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Journal of Democracy 11.3 (2000) 84-90

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Arabs and Democracy

The Awakening of Civil Society

Laith Kubba

Despite variations in their political histories, culture, and wealth, Arab countries have had remarkably similar political experiences. As Mohamed Talbi and Emmanuel Sivan recount, they have been--and largely continue to be--ruled by authoritarian governments that pay mere lip service to constitutions, violate civil and human rights, resist political liberalization, and remain unaccountable to their people. Heads of states, even if they hold elections, are never voted out of office; despite the dismal performance of corrupt and unpopular governments, rulers retain power for many years, often for life. They govern with virtually no checks and balances, take strategic decisions without referendums, dismiss ministers at will, and often pocket public assets.

Surprisingly, however, these regimes are stable. They succeed in providing essential public services, and they seem able to adapt to a changing political environment without facing serious challenges from within. The resilience, stability, and continuity of these despotic regimes raise serious questions about the prospects of democracy in the Arab world. How long can these regimes last? Is democracy viable in Arab countries? Is it compatible with Arab political culture? Do Arabs have a preference for despotism? In exploring these questions, both Mohamed Talbi and Emmanuel Sivan focus on the nature and the politics of the contemporary Arab state and reach conclusions that are quite pessimistic. [End Page 84] While not disputing their analyses of the Arab state, I believe that, by ignoring civil society, they miss an important aspect of the larger picture, one that provides much greater ground for optimism about democratic prospects in the Arab world. A new era is emerging in Arab politics today, one in which the state will increasingly be forced to retreat before a vibrant civil society.

Disillusionment and Dictatorship

Democracy in Arab countries has its roots in the evolution of the modern state at the turn of the last century. The Arabs rose up against the Ottoman Empire and were granted independence, with the help of European colonialists, who worked with tribal chiefs and elites to lay the foundations of modern states with democratic institutions. In these new states, Arabs experimented with democracy for the first time in their history. For more than three decades, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq had functioning democracies in which deputies were elected, government officials were held accountable to laws and rules, the judiciary was independent, the press was free, and the people enjoyed equality before the law and basic civil and human rights.

At that time, active citizenship and participatory political systems were still alien concepts to tribal, agricultural Arab societies. Civil society and democratic traditions evolved slowly, with little participation by the majority, whose attitudes remained those of passive subjects rather than active citizens. The influence of civil society and of the middle class on governments was far less significant than that of tribal chiefs, religious leaders, and military officers.

Governments followed constitutional and legal procedures, but they did not address the needs of the people. Although the political process was open to all citizens, the high illiteracy rate and the slow pace of social and economic development excluded most people from the benefits of democracy, which remained an urban phenomenon that primarily served the elites and left rural people behind. Delivery of public services was uneven, and the economy grew too slowly to bridge the gap between the rich, who supported the system, and the poor majority, who remained outside it. The frustration of the majority was given expression by political activists who advocated radical alternatives to the slow pace of democracy. Political parties, which were vocal, active, and visible on university campuses and in major cities, called upon the army to overthrow constitutional governments and to carry out speedy reforms.

The post-World War II political climate gave further reasons for military officers to move against their governments. The establishment of the state of Israel incited nationalism and political radicalism, and the competing superpowers encouraged officers to stage military coups. Arab democracies, still in their infancy, were too weak...


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