in its political system, and adopting this system was the surest—perhaps only—means to success.

After the war, the idea of liberal democracy took firm hold in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. In these countries, the middle classes were the driving force behind the push for a liberal constitution, even before Great Britain and France (known as the Powers) were ready to support one. The liberal viewpoint also spread to Arab territories not ruled as mandated regions, or still lacking a genuine middle class. In Kuwait, for example, then under British influence, a merchants’ organization was established in 1921 to demand that the emir institutionalize their participation in the decision-making process.5 Even Ibn Saud, the only Arab leader not under the rule of the Powers in the 1920s, was forced to order the establishment of a “residents’ council,” elected by ballot and entrusted with both legislative and executive powers, when the idea of free elections and representational government became so popular in the Arab world as to be a near condition for domestic and international legitimization of his 1924-1925 conquest of the Hijaz strip.6

During the same period, the West performed a dual function in the inculcation of liberal democracy in the Middle East. On the one hand, Britain and France acted as political mentors, helping to move Arab societies towards full independence; they aided in the establishment of a political system that would guarantee fair competition between parties, freedom of speech and inquiry, freedom of assembly, and equal rights for women and minorities. On the other hand, the Powers also sought to promote their own strategic interests and bolstered the status of political forces loyal to the West. This duality inevitably resulted in a deep mistrust of Western forms of government in the Arab world: Arabs largely perceived it as a fraud, an illusion intended to distract them while the West perpetuated its domination of the Middle East. They came to regard democracy as a synonym for the underhanded promotion of foreign interests. This is where the Gordian knot of the Arab democratic question emerged: The West was seared into Arab consciousness as a liberator that is also a conqueror, and liberal democracy as a solution that is also a problem.

The fledgling Arab democracies survived, fragile and artificial as they were, so long as the Powers remained in the region. When their Western patrons left, they quickly fell apart. Yet the failure of this political experiment did not dim the appeal of democracy as an idea. In fact, the Arab regimes that arose at the end of the 1940s from the ruins of these failed liberal enterprises presented themselves as the “true” embodiments of democracy. And indeed, they did adopt the idea that a citizenry should enjoy basic freedoms and the right to elect its government-in theory. They also theoretically adopted the belief that this concept should be institutionalized through written laws and in representative institutions whose forms were copied from the West. In practice, however, these regimes insisted that there were various ways to implement democracy, and various stops on the road leading to it.

Initially, for example, the Free Officers in Egypt and the Baath leaders in Syria claimed to be spearheading a “transitional” stage during which their societies would be freed from Western interests and gain equal economic footing with their Western counterparts. They claimed that once this stage was complete, it would be possible for the re-establishment of a “true” political democracy. Yet when this transitional period was extended indefinitely, and power remained in the hands of a small group of unelected revolutionaries for a protracted period, the regimes were quick to deflect blame. It was the fault, they insisted, of their societies’ lack of readiness, or, better yet, of their enemies in the West.7 The situation was similar in several of the more conservative Arab countries: Kuwait and Bahrain, for example, began their independence as parliamentary emirates in which the people’s representative had real legislative authority. In short order, however, their constitutions were suspended, the elected assemblies were dissolved, and opposition leaders were incarcerated. All the while, the rulers presented these steps as a temporary “freezing” of political freedoms whose goal was the revival and revitalization of “authentic” democratic life. Thus did Arab regimes declare themselves the standard-bearers of the democratic ideal, even as they insisted it was not yet possible to implement this ideal on account of the ever-present threat of instability.8

This chasm separating the democratic rhetoric and despotic reality of the Arab regimes did not go unnoticed. But demands that the situation be corrected, voiced from the early 1950s to the early 1980s, were not, for the most part, of a liberal nature. Reformists did not see in Western democracy a recipe for the improvement of a country’s political, economic, and cultural situation, since, to their mind, this recipe had already been tried and found wanting. Moreover, the West was no longer enjoying hegemony; the Communist bloc now offered a political and ideological alternative to liberalism. Thus, while the United States had replaced Britain and France as the Western power with the greatest influence in the Middle East, that influence, starting in the early 1950s, was limited by the cold war balance of power.9


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