An anti-democracy trend, or shall we say current, seems to be invading Arab republics in general and eastern ones in particular. Our issue here is not the many obstacles facing democratic transition across the Arab world, but rather the fate of democracy in the regimes and republics that chose democracy as a government façade, despite the fact that many states equated it with popular, socialist, or other systems.
Firstly, to rule out any unnecessary debates, we must admit that democracy has lost much of its attractiveness even in western societies, and its weaknesses have been exposed. However, we must also admit that there is no alternative, and recognize that democratic systems have firm institutions, and their citizens have the determination to combat any attempts to circumvent democracy and the persistence to cure democracy from both right-wing and left-wing extremism and fix all issues by adopting further democracy. Another fact we must admit is that democracy cannot be achieved overnight, nor can it be transferred automatically: it requires just as much time to get enshrined in texts as in mentalities.
What we are presently seeing in our region is an accumulation of indicators pointing to the decline of the remnants of parliamentary democracy, such as the one that was in place in Lebanon, or other democracies whose emergence was promising at the beginning of the Arab Spring, such as in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Tunisia, Sudan, Yemen, and others.
In Syria, the autocracy of the Assad regime was extended to a fourth term in a folklore-like election that took place in a torn state whose revolution left half a million Syrians dead and 9 million displaced at home and abroad. Palestine canceled, or let’s assume postponed elections, cementing the Palestinian Authority’s domestic and foreign absenteeism at once as the Palestinian people and cause stand at a critical juncture, while Political Islam movements show absolutely no penchant for democracy. In Iraq, the snap elections scheduled on 10 October will likely be postponed, disrupted, or rigged. Observers of Iraqi politics realize that Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s future existence is threatened by Iran-backed militias. As for Sudan, which is undergoing a transitional period whereby civilians and soldiers must co-exist, a recent attempted coup showed a stark contrast between the two sides. In Tunisia, the political-constitutional crisis has seen all parliamentary prerogatives suspended, all parliamentary immunities lifted, and all prerogatives and powers of the Speaker and deputies barred.
The most prominent and most discouraging example of the degeneration and recession of democracy is Lebanon, which has long taken pride in its hallmark parliamentary liberal democracy within the Arab world and its adoption of the principle of the separation of powers. Today, Lebanon is on the path of collapse, and a general belief has started to form that democracy has become a mere cover for corruption and attacks on sovereignty, power, and the rule of law. Lebanon has joined the list of Arab republics that resorted to packaged democracy and robbed state institutions of all citizenship values and liberties, turning them into mere skeletons. In the words of our colleague Hazem Saghieh in a recent article he wrote for Asharq al-Awsat, Lebanon has become a prisoner of covert rule versus overt rule. Consequently, it seems like those who rule and control the democratic regime are those who publicly oppose democracy. Morocco, for its part, is an exception in this regard, as election results showed a recovering democracy. We will not include Israel in the list, despite its success in reaching a government of consensus that upended the senseless Benjamin Netanyahu policies after over a decade in power, and it did so by listening to the voice of the people through elections.
All of this is taking place against the background of two major developments in the region: the first is the disappointments left by the receding Arab Spring movements and the resulting miseries and consequences, whose causes we will not tackle here. The second is the US political and military withdrawal from the region, and the attempts of non-democratic international and regional forces to stealthily occupy the vacuums that this withdrawal left behind. The forces at play here are Russia, Iran and its allied non-state organizations, Turkey, and China, so far in non-security aspects. All of these states disregard the principle of democracy, which requires pro-state and opposition camps and emphasizes the separation of powers, the establishment of judicial constitutional institutions, the principles of responsibility and accountability, and the protection of individual and collective freedoms.
In the light of these changes in the region, we heard US President Joe Biden’s speech to the UN General Assembly in which he called for “focusing on the global challenge of authoritarianism” and moving into a “new era of relentless diplomacy,” assuring that the US is “a reliable ally to its partners.” However, Biden’s speech did not touch on the role played by any force that will accompany diplomacy to ensure its effectiveness and efficiency! Meanwhile, the fresh ink on the pages of the settlement with the Taliban has yet to dry, and US efforts to appease Iran and bring it back to the nuclear deal have yet to relent. This proves once again the first major global power’s lack of the required vision for freedoms and democracy.
For a region like the Middle East to be left to its fate and fall under authoritarianism embellished with empty democratic slogans; and for some Middle Eastern states and elites to resort to alternative forces to bridge the gap left by US absence are sources of deep concern for the future of the region and its people, particularly its youth. This does not mean that these states are unable to rule themselves without foreign tutelage. The issues lies in that local forces and elites bred by undemocratic forces to rule and make decisions face two problems: the lack of knowledge and experience, and the resulting inability to successfully run the country without tyranny and authoritarianism. This could lead to prolonging the black cloud that hovers over eastern Arab states, such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, and others.
Will the new generations, who have been inevitably impacted by modernity, globalization, and social media tools, be different once they come to power in the future? Will they be drawn by democratic values and manage to overturn the contempt to the values and mechanisms of democracy? This might be our only hope in this region.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.