Arabs need to devise a model of democracy that suits them

 12 May 2013 - 3:49

By Anwar Nawaf Al Thani

Arabs are trying to redefine democracy through the revolutionary wave that is sweeping their region. Arabs no longer accept that the state will always be a dominant political actor with a monopoly on power, with corruption and abuse of power running deep. The Arab revolution is overwhelming and remarkable; the chain of events that have happened since 2010 is inspiring and moving. But it is ugly at the same time.

There are a few questions being hotly debated after the advent of the Arab Spring. Can the Western model of democracy be applied in the Arab world or is the notion so absurd that Arab Spring holds no hope? Can democracy even exist in the Arab world?  

History has shown us that past attempts at democratization in the Arab world have failed. And Arabs don’t want the Western democratic system. Democracy in the West is the outcome of a free mindset, high literacy rates and economic growth, among other factors. These factors don’t exist in the Arab world, and in this context, what Arabs are seeking is freedom. And freedom does not always lead to democracy.

One reason democracy has failed to take root in the Arab world is that democracy needs strong civil societies. On this count, the Arab region faces many difficulties.

Civil society organisations aim to promote public participation while attempting to limit the power of the government. They also help expose corruption and abuse of power. The most fundamental aspect of a civil society group is that it is autonomous and not in any way dependent on the state. Strong civil societies are a precondition for democracy. For example, Tunisia has over 100 UN-recognised civil society organisations, which was a major factor in the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime. Egypt too, after 30 years of the Mubarak era, underwent a successful transition and significant civil society presence played a major role. In essence, if we were to analyze countries that underwent a successful transition, the common aspect can be seen as the presence of independent civil society groups. 

 

Role of family

“The organising principles of Arab societies, on the other hand, are embedded in a concrete social context where the family and the network of kinship are the Archimedean point to which individuals always relate. Even the idea of political action originating with the individual is regarded as alien” (Halim Barakat, The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State). 

This quote best reflects the Arab mindset post-Arab Spring. Family is the nucleus of Arab culture. Arab values and cultural drawbacks do not go past the family and kinship extension, a perception I believe is linked to Islam and is present in the general Muslim mindset. Arab culture in general promotes unity. Islamic teachings impart strong family ties and unity.  As Muslims, we are taught that sharing the same religion makes us all brothers and sisters and our unity is the overall strength we possess. I believe moral responsibilities and social values exist within these boundaries. In the West, individualism is deep-rooted, which is more suited to democracy, and explains political participation. 

Another obstacle to democracy in the Arab world is the radical Islamist parties whose imposed religious beliefs cannot coexist with civic order. Islam is a very tolerant religion that teaches Muslims to respect people of different beliefs. In every culture there are radicals. For example, the world has ‘radical’ liberals and ‘radical’ Jews, but what separates radical Islamists from other radicals is that they are more hard-core and are willing to go to any extent to achieve their goals. 

The argument here is not that civil society groups cannot exist in the Arab world. It’s very difficult. The Arabian Gulf is a good example. For those of you who will argue that there are numerous civil society groups in the Middle East — and there are — there is a question: are they separate from the state? They are not. They are simply committees that are controlled and limited by the state. For democratization to happen there have to be willing agents to reform; democracy must come from the people and should not be imposed. For any Arab state to achieve democracy, the people must first form civil society groups. After that the processes of revolution and struggle can begin to lead the countries towards democracy.

There are two types of regimes in the Arab world: monarchies and authoritarian regimes. The Arab Spring mostly involves dismantling authoritarian or totalitarian regimes and replacing them with democracies. It all started in Tunisia, with a single act that triggered a wave of revolution. In December  2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself afire in front of the city hall in Tunisia. He was the trigger which helped release decades of pent-up frustration over corruption and nepotism in Tunisia.  Tunisians could no longer accept that the state had a monopoly on power. 

It’s a sad fact that democracy comes at a heavy price. It hurts many to know that the Arab Spring death toll is a heart-wrenching 103,421 and is still rising. Is this too big a price to pay? Sadly, that question has already been answered. Arabs know that democracy can only be achieved through years of revolution, struggle and hardship. 

 

Western model

The Western form of democracy is not a universal form and cannot be applied everywhere. Important factors such as culture, education and mindset must be taken in to consideration. For Arabs, culture, values and religious practices still take precedence over everything. 

In this scenario, what form of democracy are we looking for? What does democracy mean to us? That I believe is what the Arab Spring is all about. The Arab people want to find a form of democracy that is tailored to their beliefs, culture and values. Hopefully, one day we will have an answer to this. The Arab Spring is not over; it has just begun and no country will be spared. Arabs will redefine democracy and create a proud history and legacy. 

(The author is a student at Qatar University)

The Peninsula

By Anwar Nawaf Al Thani

Arabs are trying to redefine democracy through the revolutionary wave that is sweeping their region. Arabs no longer accept that the state will always be a dominant political actor with a monopoly on power, with corruption and abuse of power running deep. The Arab revolution is overwhelming and remarkable; the chain of events that have happened since 2010 is inspiring and moving. But it is ugly at the same time.

There are a few questions being hotly debated after the advent of the Arab Spring. Can the Western model of democracy be applied in the Arab world or is the notion so absurd that Arab Spring holds no hope? Can democracy even exist in the Arab world?  

History has shown us that past attempts at democratization in the Arab world have failed. And Arabs don’t want the Western democratic system. Democracy in the West is the outcome of a free mindset, high literacy rates and economic growth, among other factors. These factors don’t exist in the Arab world, and in this context, what Arabs are seeking is freedom. And freedom does not always lead to democracy.

One reason democracy has failed to take root in the Arab world is that democracy needs strong civil societies. On this count, the Arab region faces many difficulties.

Civil society organisations aim to promote public participation while attempting to limit the power of the government. They also help expose corruption and abuse of power. The most fundamental aspect of a civil society group is that it is autonomous and not in any way dependent on the state. Strong civil societies are a precondition for democracy. For example, Tunisia has over 100 UN-recognised civil society organisations, which was a major factor in the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime. Egypt too, after 30 years of the Mubarak era, underwent a successful transition and significant civil society presence played a major role. In essence, if we were to analyze countries that underwent a successful transition, the common aspect can be seen as the presence of independent civil society groups. 

 

Role of family

“The organising principles of Arab societies, on the other hand, are embedded in a concrete social context where the family and the network of kinship are the Archimedean point to which individuals always relate. Even the idea of political action originating with the individual is regarded as alien” (Halim Barakat, The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State). 

This quote best reflects the Arab mindset post-Arab Spring. Family is the nucleus of Arab culture. Arab values and cultural drawbacks do not go past the family and kinship extension, a perception I believe is linked to Islam and is present in the general Muslim mindset. Arab culture in general promotes unity. Islamic teachings impart strong family ties and unity.  As Muslims, we are taught that sharing the same religion makes us all brothers and sisters and our unity is the overall strength we possess. I believe moral responsibilities and social values exist within these boundaries. In the West, individualism is deep-rooted, which is more suited to democracy, and explains political participation. 

Another obstacle to democracy in the Arab world is the radical Islamist parties whose imposed religious beliefs cannot coexist with civic order. Islam is a very tolerant religion that teaches Muslims to respect people of different beliefs. In every culture there are radicals. For example, the world has ‘radical’ liberals and ‘radical’ Jews, but what separates radical Islamists from other radicals is that they are more hard-core and are willing to go to any extent to achieve their goals. 

The argument here is not that civil society groups cannot exist in the Arab world. It’s very difficult. The Arabian Gulf is a good example. For those of you who will argue that there are numerous civil society groups in the Middle East — and there are — there is a question: are they separate from the state? They are not. They are simply committees that are controlled and limited by the state. For democratization to happen there have to be willing agents to reform; democracy must come from the people and should not be imposed. For any Arab state to achieve democracy, the people must first form civil society groups. After that the processes of revolution and struggle can begin to lead the countries towards democracy.

There are two types of regimes in the Arab world: monarchies and authoritarian regimes. The Arab Spring mostly involves dismantling authoritarian or totalitarian regimes and replacing them with democracies. It all started in Tunisia, with a single act that triggered a wave of revolution. In December  2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself afire in front of the city hall in Tunisia. He was the trigger which helped release decades of pent-up frustration over corruption and nepotism in Tunisia.  Tunisians could no longer accept that the state had a monopoly on power. 

It’s a sad fact that democracy comes at a heavy price. It hurts many to know that the Arab Spring death toll is a heart-wrenching 103,421 and is still rising. Is this too big a price to pay? Sadly, that question has already been answered. Arabs know that democracy can only be achieved through years of revolution, struggle and hardship. 

 

Western model

The Western form of democracy is not a universal form and cannot be applied everywhere. Important factors such as culture, education and mindset must be taken in to consideration. For Arabs, culture, values and religious practices still take precedence over everything. 

In this scenario, what form of democracy are we looking for? What does democracy mean to us? That I believe is what the Arab Spring is all about. The Arab people want to find a form of democracy that is tailored to their beliefs, culture and values. Hopefully, one day we will have an answer to this. The Arab Spring is not over; it has just begun and no country will be spared. Arabs will redefine democracy and create a proud history and legacy. 

(The author is a student at Qatar University)

The Peninsula