David Bukay, American Center for Democracy
December 20, 2013
In the Arab-Islamic Political Culture rumors are an integral part of social activity that quickly become absolute truth that cannot be challenged. It has to do with exaggerations, flights of fancy and especially, in a society that believes in conspiracies... every date is important, remembering everything and forgiving nothing. This is a society wherein the lie is an essential component of behavior and lying is endorsed by religious sage.
Yet, from the beginning of the uprisings in the Middle East, the media has disseminated the idea -- as if the internet, Facebook, and Twitter have produced a new situation -- of a young Arab generation that adopts Western ideals and yearns for democratic values, civil rights, and freedoms. The code name for this phenomenon that has become known worldwide is the "Arab Spring," an analogy of the "Spring of Nations" in the Europe of 1948. The question is whether these hopes and aspirations are true, and the Middle East has really been transformed according to the will of the people, or perhaps this is just another wishful thinking, a mirror image, a cultural ignorance of Western leaders?
From the outset, it is a false definition and a mistaken conception, as in fact it was a "Dark Anarchic Islamic Winter," symbolizing the demise of the Arab state and the retreat towards primordialism. It is not progression forward towards democracy and open modern societies, but a huge retreat to stagnation and Islamism.
The US has been endorsing the uprisings with an active policy of support that can be summed up by various slogans: the ancient regime must step down; it is time for the people to determine their fate; democracy and freedom are just around the corner. Moreover, the United States considers itself to have a responsibility to protect the interests of peoples vulnerable to violence by their own governments.
Consider President Obama's declarations on Egypt, its closest Arab ally calling on President Mubarak to 'step down.'
"It's a moment where the people of Egypt can no longer contain themselves and are screaming out for freedom... Now, ultimately the future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people. And I believe that the Egyptian people want the same things that we all want -- a better life for ourselves and our children, and a government that is fair and just and responsive."
With glorification of the myth was the declaration: "The word 'Tahrir' means liberation. It is a word that speaks to that something in our souls that cries out for freedom."
Likewise in Libya, Obama urged Qaddafi to step down, and accept the will of the people. Libya is "coming to an end;" therefore, Qaddafi must step down. After Qaddafi's demise, Obama in a press conference said: "The dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted... The rule of an iron fist inevitably comes to an end... The Libyan people have won their revolution and have the opportunity to determine its destiny... to build a tolerant and democratic Libya.
In Yemen, Obama called on President Abdallah al-Salih to listen to the will of his people," and offered support for Yemen's vice president, who was expected to become president. As for Syria, Obama declared: "The future of Syria must be determined by its people... the Syrian President must step down." "President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way... For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside."
Others echoed the president's misconception of the Arab Spring. Senator John McCain argued that "the Arab Street wants political freedom, economic opportunity, and equal justice and rights..." while Senator Joseph Lieberman summarized the Arab Spring as a struggle for "democracy, dignity, economic opportunity, and involvement in the modern world," calling on the US to provide direct assistance to the Syrian people.
The Misperception of an "Arab Spring"
Contrary to what Western leaders very much wish to believe, the Middle East is not undergoing political revolution, democratization, liberal reform, freedom, or any other such label. There are many indicators to prove that Western conceptions have falsely adapted events in the Middle East to fit their own paradigms and ideals. It is bewildering how Western experts, politicians, public opinion makers, and the media get the Middle East wrong, with eyes wide shut. Despite all evidence, they still believe that the masses marching in Arab states are striving for democracy and freedom, that they are in search of a transparent law-abiding regime and accountable leaders, and that the Muslim Brotherhood groups are "moderates" that can be integrated into a democratic government.
However, to truly understand the Middle East, one must consider the following:
a) The first is the state versus the tribe and the clan. The Arab state, being the product of Western imperialism and lien to Arab-Islamic political culture, is a weak political institution compared to the tribe, the clan, and the communal groups. This is an important and oft-revealed fact of Arab politics; that the political process does not lead to political development, but rather to political decay. It is routinely demonstrated that in times of crisis, the people retreat from counting on the state in favor of the recognized and reliable primordial groups. The tribal and communal identities are still the main focus in these populations.
Another aspect of the weakness of the state is the social-economic one as the Arab state has failed to support and sustain the masses and their basic needs. This evidenced by the stunning fact that despite Arab oil wealth, the per capita GDP for all the Arab states grew by less than 0.5 percent annually from 1980 to 2004. As for industrialization, Arab countries were less industrialized in 2007 than in 1970, and unemployment among the young, which is over 60 percent for those under the age of 25, is among the highest in the world. The overall poverty rate is almost 50 percent.
One of the foundations of state stability is trust, which is almost nonexistent in the Middle East society there is torn apart into adversary religious, ethnic, and tribal factions that lead to failed states. When politics gets down to the streets, it has nothing to do with political order and trust, but everything to do with chaos. And when chaos reigns, it means that the state has lost its ability to govern. Arab countries are an example of failed states -- by the lack of personal and public security; by failure in advancing public goods; by lack of accountability and rule of law; and by the existence of conflictual societies without regulating devices.
b) The second factor in the Middle East is the central role played by the strong coercive leader, as exemplified by Arab-Islamic political culture. Decision-making processes are kept within the elite, and the masses are barred from any political influence. Order is achieved and maintained by the violent arbitrary force of the leader, who withholds all power from the peoples. While in democracies the socio-political institutions are the center, and their durability, institutionalization, and effective strength are considered to be the utmost importance, they are almost non-existent in the Middle East. The ultimate authority is the patrimonial ruler, who operates by subordinating the people, corrupting resource distribution, and institutionalizing nepotism. The main role of the leader is always to harness the centrifugal social forces of anarchy and chaos so as to maintain a stable centripetal political system through force and intimidation.
c) The third factor is the military versus other groupings. In contemporary ME politics, the military is the most important political institution and a critical basis for regime stability. It appears in two configurations: one, as a direct military regime, and the other as the guardian and center of gravity of the monarchical regime. The importance of the military vis-à-vis. the regime is exemplified by the following events: In Iran in 1979, it was only when the military declared its neutrality that the Shah's regime immediately collapsed. In Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991, the Iraqi army's support of Saddam Hussein allowed him to confidently stay in power despite military defeat. In Tunisia, it was the request of the military Chief of Staff to President Bin Ali to abdicate the presidency that triggered the revolutionary spirit in the Middle East. In Egypt, it was an internal coup d'état by Tantawi to remove Mubarak from the Presidency. In Libya, as in Syria, the split among the military caused the civil war and the mass killing of civilians.
Despite this pattern, the US, as other Western countries still maintains its naïve attitudes and wishful thinking, as if removing a dictator is any kind of a guarantee that freedom and democracy will prevail. They continue in their failures to learn from previous lessons, and their delusionary attempts to remake the Middle East in their own mirror image, and values, while ignoring the Arab Islamic political culture.
The Misperception of the Coming Democracy & Freedom
This misconception of the coming democracy and freedom is derived from Western terminology, as if the processes in the Middle East will lead from authoritarianism to democracy, and as if the masses are eager to implement Western democratic institutions. However, democracy, civil rights and freedoms cannot be established, since they are not the result of elections alone, or the existence of parliaments, or political parties. Democracy is much more, and in legal-institutional terms is defined by the following ingredients: individual freedoms and civil liberties (the uppermost is freedom of expression); prevalence of the rule of law (including the separation and balance of powers); sovereignty and citizenship empowered by the people; the centrality of stable political institutions and the existence of civil society; vertical and horizontal accountability, operated by eligibility, responsiveness, and transparency of the ruling systems; mobility, political participation, equality of opportunity, and multiple mature and effective political parties.
Europe reached democracy after 500 years of authoritarianism and monarchical rule, and only after religion lost its central role. In the ME, it might take even a-longer. As Larbi Sadiki observed the way in which parties, elections, and parliaments are conducted among the Arab states, precludes any true democracy. One of the main reasons for this failure to adopt democracy is Islam itself. In Islam, the source of authority, sovereignty, and the rule of law is Allah alone. Everything stems from Allah and his will, and the believer acts out of absolute submission, surrender, and devotion to Allah. There is no citizenship and no sovereignty, as Allah is at the center and submission to him is the focus. Islam and democracy are mutually exclusive, since accepting Western values and ideals are tantamount to apostasy.
Democracy is totally something apart from what the Middle East exhibits and practices. The masses marching on the streets do not have the ability and the will to work positively towards stability and order and to achieve political liberal goals, such as freedom and civil rights, even if they wish to do so. In fact, they do not want civil society, but a religious society, an Islamic state. Evidence suggests that most of the so-called 'people' do not want to institutionalize Western ideals, but rather to integrate the Shari`ah and establish an Islamic regime. In his historical analysis, Elie Kedourie has proven that in the Middle East, the pattern is one form of authoritarian regime replacing another. Decades of autocracy and Islamic rule have discouraged the emergence of democratization processes. Arab publics believe that government should implement the Shari`ah. If democratization is defined as individuals' pursuit of happiness -- freedoms, human rights, tolerance, and trust -- then there is a problem.
Then, what makes Western leaders so determined to believe in their own mirror image and misconceptions, as if we all are the same culturally and share the same beliefs operationally? The evidence proves the opposite is true. Take the Arabs and the Islamic rule of 1400 years, both domestically and internationally. Or, the Arab and Muslim states' rule and regimes since their establishment, as well as past year's events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.
The incompatibility of democratic principles with Islam is also evidenced by our failure to acknowledge the significance of religion for the Muslim identity, as well as the reality that most Arab countries are still profoundly Muslim, and that religion remains the major political force. Rather than explaining Middle East political dysfunctions by Western terms and ideologies, most Muslims see the problems as resulting from the crisis of Islam. Likewise the solution is to be found in Islam alone. Liberalized regimes are almost impossible, and without legitimacy, accountability and representation, Arab countries are disintegrating and becoming failed states.
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David Bukay is Professor of Middle East Studies at the School of Political Sciences, University of Haifa. He is the author of Muhammad's Monsters (2004); Yasser Arafat, the Politics of Paranoia (2005); From Muhammad to Bin Laden (2007); Crossovers: anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism (2010), and has published numerous articles, in referee journals, books and the Internet. Refer to original article for related links and important documentation.
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