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Democracy in Arab World: Reality or pipedream?

George Emile Irani is Associated Professor in International Relations at the American University of Kuwait.    —  Editor

By George Emile Irani

THE so-called Arab Spring has come and gone replaced by an Islamist winter. A major question arises following the failure of mass protests to reach a democratic body politic from Tunis to Manama: is democracy possible in the Arab world? Following the French Revolution in 1789 it took almost one century for France to establish a democratic system. The same applies to the United Kingdom and other European countries. Democracy came at the barrel of a gun and a lot of bloodshed and wars.

Actually, if it was not for US intervention in World War II to defeat Hitler and his Nazis, Europe would still be today under dictatorial rule. There is however a major catch here. Europeans have throughout the centuries succeeded in creating secular and participatory civil societies. For instance, European civil society did not die in the countries of Eastern Europe even under ruthless socialist Soviet-controlled regimes. The important role civil society played in most of these Central European countries is today dramatized by the current struggle in Ukraine. Identity is fluctuating between those Ukrainians who want to join the EU and those who yearn for the rule of Mother Russia. The lesson that can be learned is that change can happen with peaceful means even if a country could lose its unity.

In the Arab Middle East today what we lack are the following vital and crucial ingredients that lead to democratic rule: a well-defined national identity, the rule of law, and a civil society As of today Arabs are still searching for their identity. What does it mean today to be Lebanese, Kuwaiti, Syrian, etc...? The only Arab country that can answer this question is Egypt the only Arab nation state using Western standards. Other countries in the region are still grappling with their identity formation. This is now dramatized by the current tragedy in Syria and Iraq.

The second ingredient is the rule of law. In the Arab countries today we have three types of law. First there is Sharia law that determines both the religious and temporal matters in a Muslim’s life. Then we have tribal or customary law still prevalent today in many Arab societies. The third type of law prevalent in the Arab Middle East is Western-based civil law which is usually used in settling business and non- religious matters. In all this we have the laws regulating Christian communities in the Middle East a legacy of the Ottoman millet system. Last but not least democracy requires a strong civil society. We have seen civil society members in both Tunisia and Egypt actively struggling for freedom in their respective countries.

Tunisia has had a long history with a strong labor movement and intellectual sector. The same could be said about Egypt. The fundamental weakness of Arab civil society though is the lack of freedom and years of authoritarian rule

The Arab world badly needs its own Age of Enlightenment. How long will it take to achieve it? Moreover, and to consolidate strong democratic rule Arabs are urged to move from being tribes with flags to globalized nation states. But then does Europe offer an answer? Look at Catalonia; in 2014 a referendum will be held on whether Catalans want to stay in Spain or split putting into question what being Spanish means.




 


By: George Emile Irani

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