Thoughts on democracy in the Middle East and North Africa

MENA is suffering right now. We can see that plain enough through the media. Everywhere it’s war, coup, rage, murder, lying, oppression, mendacity, frustrated democracy, destruction, refugees and all the rest of it. But what’s really depressing, if that little lot wasn’t enough, is thinking things were perhaps better in the bad old days when everyone knew they lived in oppressive countries and just kept their heads down.

It’s undeniable that there was a sort of stability under the dictatorships of Iraq, Libya, Egypt and pretty much every other country in the region; apart from Israel, that is, notwithstanding the evident problems of settlement, Hamas and the obfuscated Iranian wish for Israel’s destruction. But the old status quo is coming apart, quite violently.

It was hoped the people of the region – hitherto oppressed by the old regimes who were themselves, we are sometimes informed, mostly put in place and kept there by Western duplicity – would establish democracies similar to the ones in, say, Belgium or Switzerland, and everything would be as it should and would have been years ago had the autocrats not got in the way of progress.

But things aren’t working out quite like that. MENA countries and their people seem intent on proving the doomsayers right – that they just can’t do democracy there. With each passing day and with each new photo wall of violence it seems establishing a liberal democracy is not as easy as some thought it would be.

MENA is the acronym for the region of the world comprising the Middle East and North Africa, which is used by an assortment of politicians, diplomats and academics, and anyone else for that matter who wants to aggregate the peoples and countries of the region into a single, easier-to-understand entity. Stretching from Mauritania and Morocco in the west, to Iran, Yemen and Oman in the east, to Somalia in the south and to the Mediteranean coast in the north, sometimes referred to as the Maghreb, it comprises quite a chunk of the world.

Sometimes it includes Turkey, but this is problematic as Turkey also has a foot in Europe; and debate continues as to which direction the country is heading: to Europe and increasing liberalism, or to the Middle East and what appears to be a violent cocktail of theocratic populism, military dictatorship and democratic division.

In Egypt, for instance, the army has deposed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood Islamists (or democrats, if that’s the term you prefer), and are now busily slaughtering them on the streets. The military coup, for that is surely what it was, supposedly occurred with the general population’s consent and to secure the Arab Spring taken off course by the Islamists. But instead the new government seems to be re-establishing something much closer to the dictatorship of Mubarak. Who really knows if this is a precursor to a second round of proper, fair and free elections or sham elections as a cover for continued dictatorship?

And in Syria, the Assad government continues to fight opposition forces in a bloody and destructive civil war. At the outset, the Free Syrian Army was supposed to be the key to establishing the liberal democracy of Western imagination. Not that democracy in any form is impossible, it’s just difficult, especially when putative democrats and jihadis are wearing the same metaphorical uniform. When the opposition is busily murdering its own, it is difficult to see how they can succeed: unity of effort being quite important to military campaigns.

It doesn’t stop there. We associate democracy in the West with liberalism and tolerance. Indeed, we think them synonymous. But if MENA countries are ready for democracy then why are minorities being persecuted? Christian churches, some of the oldest in the world, are being attacked in Egypt. Moreover, when the culprits are reported to be active Morsi supporters, that is to say, the type of people given power when democratic votes take place, one wonders if democracy is the panacea.

What is certain, however, is that each day poses a new question and demands a more nuanced understanding of the cultural and political dynamics found in each of those countries we aggregate under the term MENA. We think, for instance, that the Arab Spring began in December 2010 with the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street trader. It is from this moment, according to numerous media timelines, that the people of MENA stood up to autocratic government and, seeing that the post-Imperial autocrats were not in fact infallible, began the region’s irresistible progress to liberal democracy.

Important though this event was, it is arguable that another event, seven years earlier, did more to expose the weakness of the region’s dictators: namely the defeat of Saddam Hussein at American hands. It was hoped at the time that if one dictator fell then others would follow, each one toppling like dominoes until the formerly-oppressed people of the region substituted the autocrats and theocrats for democrats.

This could still be playing out, and, if the region ends up more free and liberal than before 2003, then perhaps the world will have more to thank George W. Bush for than is presently fashionable to express. Yet the domino theory suffers from the same simplicity as the one that says liberal democracy, Western style, is the destiny of the region.

I hope it is, because I think democracy is still the best way to make decisions impinging on the lives of others, but there is something more important than arbitrary theories of government: namely peace and stability. Democrats argue that peace and stability are more likely to thrive under democratic rather than autocratic government, but recent MENA events suggest it is not quite as simple as this, especially in the short term.

It was the democratically-elected Morsi who subverted the spirit of the revolution, if indeed any revolution can have ‘spirit’. It is the Islamist population aligned to the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood that is targeting Christian churches (assuming it isn’t the military regime as the MB says it is). It is also the populist-inspired military government that is now shooting scores of protesters. And it is the people of Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and further afield who seem more likely to use democracy to institute illiberalism instead of the liberalism we in the West seem to assume comes naturally with democracy.

Democracy is not impossible in this part of the world. In fact, the evidence suggests that it is quite probable. But it is worth noting that there is no universal form of democracy. There are, I’m pretty sure, no two democracies that are exactly alike. And it is quite probable that in some countries, especially in those that suffer considerable cultural division, democracy will be either more limited than would be acceptable in the West, or more likely to produce regimes we find as abhorrent as the ones under dictatorship – perhaps more so.