It would be absurd to compare the Scandinavian states, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, well-established democratic systems, with the countries of the Arab East, which have imported democracy as nothing but as a merchandise alien to their traditions.
Even before the Syrian revolt of 2011, only the regime’s propaganda machine used to claim and believe Syria was a true multiparty parliamentary democracy. Still, for a while, the country lived through a short period of free elections albeit against a backdrop of traditional and tribal political feudalism, and later army officers’ political meddling. That period ended in 1949 with the three military coups of Hosni al-Za’im, Sami al-Hinnawi and Adib al-Shishakli.
Later on, there was another brief ‘democratic spring’ during the mid-1950s after bringing down al-Shishakli’s regime; however, ‘barrack wars’ between competing political factions within the army, during the tense years of the Cold War and ‘regional pacts of containment’, pushed both army officers and politicians to run with their problems to Nasser’s Egypt. That brief ‘spring’ was thus brought to an end by the establishment of the United Arab Republic (UAR) created by the union of Egypt and Syria, and what came after it.
Well, if war-torn Syria is surely out of the equation; what about Iraq and Lebanon?
Iraq experienced elections too in the first half of the 20th century, but democracy was cut short by the 1936 coup led by General Bakr Sidqi, and the internationally-connected conflicts (namely the Anglo-German confrontation) that followed, and the growing political role played by nationalist army officers led by what was known ‘The Golden Quartet’… and continues to be almost non-existent.
It is true to say that the problems of both Italy and Spain are serious and their democracy is fragile, however, it is also true that their parties accept rotation of power, and that they are indeed two sovereign statesEyad Abu Shakra
Lebanon, on the other hand, has tried representative councils for much longer periods than its two larger neighbors. After the establishment of the Mutassarrifiyyah (directly-governed autonomous district) system in Mount Lebanon (the nucleus of present-day Lebanon) in 1861, after a bloody sectarian civil war, an Administrative Council was founded to represent various areas and religious sects.
Later, in the early 20th century, Lebanon had both a parliament and a senate. Party politics flourished with strong feudal and sectarian influences; and after 1943, independent Lebanon was able to at least maintain an ‘appearance’ of a democracy even when going through conflicts, revolts, wars, and later ‘de facto occupation’.
Today, both Iraq and Lebanon appear to practice democracy, as they have political parties that are represented in government. The truth, however, is different, neither country has the culture or tradition to tolerate the other opinion, which is a must in any solid democratic environment that accepts the right of opposing, seeking accountability, and rotation of power.
In terms of sovereignty and independence too both countries are under “de facto occupation”, thus their sovereignty is deficient, and they lack broad national consensus and responsible genuine democratic institutions. Given the above, some may rightly argue that not all countries that practice electoral democracy – even in Europe – have deeply-rooted democratic traditions. This is most certainly true of some south European countries, which were not members of the old Communist bloc.
It applies to Greece, which gave the world the word ‘democracy’, Italy where Niccolo Machiavelli was born, and Spain and Portugal that have spread their culture far and wide throughout the globe. But, marking the birth of the two new governments in Italy and Spain, I shall limit this discussion to these two countries.
Northern European counterparts
The democratic traditions of Italy and Spain, which are southern Europe’s most populous countries along with France, do not compare favorably with those of their northern European counterparts; and below are some examples:
1- Both countries lived under the Fascist rules of Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco who promoted dreams of past empires as an escape from the fragility of the two current state entities that comprised former kingdoms and duchies. For a while Mussolini’s ‘Roman’ dream and Franco’s attempt to bring back the Spanish Empire’s past glory served the cause of keeping Italy and Spain together in the face of Leftist, Liberal, Republican and secessionist challenges; and later the atmosphere of the ‘Cold War’ was an added bonus for both entities. The situation, however, is now different, as there are no guarantees that the two countries would remain intact, given the vigor of what were dormant but strong secessionist sentiments. This vigor has been brought about by the pressures of globalization and the isolationist – even racist – reactions against it.
2- The Mussolini and Franco experiments, each in its own way, ‘legalized’ political radicalism in both Italy and Spain, as they weakened broad consensus and accorded credibility to extremists on both Right and Left. Today, radical and ‘regional’ parties are not in the margin but rather in the mainstream of Italian and Spanish politics. Even when the multi-winged Christian Democrats were the strongest party in the Italian parliament, their main competitors were not the Socialists or Liberals but the Italian Communist Party, the west’s largest Communist organization.
3- The legacy of Fascism, in both Italy and Spain, which caused fragility in the political system itself as well as weak national consensus, allowed the emergence of new and heterogeneous populist and protest movements. In fact, Italy, for long forced to live under a ‘co-existence of necessity’ between the Christian Democrats, Communists, as well as socialists, liberal, and conservatives parties, finds itself today a hostage of two relatively young populist movements which have formed the new coalition government, that many doubt its viability.
4- The old diverse nature of both Italy and Spain has contributed to the economic and development disparity, which in turn, is further fueling secessionist and racist sentiments. Italy’s north, namely Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont are by far richer (in terms of per capita income, productivity, employment and social development) than the regions of the south. In Spain too, Catalonia is by far richer than the poor regions of the south and southwest. The crisis recently caused by refugees and immigrants crossing the Mediterranean, especially to southern Italy and southern Spain made the already volatile situation even worse, exacerbating fear and hatred.
5- Due to Italy’s and Spain’s immature democracies, institutional accountability and truly independent judiciary have proven too weak to remain immune against corruption. The presence of the Mafia was an additional problem in Italy that eventually shook the political system and destroyed the Christian Democrats who dominated the country’s political scene between the end of WWII and the end of ‘The Cold War’.
To conclude, it is true to say that the problems of both Italy and Spain are serious and their democracy is fragile, however, it is also true that their parties accept rotation of power, and that they are indeed two sovereign states.
On the other hand, given regional ambitions and international confusion, refusing rotation of power and ignoring deficient sovereignty are the most serious threats facing the Arab East.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949.