Arab Spring and Its Aftermath: Has Democracy Finally Found Its Way In The Region?*



*This essay was written as a final requirement for my one of my grad school classes. Feel free to comment away. Prof wasn't able to critique this so I guess it'll be better if readers would give their piece of mind over this issue. :) Salamat!

Introduction
After the revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in toppling their governments and ousting their respective leaders, there was much talk and debate on the possibility of liberal democracy finally reaching the oil-rich shores of the Middle East and the North African region. This was further touted when other countries in the region also waged civil wars against their own governments—Libya against Muammar Gaddafi and Syria against Bashar al-Asad. Yemen and Bahrain also showed discontent through demonstrations but were easily quelled by much stronger military forces backed by their governments. Until today, Syria is still war-torn, and might possibly turn into a bitter stalemate if strongman Asad remains in power.

News about the revolution quickly spread throughout the globe mainly through Western media outlets like CNN, BBC and Fox News, as well as Qatar-based Al Jazeera. These media outlets even featured English-speaking scholars from these beleaguered countries strongly pushing for more government reforms as well as a greater degree of freedoms enjoyed by civilians. The revolution in the Arab region also enjoyed considerable support from a growing virtual community perpetuated by famous social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. These networking sites were also said to have helped revolutionaries gain not just a global platform to air their grievances and redress but more so, it had also pushed younger individuals in their own countries take up arms and express their discontent in the streets. The global community found this a novel event, eventually dubbing it the Arab Spring—alluded to the bright hope the spring season offers; and rightly so, it came after a long time of winter, characterized by the cold and bitter winds of repression and autocratic form of governance.

Two years after the first fires of the revolution were ignited, it is justified to ask if the Arab Spring, as a whole, really made a stark difference in the lives of the people who made it happen. Did the promise of freedom and eventually development finally planted its initial seeds in the Middle East—two concepts that accompany an embrace of a liberally democratic government? Or was it a false hope—a fundamental mistake to wage a war when victory would be phyrric and bleak in the end? This paper then, seeks to understand further the Arab Spring and draw lessons from this turn of events in history.

In order to better understand the Arab Spring, the first section of the paper surveys the events that led to the uprisings and various demonstrations in countries in the Middle East. Literature provided three major reasons for these revolutions: (1) increasingly corrupt regimes, (2) lack of economic reforms, deteriorating standard of living, and heightened poverty, and (3) limited democratic space for Arab citizens. A brief discussion juxtaposing the strict Islamic laws adhered to in most Arabian countries and the principles put forward by liberal democracy will also be included in this section. The feasibility of melding Islamic beliefs with the more “secular” and principles espoused by a liberal democratic government is taken into consideration.

In order to understand the value of the antecedents to the Arab Spring, the next section will discuss the impact of revolutions to leaders, both inside and outside the Middle East and other stakeholders, i.e. women, the middle class and the intelligentsia.

In the conclusion, I will try to fit the pieces of the puzzle by drawing concrete lessons from this bloody, heartless yet liberating event in history. After all, the Arab Spring provides a bitter yet important realization about the growing desire of ordinary Muslims to democratize and enjoy higher degrees of freedom and governance.

Fuels that Ignited the Revolution’s Fire
The Arab revolutions were primarily fueled by discontent from the current state of affairs in these Arab countries. The lack of political reforms and increasing rate of unemployment fed these social tensions that were gradually brewing in the past few months. It would be gleaned from the sentiments of these revolutionaries that they would want first, to wage and win the war against their greedy dictators and eventually establish a government that is receptive to their needs. The gains of development and freedom would come after this initial goal was achieved. A quick look on each country’s situation is provided in the succeeding paragraphs.

Increasingly Corrupt Regimes
The first fires of the revolution began in Tunisia. A fruit vendor in the busy Habib Bourgiba Avenue set fire to himself as a sign of protest against an increasingly corrupt Tunisian regime.

It should be noted that Tunisia established one of the more secular regimes in the Middle East. The principle upheld by the Tunisian government is simple: niqabs and beards are “political manifestation(s) of a religion that should properly viewed as a private affair, expressed not in terms of ostentatious symbols but rather quiet good deeds (Bradley, 2012).”

The pre-revolutionary government’s firm stance on secularism also extends to their economic policies—they have pioneered liberalization and privatization as well as gender-sensitive policies. Ben Ali’s predecessor, Habib Bourgiba was hailed as the “Builder of Modern Tunisia” and the “Liberator of Women.” While several political freedoms were not prioritized, Bourgiba ensured that his constituents are receiving quality life through stable jobs and decent wages. He allowed women in Tunisia enjoy as much liberty as men do—marriages were considered voluntary contracts between a husband and wife, the selling of young girls as brides were outlawed, and family planning campaigns are heightened. Women are also given equal access to formal education—a right that is usually denied of women in other Arab countries.

By the time Bourgiba’s regime waned, his former head of security and eventual prime minister, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali took the helm. His slogan, “Tunis wa aman!” or “A safe Tunis!” was his guiding mantra. Ben Ali’s regime, however, was clear on certain things: no Islamist or Communist state, and not a rapid move towards democracy. Those who cross these lines suffer their fate from a wide network of secret police. It was not an easy transition—there were coups and other forms of demonstrations against Ben Ali—but he managed to survive, mainly because he continued the secular policies espoused by his predecessor and cultivated an economically- viable community. Tunisia, in many ways, can be characterized as a welfare state—there is free education and health care for all. He was also a reliable ally of the West and had been one of mediators for the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

But as soon as the 2008 Financial Crisis struck the world, Tunisia was not spared from its paralyzing effects. This has brought much strain on the country’s middle class—recent graduates find it difficult to get a job and in turn, it had increased the unemployment rate to all-time highs. Such problems were exacerbated when Wikileaks exposed the “extensive corruption among the president’s extended family.” Newspapers then, reported how Ben Ali’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi, was very much alike Imelda Marcos of the Philippines—she squandered the national coffers and supported cronies of privatized companies. The events had angered the Tunisians—their leader has tarnished the beautiful legacy created by the late Bourgiba, eventually breaking the social contract that guarantees the support of his own people.

Given such, Tunisians started questioning their leader’s capacity to bring back a better standard of living. Eventually, their discontent led to their questioning of the government’s political censorship. This then, paved the way to the demonstrations in the streets, men immolating themselves as a sign of protest and finally, the revolution that will topple Ben Ali’s regime.

Abject Poverty Sparks the Revolution
It was a different situation in Egypt. The country is already suffering from the pangs of poverty and their leader, Hosni Mubarak and his legion of military men cannot do anything to lift their people out of that pit. Instead, they continue to rob the national coffers in order to support their lavish lifestyles while the ordinary Egyptians continue to succumb to all forms of poverty. Men are pushed to become prostitutes and sell their bodies to foreign tourists in order to get a source of meager income. Further, Mubarak’s regime reeked of unlawful arrests and gross injustice committed on both guilty and innocent Egyptians.

Unlike Tunisia, a lot of Egyptians supported the revolution. The people had had enough of Mubarak’s brutal rulership hence, their solitary goal of removing him from power. Such move, however, led still to unacceptable results—Mubarak was one man, his military men still assumed the interim regime.

By the time Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionaries succeeded in toppling the governments they have grown to loathe, uprisings were already brewing in other Middle Eastern states. There are already demonstrations against their respective governments in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, as well as small protests in parts of Saudi Arabia.

In both Libya and Syria, the revolutionary movements have gone awry as the rebels waged a civil war against their governments. Rebels situated in Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya were able to round up supporters from other provinces in the country—they even managed to get support from neighboring countries by way of arms and other forms of weapons. On the other hand, the rebels in Syria continue to hold siege because their strongman, Bashar al-Asad still refuses to relinquish power.

Boxed Out From Democratic Spaces
Many scholars have pushed for the idea of having a more democratic Middle East because such a change is necessary to really spur growth and development in this arid region of the globe. They are strictly and rigidly observing the provisions of the sharia law which were basically culled from the tenets of their Holy Book, the Qur’an. Islam then, the Arab world’s dominant religion, is seen as some sort of a hindrance towards this path, hence the constant encouragement to democratize and increase the degrees of freedoms and liberties enjoyed by its people. Such encouragement is very much evident through the foreign policies employed by Western democracies to these Arab countries, most prominent of which is the close friendship maintained by the United States with the State of Israel as well as its strategic alliances with Saudi Arabia and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

It could be said that much of these alliances are maintained to ensure that the interests of the United States, namely oil and regional security, are well-guarded, with their call for democratization used as a noble front. But whatever their vested interest may be, it is of prime importance that Muslim societies in the Arab world are given the equal chance and access to democracy.

We ask then, why democracy in the Middle East? Would more freedoms guarantee stable jobs for unemployed Tunisians or food on the table of poor Egyptians? Would liberties wash the wounds of the victims of both Libyan and Syrian civil wars? Would it make a better Yemen or Bahrain, for that matter?

Larry Diamond, in his book The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Across the World, presented Seymour Martin Lipset’s argument on democracy being a luxury of richer societies. Lipset, as quoted by Diamond, argues that the richer the country is, the greater the chance that it would sustain democracies. The argument stuck and scholars like Adam Przeworski were even able to present a case study showing “a striking relationship between development level and the probability of sustaining democracy.” This means, as Diamond points out in his book’s analysis: “With every step up in a country’s level of economic development, the life expectancy of a democratic regime increases. In upper-middle-income countries (specifically, those richer than Argentina was in 1975), democracy never breaks down, whereas in the very poorest countries, democracy has a 12-percent chance of dying in any particular year, with an average life expectancy of eight years (2008).”

It could be said that democracy is difficult to maintain, let alone establish, given the case studies presented in the previous paragraph. We shift our focus by taking the case of those countries which revolted against their governments in 2011.

John Bradley, in his book, clarifies that “for the Arab masses, the chief grievance was not a lack of political freedom, but of jobs.” He even presents an Egyptian statistic that shows “only 19 percent of respondents said a desire for democracy was a top motivation for toppling Mubarak” while an overwhelming “65 percent instead pinpointed the state of the economy” as their prime reason.

People who revolted during the 2011 Arab uprisings were suffering from famines, albeit figuratively. They were all frustrated by their own governments’ insensitivity and inaction over their plights—they need stable jobs that will give them a steady source of income to put food on their tables, bring their children to school and live a decent life.

1998 Nobel Prize Laureate for Economics Amartya Sen provides a strong case as to why it should still be pursued in poorer countries like those in the Middle East. Sen argues that “people in economic need also need a political voice. Democracy is not a luxury that can await the arrival of general prosperity [and] there is little evidence that poor people, given the choice, prefer to reject democracy (1999).” To argue then, that these revolutionaries only stood up for poverty alleviation through an economic boost and not of democracy as a whole, suffers from a major loophole. Democratic governments are a necessary tool to spur growth in a country as well as pursue greater heights of development because their governments, through “mechanisms of political accountability” and transparency, are given “the powerful incentive to be responsive (Diamond, 2003).” In turn, it allows the people to legitimately demand more services and facilities from their respective governments.

In 2004, known Islamic Studies academician Noah Feldman wrote that if we “fail(s) to support democracy in the Muslim world, the consequences may prove to be very dire… Revolution remains a meaningful possibility in a number of Arab and Muslim states so long as democratization makes no progress. The governments that would come to power through revolution would be far worse than the governments that would be selected democratically—more irrational, more hard-line… and more violent.”

When 2011 came, Feldman’s words find some semblance of truth in the events that have unfolded. The Arab Spring then, should not be just seen as a spur-of-the-moment decision or a knee-jerk reaction towards an unfeeling government. More so, it is anger pent-up waiting for its time to be released. And just like a dormant volcano, too much pressure from the earth’s plates pushed them to explode and affect everything that is in seeming order. The immediate and efficient introduction of democracy then, gains necessity given the recent turn of events.

Making “Islam Democracy” Happen
We now get the idea that while Islam and democracy have a superficial disconnect—Islam being too rigid while democracy is liberal in every sense—the previous discussion gave us enough ground as to why it should still be pursued. The question now lies as to how we would be able to undertake it.

A radical theory on international relations or democracy is not needed, as Feldman aptly points out in the same book, rather, “a subtle shift in perspective regarding the deployment of familiar techniques” would do the trick. In the shorter sense, the same wheel is used and a simple reinvention is just what is needed to make things work better.

It is worth noting that democracy should be considered as both an end goal and a means to achieve development in a certain society or community, as Sen theorizes. For development to become an end goal, it has to be able to expand the basic freedoms enjoyed by a certain individual or the community as a whole, i.e. deprivation from hunger or starvation, education, health, political and civic participation and freedom of speech, to name a few. It is said that the level of development achieved by a certain country is assessed basically through the degree of expansion of these basic freedoms that they have attained. On one hand, if it is low, then it can be asserted that it is a flawed or a paralyzed form of democracy. On the other, democracy has succeeded vis-à-vis the level of development attained by that society.

We extend the analysis by saying that democracy works the other way too—it is a means to achieve development. According to Sen, there are five instrumental freedoms necessary to pursuing development: “(1) political freedoms, (2) economic facilities, (3) social opportunities, (4) transparency guarantees, and (5) protective security. These instrumental freedoms tend to contribute to the general capability of a person to live more freely, but they also serve to complement one another (1999).”

Based on Sen’s theory on instrumental freedoms as means toward development, a framework for incentives that can be used to push for democracy in the countries that were heavily affected by the Arab Spring can be crafted. Feldman, in the same book, provides us with a mix of positive and counter-positive incentives, depending on the governments dealt with, which can be utilized mainly by Western powers to push for more democratic societies. For one, “this means being prepared to call Muslim allies’ bluffs when they insist that they cannot respond to … prodding because of internal pressures. When [we] defer to this excuse… it encourages bad behavior, creating perverse incentives for undemocratic governments to preserve the most threatening opposition groups while repressing moderate opposition that might look more palatable…(2004).”

An example of a good approach is the use of targeted and conditional economic aid given by Western powers to Arab allies/ countries—aid in whatever form, i.e. security, humanitarian, in exchange for sustainable and measurable political reforms. This can be very much effective to Arab states like Egypt and Jordan which has no oil to support their economies. As described in the previous section, Egypt is in bad shape and is in need of foreign aid to lift its people from poverty. Direct arms or humanitarian aid from the United States, for example, will make a big difference in the lives of those who will benefit from it. In exchange for such, the US may demand for more political freedoms for the ordinary Egyptians or the conduct of free and fair parliamentary elections.

However, for countries like Iraq, Libya and Saudi Arabia which has massive oil reserves in their bedrocks to support their authoritarian regimes, a much sterner approach may have to be used to really push for democracy. Economic sanctions like embargo on aid might be thought off but is not really plausible if you have cold-hearted dictators who would rather see their people die from hunger and civil war than bow down for help. Their preservation to power is of primary necessity that they resist not to do something to help alleviate the plight of their people. Military intervention may be justified but at a cost. America’s invasion of Iraq in 2008 was considered a terrible mistake even if the Bush administration says it was for democracy to flourish. The noble cause was overridden by the obvious “greedy” realpolitik employed by the Americans, hence inviting the rage of many Muslims.

Impact of the Arab Uprisings
Given the recent turn of events in history, we now ask how this has affected much of the revolutions’ stakeholders. As outlined in the introduction, the discussion will flow from the impact of the revolutions to the leaders of these Arab regimes as well as those outside the Middle East. The impact of the revolutions to other stakeholders, i.e. women, the middle class and the intelligentsia, will also be briefly discussed.

Tyrants Found Their Match
Ben Ali and his wife, Leila, were tried and proven guilty of corruption and unlawful possession of foreign currency and other state-owned wealth while Mubarak was forced to resign from his post. Gaddafi of Libya, however, suffered a much gruesome fate in the end. He was killed by an angry mob while desperately asking for their mercy. His dead body—beaten to death and filled with bullet holes—was then paraded in the streets of the country’s capital while mobile phones feasted on recording the whole procession. It is indeed “a reflection of the nature of a fallen regime and the reaction of an oppressed people (Montefiore, 2011).”

The Chilling Effect
It could be said that the revolutions sent a chilling effect to leaders of both Arab and non-Arab governments. The uprisings saw the power of collective will—while such maybe said of other previous uprisings recorded in history, the revolutions in the North African and Middle East region was coupled with a more revolutionary weapon: social media. The internet had served as an additional platform to amplify the voices of those who are taking up arms against their despotic governments. Critics of the revolution may say that the social media was a minimal contribution compared to other forces—we say, however minimal the contribution was, it had set a different tone to how protests are done. Arab leaders, as well as those non-Arabs, are now compelled to be more sensitive to the needs of their citizens or suffer the fate of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt or worse, Gaddafi in Libya.

Women Are Again Second-Class Citizens
Alongside unemployed men and young people protesting in different Arabian streets, women have also been there. The mass demonstrations’ possible success was seen as a golden opportunity for Arabian women to finally gain equal access in political and social spheres historically dominated by men. It should be gleaned that Arab societies are strictly paternal—women are considered second-class citizens, usually relegated to household chores and menial tasks.

The reality on the ground, however, seems to be contrary to what we have assumed. Women are again driven back to their homes doing household chores. They are again wearing their hiqabs and veils to cover parts of their faces and bodies. We see that a lot of reforms have to be done before women in Arabian societies are treated fairly, if not treated as men’s equals.

Moving Forward
The Arab Spring gave us lessons that are very much applicable to the present realities of politics and governance, not just in the Middle East but around the world.

For one, the experience in the Middle East underscored the importance of accountability and democratic space where people can participate in “running” the government. Leaders of governments would have to be more careful with the policies and programs they tread on lest they risk being overthrown from office or worse, killed by a lynching mob. This is not to say that they have to please everyone even extremists, for that matter. I think the more important thing is to become sensitive to needs of the people who put you to power or those people whom you have vowed to serve in case of monarchical governments or appointed leaders. The key is accountability—but this can only be done if political structures are placed with mechanisms that encourage transparency and responsibility.

This leads us to our second lesson—it is high time for Arab countries to finally embrace the principles of democracy. It need not to succumb to everything the West prescribes because Asian societies are known to have been able to infuse seemingly disconnected ideas—Confucian principles with democratic governments, for example. Islam then could be used with democracy if given the right incentives and entrusted with the right people positioned in a more empowered socio-political structure like the government. It could always be argued that the entrenchment of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East was US- backed, to begin with. Of course, it is true—the choice is between powerful clans that swear loyalty to the Americans versus the communist rebels that loom in the grassroots. Vested interests took the helm when moderate political organizations in the civil society could have been chosen instead of the two extremes. But that was before. The challenge today, in order to avoid such a paradox, is “to insist, at each stage, that greater political openness actually follow on the offer of assistance. Once parliaments become more lively (sic) and effective in countries like Egypt… and Jordan, the next stage of incentives will be aimed (2004).”

Leaders cannot be expected to be perpetually in position. Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were already dead. Mubarak was ousted and the same happened to Ben Ali. Asad remains in power but is in an unstable position. He can be expected to design “elections” that would still be allied with him, but that doesn’t guarantee that they cannot be softened with the promise of aids. It may not be an easy task which involves a lot of negotiation and convincing. But a country that is torn by a bloody civil war and is still on the process of restoration can be easily influenced by conditional aids targeted at democratization.

Of course, Bradley is quick to counter the idea by arguing that: “In the Arab world, when the gift of democracy is unwrapped, it is the Islamists who spring out of the box (2012).” So, while they may not oppose the entrance of democracy, fundamental Islamists twist and tweak its principles to suit their extremist notions of statehood and governance.

Such argument would have to be reduced to a concession. Countries that are given more leeway to discuss their political ideas are expected to express a broad range of concepts on governance—some may push for a more secular government or a moderate one while others may really gear for a more Islamic state. It should be said that the discussions will not be as passive and apathetic as Bradley thinks it would be because machinations of political freedom were already in place due to the incentives mechanism. Time will prove that the people will choose from these differing views and might as well experiment which best will suit them. What is important is that “the ideas of liberal democracy are sure to spread in countries where they are initially given the chance. If these ideas are inherently attractive, they will find adherents all over the Arab and Muslim worlds (2004).”

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felix felicis: Arab Spring and Its Aftermath: Has Democracy Finally Found Its Way In The Region?*

Monday, April 8, 2013

Arab Spring and Its Aftermath: Has Democracy Finally Found Its Way In The Region?*



*This essay was written as a final requirement for my one of my grad school classes. Feel free to comment away. Prof wasn't able to critique this so I guess it'll be better if readers would give their piece of mind over this issue. :) Salamat!

Introduction
After the revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in toppling their governments and ousting their respective leaders, there was much talk and debate on the possibility of liberal democracy finally reaching the oil-rich shores of the Middle East and the North African region. This was further touted when other countries in the region also waged civil wars against their own governments—Libya against Muammar Gaddafi and Syria against Bashar al-Asad. Yemen and Bahrain also showed discontent through demonstrations but were easily quelled by much stronger military forces backed by their governments. Until today, Syria is still war-torn, and might possibly turn into a bitter stalemate if strongman Asad remains in power.

News about the revolution quickly spread throughout the globe mainly through Western media outlets like CNN, BBC and Fox News, as well as Qatar-based Al Jazeera. These media outlets even featured English-speaking scholars from these beleaguered countries strongly pushing for more government reforms as well as a greater degree of freedoms enjoyed by civilians. The revolution in the Arab region also enjoyed considerable support from a growing virtual community perpetuated by famous social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. These networking sites were also said to have helped revolutionaries gain not just a global platform to air their grievances and redress but more so, it had also pushed younger individuals in their own countries take up arms and express their discontent in the streets. The global community found this a novel event, eventually dubbing it the Arab Spring—alluded to the bright hope the spring season offers; and rightly so, it came after a long time of winter, characterized by the cold and bitter winds of repression and autocratic form of governance.

Two years after the first fires of the revolution were ignited, it is justified to ask if the Arab Spring, as a whole, really made a stark difference in the lives of the people who made it happen. Did the promise of freedom and eventually development finally planted its initial seeds in the Middle East—two concepts that accompany an embrace of a liberally democratic government? Or was it a false hope—a fundamental mistake to wage a war when victory would be phyrric and bleak in the end? This paper then, seeks to understand further the Arab Spring and draw lessons from this turn of events in history.

In order to better understand the Arab Spring, the first section of the paper surveys the events that led to the uprisings and various demonstrations in countries in the Middle East. Literature provided three major reasons for these revolutions: (1) increasingly corrupt regimes, (2) lack of economic reforms, deteriorating standard of living, and heightened poverty, and (3) limited democratic space for Arab citizens. A brief discussion juxtaposing the strict Islamic laws adhered to in most Arabian countries and the principles put forward by liberal democracy will also be included in this section. The feasibility of melding Islamic beliefs with the more “secular” and principles espoused by a liberal democratic government is taken into consideration.

In order to understand the value of the antecedents to the Arab Spring, the next section will discuss the impact of revolutions to leaders, both inside and outside the Middle East and other stakeholders, i.e. women, the middle class and the intelligentsia.

In the conclusion, I will try to fit the pieces of the puzzle by drawing concrete lessons from this bloody, heartless yet liberating event in history. After all, the Arab Spring provides a bitter yet important realization about the growing desire of ordinary Muslims to democratize and enjoy higher degrees of freedom and governance.

Fuels that Ignited the Revolution’s Fire
The Arab revolutions were primarily fueled by discontent from the current state of affairs in these Arab countries. The lack of political reforms and increasing rate of unemployment fed these social tensions that were gradually brewing in the past few months. It would be gleaned from the sentiments of these revolutionaries that they would want first, to wage and win the war against their greedy dictators and eventually establish a government that is receptive to their needs. The gains of development and freedom would come after this initial goal was achieved. A quick look on each country’s situation is provided in the succeeding paragraphs.

Increasingly Corrupt Regimes
The first fires of the revolution began in Tunisia. A fruit vendor in the busy Habib Bourgiba Avenue set fire to himself as a sign of protest against an increasingly corrupt Tunisian regime.

It should be noted that Tunisia established one of the more secular regimes in the Middle East. The principle upheld by the Tunisian government is simple: niqabs and beards are “political manifestation(s) of a religion that should properly viewed as a private affair, expressed not in terms of ostentatious symbols but rather quiet good deeds (Bradley, 2012).”

The pre-revolutionary government’s firm stance on secularism also extends to their economic policies—they have pioneered liberalization and privatization as well as gender-sensitive policies. Ben Ali’s predecessor, Habib Bourgiba was hailed as the “Builder of Modern Tunisia” and the “Liberator of Women.” While several political freedoms were not prioritized, Bourgiba ensured that his constituents are receiving quality life through stable jobs and decent wages. He allowed women in Tunisia enjoy as much liberty as men do—marriages were considered voluntary contracts between a husband and wife, the selling of young girls as brides were outlawed, and family planning campaigns are heightened. Women are also given equal access to formal education—a right that is usually denied of women in other Arab countries.

By the time Bourgiba’s regime waned, his former head of security and eventual prime minister, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali took the helm. His slogan, “Tunis wa aman!” or “A safe Tunis!” was his guiding mantra. Ben Ali’s regime, however, was clear on certain things: no Islamist or Communist state, and not a rapid move towards democracy. Those who cross these lines suffer their fate from a wide network of secret police. It was not an easy transition—there were coups and other forms of demonstrations against Ben Ali—but he managed to survive, mainly because he continued the secular policies espoused by his predecessor and cultivated an economically- viable community. Tunisia, in many ways, can be characterized as a welfare state—there is free education and health care for all. He was also a reliable ally of the West and had been one of mediators for the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

But as soon as the 2008 Financial Crisis struck the world, Tunisia was not spared from its paralyzing effects. This has brought much strain on the country’s middle class—recent graduates find it difficult to get a job and in turn, it had increased the unemployment rate to all-time highs. Such problems were exacerbated when Wikileaks exposed the “extensive corruption among the president’s extended family.” Newspapers then, reported how Ben Ali’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi, was very much alike Imelda Marcos of the Philippines—she squandered the national coffers and supported cronies of privatized companies. The events had angered the Tunisians—their leader has tarnished the beautiful legacy created by the late Bourgiba, eventually breaking the social contract that guarantees the support of his own people.

Given such, Tunisians started questioning their leader’s capacity to bring back a better standard of living. Eventually, their discontent led to their questioning of the government’s political censorship. This then, paved the way to the demonstrations in the streets, men immolating themselves as a sign of protest and finally, the revolution that will topple Ben Ali’s regime.

Abject Poverty Sparks the Revolution
It was a different situation in Egypt. The country is already suffering from the pangs of poverty and their leader, Hosni Mubarak and his legion of military men cannot do anything to lift their people out of that pit. Instead, they continue to rob the national coffers in order to support their lavish lifestyles while the ordinary Egyptians continue to succumb to all forms of poverty. Men are pushed to become prostitutes and sell their bodies to foreign tourists in order to get a source of meager income. Further, Mubarak’s regime reeked of unlawful arrests and gross injustice committed on both guilty and innocent Egyptians.

Unlike Tunisia, a lot of Egyptians supported the revolution. The people had had enough of Mubarak’s brutal rulership hence, their solitary goal of removing him from power. Such move, however, led still to unacceptable results—Mubarak was one man, his military men still assumed the interim regime.

By the time Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionaries succeeded in toppling the governments they have grown to loathe, uprisings were already brewing in other Middle Eastern states. There are already demonstrations against their respective governments in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, as well as small protests in parts of Saudi Arabia.

In both Libya and Syria, the revolutionary movements have gone awry as the rebels waged a civil war against their governments. Rebels situated in Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya were able to round up supporters from other provinces in the country—they even managed to get support from neighboring countries by way of arms and other forms of weapons. On the other hand, the rebels in Syria continue to hold siege because their strongman, Bashar al-Asad still refuses to relinquish power.

Boxed Out From Democratic Spaces
Many scholars have pushed for the idea of having a more democratic Middle East because such a change is necessary to really spur growth and development in this arid region of the globe. They are strictly and rigidly observing the provisions of the sharia law which were basically culled from the tenets of their Holy Book, the Qur’an. Islam then, the Arab world’s dominant religion, is seen as some sort of a hindrance towards this path, hence the constant encouragement to democratize and increase the degrees of freedoms and liberties enjoyed by its people. Such encouragement is very much evident through the foreign policies employed by Western democracies to these Arab countries, most prominent of which is the close friendship maintained by the United States with the State of Israel as well as its strategic alliances with Saudi Arabia and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

It could be said that much of these alliances are maintained to ensure that the interests of the United States, namely oil and regional security, are well-guarded, with their call for democratization used as a noble front. But whatever their vested interest may be, it is of prime importance that Muslim societies in the Arab world are given the equal chance and access to democracy.

We ask then, why democracy in the Middle East? Would more freedoms guarantee stable jobs for unemployed Tunisians or food on the table of poor Egyptians? Would liberties wash the wounds of the victims of both Libyan and Syrian civil wars? Would it make a better Yemen or Bahrain, for that matter?

Larry Diamond, in his book The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Across the World, presented Seymour Martin Lipset’s argument on democracy being a luxury of richer societies. Lipset, as quoted by Diamond, argues that the richer the country is, the greater the chance that it would sustain democracies. The argument stuck and scholars like Adam Przeworski were even able to present a case study showing “a striking relationship between development level and the probability of sustaining democracy.” This means, as Diamond points out in his book’s analysis: “With every step up in a country’s level of economic development, the life expectancy of a democratic regime increases. In upper-middle-income countries (specifically, those richer than Argentina was in 1975), democracy never breaks down, whereas in the very poorest countries, democracy has a 12-percent chance of dying in any particular year, with an average life expectancy of eight years (2008).”

It could be said that democracy is difficult to maintain, let alone establish, given the case studies presented in the previous paragraph. We shift our focus by taking the case of those countries which revolted against their governments in 2011.

John Bradley, in his book, clarifies that “for the Arab masses, the chief grievance was not a lack of political freedom, but of jobs.” He even presents an Egyptian statistic that shows “only 19 percent of respondents said a desire for democracy was a top motivation for toppling Mubarak” while an overwhelming “65 percent instead pinpointed the state of the economy” as their prime reason.

People who revolted during the 2011 Arab uprisings were suffering from famines, albeit figuratively. They were all frustrated by their own governments’ insensitivity and inaction over their plights—they need stable jobs that will give them a steady source of income to put food on their tables, bring their children to school and live a decent life.

1998 Nobel Prize Laureate for Economics Amartya Sen provides a strong case as to why it should still be pursued in poorer countries like those in the Middle East. Sen argues that “people in economic need also need a political voice. Democracy is not a luxury that can await the arrival of general prosperity [and] there is little evidence that poor people, given the choice, prefer to reject democracy (1999).” To argue then, that these revolutionaries only stood up for poverty alleviation through an economic boost and not of democracy as a whole, suffers from a major loophole. Democratic governments are a necessary tool to spur growth in a country as well as pursue greater heights of development because their governments, through “mechanisms of political accountability” and transparency, are given “the powerful incentive to be responsive (Diamond, 2003).” In turn, it allows the people to legitimately demand more services and facilities from their respective governments.

In 2004, known Islamic Studies academician Noah Feldman wrote that if we “fail(s) to support democracy in the Muslim world, the consequences may prove to be very dire… Revolution remains a meaningful possibility in a number of Arab and Muslim states so long as democratization makes no progress. The governments that would come to power through revolution would be far worse than the governments that would be selected democratically—more irrational, more hard-line… and more violent.”

When 2011 came, Feldman’s words find some semblance of truth in the events that have unfolded. The Arab Spring then, should not be just seen as a spur-of-the-moment decision or a knee-jerk reaction towards an unfeeling government. More so, it is anger pent-up waiting for its time to be released. And just like a dormant volcano, too much pressure from the earth’s plates pushed them to explode and affect everything that is in seeming order. The immediate and efficient introduction of democracy then, gains necessity given the recent turn of events.

Making “Islam Democracy” Happen
We now get the idea that while Islam and democracy have a superficial disconnect—Islam being too rigid while democracy is liberal in every sense—the previous discussion gave us enough ground as to why it should still be pursued. The question now lies as to how we would be able to undertake it.

A radical theory on international relations or democracy is not needed, as Feldman aptly points out in the same book, rather, “a subtle shift in perspective regarding the deployment of familiar techniques” would do the trick. In the shorter sense, the same wheel is used and a simple reinvention is just what is needed to make things work better.

It is worth noting that democracy should be considered as both an end goal and a means to achieve development in a certain society or community, as Sen theorizes. For development to become an end goal, it has to be able to expand the basic freedoms enjoyed by a certain individual or the community as a whole, i.e. deprivation from hunger or starvation, education, health, political and civic participation and freedom of speech, to name a few. It is said that the level of development achieved by a certain country is assessed basically through the degree of expansion of these basic freedoms that they have attained. On one hand, if it is low, then it can be asserted that it is a flawed or a paralyzed form of democracy. On the other, democracy has succeeded vis-à-vis the level of development attained by that society.

We extend the analysis by saying that democracy works the other way too—it is a means to achieve development. According to Sen, there are five instrumental freedoms necessary to pursuing development: “(1) political freedoms, (2) economic facilities, (3) social opportunities, (4) transparency guarantees, and (5) protective security. These instrumental freedoms tend to contribute to the general capability of a person to live more freely, but they also serve to complement one another (1999).”

Based on Sen’s theory on instrumental freedoms as means toward development, a framework for incentives that can be used to push for democracy in the countries that were heavily affected by the Arab Spring can be crafted. Feldman, in the same book, provides us with a mix of positive and counter-positive incentives, depending on the governments dealt with, which can be utilized mainly by Western powers to push for more democratic societies. For one, “this means being prepared to call Muslim allies’ bluffs when they insist that they cannot respond to … prodding because of internal pressures. When [we] defer to this excuse… it encourages bad behavior, creating perverse incentives for undemocratic governments to preserve the most threatening opposition groups while repressing moderate opposition that might look more palatable…(2004).”

An example of a good approach is the use of targeted and conditional economic aid given by Western powers to Arab allies/ countries—aid in whatever form, i.e. security, humanitarian, in exchange for sustainable and measurable political reforms. This can be very much effective to Arab states like Egypt and Jordan which has no oil to support their economies. As described in the previous section, Egypt is in bad shape and is in need of foreign aid to lift its people from poverty. Direct arms or humanitarian aid from the United States, for example, will make a big difference in the lives of those who will benefit from it. In exchange for such, the US may demand for more political freedoms for the ordinary Egyptians or the conduct of free and fair parliamentary elections.

However, for countries like Iraq, Libya and Saudi Arabia which has massive oil reserves in their bedrocks to support their authoritarian regimes, a much sterner approach may have to be used to really push for democracy. Economic sanctions like embargo on aid might be thought off but is not really plausible if you have cold-hearted dictators who would rather see their people die from hunger and civil war than bow down for help. Their preservation to power is of primary necessity that they resist not to do something to help alleviate the plight of their people. Military intervention may be justified but at a cost. America’s invasion of Iraq in 2008 was considered a terrible mistake even if the Bush administration says it was for democracy to flourish. The noble cause was overridden by the obvious “greedy” realpolitik employed by the Americans, hence inviting the rage of many Muslims.

Impact of the Arab Uprisings
Given the recent turn of events in history, we now ask how this has affected much of the revolutions’ stakeholders. As outlined in the introduction, the discussion will flow from the impact of the revolutions to the leaders of these Arab regimes as well as those outside the Middle East. The impact of the revolutions to other stakeholders, i.e. women, the middle class and the intelligentsia, will also be briefly discussed.

Tyrants Found Their Match
Ben Ali and his wife, Leila, were tried and proven guilty of corruption and unlawful possession of foreign currency and other state-owned wealth while Mubarak was forced to resign from his post. Gaddafi of Libya, however, suffered a much gruesome fate in the end. He was killed by an angry mob while desperately asking for their mercy. His dead body—beaten to death and filled with bullet holes—was then paraded in the streets of the country’s capital while mobile phones feasted on recording the whole procession. It is indeed “a reflection of the nature of a fallen regime and the reaction of an oppressed people (Montefiore, 2011).”

The Chilling Effect
It could be said that the revolutions sent a chilling effect to leaders of both Arab and non-Arab governments. The uprisings saw the power of collective will—while such maybe said of other previous uprisings recorded in history, the revolutions in the North African and Middle East region was coupled with a more revolutionary weapon: social media. The internet had served as an additional platform to amplify the voices of those who are taking up arms against their despotic governments. Critics of the revolution may say that the social media was a minimal contribution compared to other forces—we say, however minimal the contribution was, it had set a different tone to how protests are done. Arab leaders, as well as those non-Arabs, are now compelled to be more sensitive to the needs of their citizens or suffer the fate of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt or worse, Gaddafi in Libya.

Women Are Again Second-Class Citizens
Alongside unemployed men and young people protesting in different Arabian streets, women have also been there. The mass demonstrations’ possible success was seen as a golden opportunity for Arabian women to finally gain equal access in political and social spheres historically dominated by men. It should be gleaned that Arab societies are strictly paternal—women are considered second-class citizens, usually relegated to household chores and menial tasks.

The reality on the ground, however, seems to be contrary to what we have assumed. Women are again driven back to their homes doing household chores. They are again wearing their hiqabs and veils to cover parts of their faces and bodies. We see that a lot of reforms have to be done before women in Arabian societies are treated fairly, if not treated as men’s equals.

Moving Forward
The Arab Spring gave us lessons that are very much applicable to the present realities of politics and governance, not just in the Middle East but around the world.

For one, the experience in the Middle East underscored the importance of accountability and democratic space where people can participate in “running” the government. Leaders of governments would have to be more careful with the policies and programs they tread on lest they risk being overthrown from office or worse, killed by a lynching mob. This is not to say that they have to please everyone even extremists, for that matter. I think the more important thing is to become sensitive to needs of the people who put you to power or those people whom you have vowed to serve in case of monarchical governments or appointed leaders. The key is accountability—but this can only be done if political structures are placed with mechanisms that encourage transparency and responsibility.

This leads us to our second lesson—it is high time for Arab countries to finally embrace the principles of democracy. It need not to succumb to everything the West prescribes because Asian societies are known to have been able to infuse seemingly disconnected ideas—Confucian principles with democratic governments, for example. Islam then could be used with democracy if given the right incentives and entrusted with the right people positioned in a more empowered socio-political structure like the government. It could always be argued that the entrenchment of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East was US- backed, to begin with. Of course, it is true—the choice is between powerful clans that swear loyalty to the Americans versus the communist rebels that loom in the grassroots. Vested interests took the helm when moderate political organizations in the civil society could have been chosen instead of the two extremes. But that was before. The challenge today, in order to avoid such a paradox, is “to insist, at each stage, that greater political openness actually follow on the offer of assistance. Once parliaments become more lively (sic) and effective in countries like Egypt… and Jordan, the next stage of incentives will be aimed (2004).”

Leaders cannot be expected to be perpetually in position. Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were already dead. Mubarak was ousted and the same happened to Ben Ali. Asad remains in power but is in an unstable position. He can be expected to design “elections” that would still be allied with him, but that doesn’t guarantee that they cannot be softened with the promise of aids. It may not be an easy task which involves a lot of negotiation and convincing. But a country that is torn by a bloody civil war and is still on the process of restoration can be easily influenced by conditional aids targeted at democratization.

Of course, Bradley is quick to counter the idea by arguing that: “In the Arab world, when the gift of democracy is unwrapped, it is the Islamists who spring out of the box (2012).” So, while they may not oppose the entrance of democracy, fundamental Islamists twist and tweak its principles to suit their extremist notions of statehood and governance.

Such argument would have to be reduced to a concession. Countries that are given more leeway to discuss their political ideas are expected to express a broad range of concepts on governance—some may push for a more secular government or a moderate one while others may really gear for a more Islamic state. It should be said that the discussions will not be as passive and apathetic as Bradley thinks it would be because machinations of political freedom were already in place due to the incentives mechanism. Time will prove that the people will choose from these differing views and might as well experiment which best will suit them. What is important is that “the ideas of liberal democracy are sure to spread in countries where they are initially given the chance. If these ideas are inherently attractive, they will find adherents all over the Arab and Muslim worlds (2004).”

References


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