Much has been written in academic and policy circles about the poor state of democracy, democratic governance, and human rights in the Arab world. Discussions of the practices of popular government and respect for human rights have almost always been subsumed under the dominant core discourse about authoritarianism, single-party or one-man rule, unfettered monarchism, or military control. Indeed, democracy and the rich agenda of rights considered inalienable to the human condition have largely been viewed as exotic concepts in the Arab region, ones to be admired from afar and desired by hundreds of millions of Arabs living under political oppression, unrepresentative government, and lack of basic freedoms of expression.
The revolts of the Arab Spring of the last decade were the clear and decisive response to the democracy deficit in the Arab context. And contrary to all lamentations about the end of these popular movements, agitation for political, economic, and social change is still the order of the day despite the ongoing counterrevolution mounted by reactionary forces using repressive state power. So is the drive by millions of Arabs to protect their basic human rights to life, respect, and dignity in nations they can claim their own. There is ample evidence that the Arab Spring is not dead and space for change is still quite open; examples are Lebanon’s and Iraq’s popular movements of 2019, Sudan’s toppling of Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship in 2019 and the continuing popular protests against the Sudanese Armed Forces’ coup of October 25, 2021, and Tunisians’ rejection of the illegal usurpation of popular power by President Kais Saied.
Democracy and the Arab State
In its most basic and minimal understanding, democracy consists of the elements of universal adult suffrage, fair and free elections, open contestation between at least two different political formations or parties, and an obligation to the freedoms of expression, association, and information, among others. But an enhanced understanding that goes beyond these procedural concepts includes two vital factors: a commitment on the part of incumbents and the states they control to allow the opposition to assume power once it wins elections; and—this is particularly applicable to the Arab world—a clear protection of the political process from military officers or unelected powers that would interfere in or stymie the ultimate wish of the people.
An enhanced understanding of democracy includes a commitment on the part of incumbents and the states they control to allow the opposition to assume power once it wins elections and a clear protection of the political process from military officers or unelected powers.
It is hard to imagine that true democracy could exist in a polity without a concomitant pledge to respect, defend, and promote human rights. Indeed, this commitment is a natural accompaniment to the proper application of a democratic political process. Democracy cannot be achieved except by guaranteeing the dignity and rights of the individual and the community, without prejudice based on racial, ethnic, religious, national, language, gender, age, and other differences. Rights also include unfettered and equal access for everyone, including women, to work opportunities, education, and public and private health services, as well as a guarantee of a clean environment. Moreover, in an interconnected world, rights are as much an international concept as they are national constructs to be respected and defended by governments, states, and international organizations.
The countries of the contemporary Arab world have varying degrees of adherence to even this general understanding and practice of democracy and democratic governance; in fact, they suffer from clear violations of basic human rights of hundreds of millions of their citizens. The attributes of citizenship in the Arab countries have been limited to belonging to a geographic entity with defined boundaries and state institutions, laws, and regulations without the essential elements of meaningful participation in free decision making and political choice. The Arab state has succeeded over the decades in usurping the individual’s agency to participate freely in how the state is structured, who controls it, and how it conducts the nation’s business. To be sure, as the 21st century marches into its third decade, it is a sad truth that the Arab state has succeeded in becoming the unilateral and final arbiter in deciding the nature and ultimate fate of justice, equality, and fairness in the lives of hundreds of millions of those with the right to be within its borders.
As the 21st century marches into its third decade, it is a sad truth that the Arab state has succeeded in becoming the unilateral and final arbiter in deciding the nature and ultimate fate of justice, equality, and fairness.
Atop this state sits a variety of political systems and elites, united in a common mission of perpetuating particular and partisan interests: monarchies, semi-constitutional monarchies, and republics. All have different forms of institutional façades of popular participation and legitimacy in the form of parliaments and consultative assemblies controlled by loyalists who are uninterested in questioning authority or in enforcing accountability. The essential ingredient to governing is control over sprawling military and security institutions, many of which are not simply organs of the state but comprise participants invested in economic activities that constitute a considerable portion of the gross domestic product. Said state is also central to economic activity because of different forms of rentierism; its policies in this regard permit the development of a large public sector that squeezes out the private sector—which is also dependent on state largesse for its well-being.
Not only has the Arab state of the 21st century embodied undemocratic and oppressive politics but it has also spawned widespread violence in the form of repression, suppression of ethnic and religious minorities, engagement in external conflict, and interference beyond its borders. It is obviously true that even democratic states precipitate such serious maladies—the United States, the self-anointed democratic state par excellence, is a clear example—but the Arab autocratic state has been a pioneer. Witness the nearly 11-year war in Syria to suppress the public will for political change, the equally devastating war in Yemen, the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur, and the sectarian instability and state-sponsored militias in Iraq, among others. To be sure, the Arab state has used its organs of repression to cover up for its deficits in democracy, good governance, and accountability.
The Theory of Arab Exceptionalism
Until the beginning of the Arab Spring revolts in 2010-2011, the Arab region avoided the waves of democratic transitions that swept many countries in the developing world such as those in Latin America, southern Europe, Africa, and Asia in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The Arab world began to be seen as an exceptional region that was immune to the conditions that give rise to democracy. Some Arab countries instituted programs of political and economic openness—such as Egypt and Syria in the 1970s, Jordan, Yemen, and Algeria in the 1980s and 1990s, some Gulf monarchies in the 2000s—but those efforts unfolded within the limits of state and elite control. Parliaments were and continue to be rubber stamps to executive authorities, unable to perform their most basic functions of supervising and holding governments and their institutions accountable for their actions.
Arab exceptionalism was blamed on a supposed incompatibility between democracy and Islam and Arab culture; on the heritage of colonialism that left weak and dependent regimes that feared citizens’ suffrage; or on the vicissitudes of the national struggle against Israel.
This exceptionalism was blamed on a supposed incompatibility between democracy, on the one hand, and Islam and Arab culture, on the other; on the heritage of colonialism that left weak and dependent regimes that feared citizens’ suffrage; or on the vicissitudes of the Arab national struggle against Israel and its occupation of Palestine. Other explanations for the purported exceptional nature of the Arab region included the inapplicability of certain theories of democratic transitions such as the influence of political economy on politics and authoritarian regimes, the absence of democratic elite coalitions pushing for change, the dependence of the Arab middle class on state largess for its well-being, the centrality of the state in the economy, and the dominance of military institutions. International factors such as a snowballing or the domino effect of democratization, pressure from democratic allies, conditionality by financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, or forced regime change did not play much of a role in democratic transitions in the Arab world (except in the case of Iraq after 2003, but that did not produce a democracy as defined above). Other theories that provide alternative explanations for the resilience of authoritarianism in the Arab world include strategic choices of autocratic incumbents and their ability to negotiate pacts for withdrawing from politics, the collapse of regimes because of war, decisions by military regimes to civilianize, and the degrees of strength or weakness of the democratic opposition.
As an expression of individual choice and/or collective public will, democracy in the Arab world over the years could not be seen outside the purview and reach of state institutions. For example, following the 1973 war with Israel, the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat supposedly widened the political space by creating three general platforms (manabir) representing the left, the right, and the moderate middle. His plan was to engineer Egypt’s democratic opening according to his own criteria. That plan produced a hybrid, pliant parliament that served to legitimate Sadat’s policies and those of his successors. The late King Hussein allowed for a liberalization of the Jordanian political system in the late 1980s, which helped Islamists reach parliament and, in fact, form a government. But when they began to implement what they thought was the political program they endorsed, albeit moderately, Hussein changed the rules of the democratic game and forced them to lose their electoral edge.
The Arab Spring
The Arab Spring forged a new direction in Arab political thought and practice. It represented the popular response to the failure of Arab regimes to institute democratic government and address serious deficits in economic performance. The Arab Spring succeeded in toppling autocratic governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen; so far, however, the upheavals failed to lead to the hoped-for democratic transition in the last three while the first, Tunisia, is currently experiencing a dangerous rollback to one-person rule. In Syria, demands for change from authoritarian rule led to a fierce regime response that precipitated what can surely be described as a modern age genocide with catastrophic violations of human rights, millions of deaths and injuries, the internal dislocation of a quarter of the country’s population, and the exile of another quarter to neighboring and distant countries. Other stirrings in Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Jordan, Algeria, and Iraq were met with either outright repression and arrests or cosmetic institutional changes. Today, protests in Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq, and Tunisia still hope to effect long-held wishes for democratization by millions.
The Arab Spring forged a new direction in Arab political thought and practice. It represented the popular response to the failure of Arab regimes to institute democratic government and address serious deficits in economic performance.
But one unmistakable fact has been affirmed after more than a decade of the agitation of the Arab Spring: the repressive Arab state and its stewards are resilient and resourceful in their defense of the status quo. Such authoritarian regimes as the Egyptian, Syrian, Sudanese, or Algerian have become arguably more authoritarian than their predecessors. The qualms about unfettered repression under the Hosni Mubarak regime have practically disappeared in the practices of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, and the secret arrests by Syria’s mukhabarat services now constitute public mass killings for the world to see. Indeed, this resilience is now coupled with outright criminality, both to defend privileges and the ever-present desire to rule, and to teach the lesson of utmost obedience to anyone who dares to demand to be treated with dignity and respect.
It is this state of affairs that Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) would like to continue to examine in 2022. Since its establishment, ACW’s mission, among other things, has been to expose the current democratic deficit in the Arab world and the dire conditions of human rights in many of its countries. Our policy analysis papers will continue to cover how Arab regimes sustain their authoritarianism, what tools they use to maintain rule, and who buttresses their staying power.
As a research center concerned with informing Americans about the Arab world and analyzing US-Arab relations, our coverage this year, whether in the form of policy analysis or research papers, viewpoints, or reports, we will try to address the following set of questions, as well as others of import:
- What are the conditions of democracy, democratic governance, and human rights in the countries of the Arab world?
- What theories of democratization and authoritarian rule best explain the democracy deficit in the Arab world?
- How do Arab regimes sustain their hold on power?
- What is the role of the armed forces in Arab societies and states?
- What is the current status of political change in the Arab world and individual countries?
- What is the role of civil society in raising awareness and effecting social democratic change?
- What type of nongovernmental organizations can help advance the mission of democratic change?
- What degree of international assistance is necessary or possible to help implement such change?
These and other general questions will be augmented by analyses of ongoing conditions of conflict in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Lebanon, Palestine, and other states. Along with additional emphases on economic issues, environmental concerns, and social indicators in individual Arab countries, 2022 promises to be a busy year for ACW. We plan to continue to offer and advance evidence-based, impartial, and well-analyzed research throughout the coming year and beyond.