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Revolution in the ARAB WORLD: A New Dawn for Democracy or no More than Regime Change? – By: Bernard Laurendeau and Eyob Zerihun

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The last two decades have brought an immense economic progress and the world is on track of halving the poverty level by 2015 from its 1990 level. According to the World Bank, 46% of the developing world population were below the accepted poverty line of $1.25 a day of purchasing power parity (PPP) in 1990. By 2005 experts say that this figure has fallen down to 27% and that a global halving by 2015 is indeed in reach.

The social scientist Seymour Martin Lipset said in 1959 that “the more a well-to-do a nation, the greater its chances to sustain democracy”. Lipset’s thesis shows that when countries become democratic at low levels of development, their democracy usually dies. His thesis triggered a comprehensive statistical study conducted by political scientists Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi that looked at every country in the world between the years of 1950 and 1990.

The study concluded the following:

> In a democratic country that has a per capita income of under $1,500 (in today’s dollars), the regime had on average a life expectancy of just eight years

> With between $1,500 and $3,000 it survived on average for about eighteen years

> Above $6,000 it became highly resilient

Many Arab countries mentioned below are well above the $1,500 mark. In 2009, the GDP per Capita in Tunisia was $3,800 whereas in Egypt it was $6,300. In 2009, the GDP per capita in Yemen was $2,400, $4,400 in Jordan, $7,100 in Algeria and $11,300 in Iran. GDP per capita in Bahrain has reached $27,214, in Oman $25,000 and in Libya $14,900.

There is a continuous debate on the correlation of democracy and economic development.  The word democracy itself is a very tricky word, as it is perceived in so many different ways in diverse cultures. Although this is an area that requires additional in-depth scientific studies, those who argue in favor of a high correlation have some strong point in case.  They sternly argue that development and democracy are tied together. Let’s assume that the findings above hold true for the sake of argument.

Hence, one can conclude that the attempt of transition to democracy in these countries might prove to be successful. However as important as this observation is, there are also other necessary conditions. It is important to note that GDP and GDP per capita are not sufficient economic indicators as these do not necessarily show wealth distribution in an economy. Some of these countries are countries with hundreds of billions of Dollars in foreign reserves. However they are unable to neither diversify their economies nor create employment for their educated youth. Literacy rate is thriving and social evolution is taking place. However in most cases wealth is poorly distributed which leads to discontent. And the wave of revolt currently spreading in the Arab World was sparked by this discontent

These days, it seems that the word Revolution is being over-used and in some cases misused. Etymology shows that the word revolutio was used in Latin to describe the revolving motion of celestial bodies. The word revolution was later used in French starting in the 16th century to describe a political upheaval and dramatic change in a nation’s state. However, a revolution does not necessarily have a peaceful and democratic outcome as perceived in general. It can be no more than the revolving motion of a fading authoritarian political body, but emerging again after a brief eclipse. Hence it is essential to ponder when and how a revolution can lead to a stable regime and more or less satisfy the demands of people aspiring for freedom, and pursuing happiness and dignity.

The objective of this article is to examine the conditions under which a revolution can achieve a positive change and not just the opposite.

In order to better understand current events, it is essential to look back and examine the past. When one thinks of revolution, the 18th century and more specifically the American and French Revolutions inevitably come to mind. The American Revolution from 1775 to 1783 followed by the French revolution of 1789 to 1799 which again triggered other revolutions in Europe and elsewhere in the world can be seen as historical monuments marking the rise of nationalism and the beginning of a new world order.

More recently, so-called colour revolutions brought about more or less stable democratic regimes. The Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, the Cedar revolution in Lebanon in 2005 and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 were able to topple authoritarian regime to establish a more stable regime with fair elections. Even more recently the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia led to the exit of President Ben Ali who governed his country with an iron fist for more than two decades. In the land of the pharaohs, President Husni Mubarak was reserved the same fate after an eighteen days popular uprising.

However, the fruit of a Revolution is not always that sweet. It can be sour. The Bolshevik Revolution also known as the October Revolution and more recently, the Iranian Revolution, are examples of revolutions that did not pave the way for a peaceful democratic regime. Even the French Revolution with its leitmotif of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité did not overnight give birth to a stable democratic regime. On the contrary, it gave birth to one of the most autocratic despot in world history, Napoleon, reminiscent of the old Roman Empire and with aspirations to conquer the world.

In this age of Twittering, Wikileaks and Facebook taming the empowerment that comes with information and public discussions would require being one of the most sophisticated dictators of all times. Looking back at history and the outcomes of past revolutions, one can only speculate about what will happen next in Tunisia, Egypt and generally the Arab world.

“In revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.”(Alexis de Tocqueville)

“Crowds cheer when tyrants fall, but often the problem is what comes next.”(Andrew Bast)

Prior to predicting the outcome of revolutions in the Arab world, it is important to analyse what brought about these popular uprisings.

It will be difficult to compare the situation in these countries with any of the revolutions in recent years. Contextually speaking, given the factors of culture, religion and concerns of Islamic fundamentalism, the revolution in the Arab world, is different when compared to past revolutions in the West. But the factors that brought about these revolts are more or less common. In conflict analysis, one should carefully identify the “conflict factors” and the “conflict triggers”. Conflict factors are existing discontents and tensions, whereas the conflict triggers can be described as incidents, events or circumstances that ignite the conflict. The same logic can be applied to revolutions. The main factors for these revolutions are lack of progressive reform on democracy and human rights from a political standpoint and poor wealth distribution trends from economic standpoint. But what triggered these revolts is unemployment, soaring food and fuel price. In the case of Egypt and Tunisia economic reforms were not followed by progressing democratization. Both countries enjoyed sturdy economic growth after reforms, bringing about social transformation and literacy but unfortunately the progress was not matched in the area of democratization. Frank G. Wisner II the American ambassador at the time of the Gulf war played a key role in negotiating micro-economic reforms package under the guidance of the IMF. However change did not come at all levels. And when democratization processes go to fast or to slow, the consequences are devastating. The trick is to find the right balance.

“The most dangerous moment for an autocratic regime is when it starts reforming.” (Quote Alexis de Tocqueville)

This is what happened in Egypt. Mubarak started economic reforms slowly by recruiting a more modern and capitalist government since early 1990s, leading to growth but unfortunately unequal growth. Not all people saw their power of purchase rise and with inflation and the food crisis, things became very harsh for the majority of Egyptians. The condition was similar in Tunisia. One other related factor can be the fact that Egypt’s government suspended subsidy on food items under pressure from the IMF. According to the CIA fact book 40% of Egyptians leave under $2 a day and inflation on food items was 17% last year alone. Only an elite group made the most out of economic growth in both Egypt and Tunisia. Similar arguments can be made with regard to other Arab countries in crisis.

Of course democracy never took off in both Egypt and Tunisia and so was triggered the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia leading to revolts in Egypt. And protests are now growing in Libya, Algeria, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman and the symptoms are evident in Iran, Djibouti and Morocco. There are also growing fears that this can spread to Saudi Arabia. Many Arab and other African authoritarian regimes are watching the latest developments quiet nervously.

And so stems the question, what are the consequences of these revolutions? Are these events indicators of a major shift in the Islamic civilization as referred to by Huntington in his model of the World (see Clash of Civilizations, 1996)? What is the recipe for stable democracy in the Arab world?

There are seven fundamental conditions required for democracy to succeed in these countries.

Condition 1: Presence of Strong and Organized Political Parties

Arab countries where authoritarian regimes have been toppled are heading into uncharted territories because of the absence of organized oppositions that can at least be viable options in upcoming elections. Toppled dictators systematically dismantled democratic institutions and wiped out oppositions. Democracy in these countries partly depends on how fast and well political parties can be organized and on their success of coming up with credible and feasible agenda in such a short time. Otherwise a power vacuum will be created giving way to violence or at best to military rule.

Condition 2: No Strong Islamic Movements

Trepidation of chaos and Iranian style Islamic state, threw the West- and Israel- into great dilemma. For example in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is the root of many Islamic movements in the region, which over the years became radical. It has been there for more than 90 years. And there are also other Islamic movements in Tunisia feared to be on the radical fringe. Especially the situation in Egypt is testing partly because the stands of the Muslim Brotherhood are not clear even though the organization claims to be moderate. On the other hand, Al-Qaeda poses a threat in the Maghreb. Algeria is a country with recent history of Islamic fundamentalism and violence. Yemen is another country facing imminent threats form Islamic fundamentalism and violence. In his best-seller “The Future of Freedom”, Fareed Zakaria warns of the Islamic exception of the Arab World where Islamic movements are prevalent and might prove to be a challenge for the sustainability of democracy. Strong Islamic movements and their success in ceasing power will jeopardise democracy.

Condition 3: The Stands Taken by Armies

The role of the military in both Tunisia and Egypt was and is crucial. The discipline and level of restraint shown by the armies of these countries brought the march for democracy this far. The armies should stand by the people and not wave the banner of the despots in place. The armies in Egypt and Tunisia are independent institutions thus far. Is the Turkish model viable for these countries or are these armies going to see some of their own rise to power? The army in Turkey played a significant role in bringing stability and democracy in the early 1980s. The late 1970s saw unprecedented violence erupt in Turkey. Bitter fighting broke between the left-wing and right-wing political factions claiming the lives of thousands. In 1978 martial law was announced in 20 provinces out of 67. And on September 12, 1979 a coup d’état led by army generals (National Security Council: MGK) took place and martial law was extended throughout the country. The MGK abolished the parliament and the constitution and banned trade unions and political parties. They maintained the tradition of state secularism. After a referendum on a newly written constitution in 1982, a general election was held and a smooth transition was made to civil and democratic rule. The armies of these Arab countries can change the course of Democracy. The stands that armies will take in these Arab countries are crucial for the success of these revolts in the Arab world. Especially it is critical for the armies to remain secular and to be in the position to stop dangerous political moves made by Islamic fundamentalist. In 1991, the Algerian army intervened in the political process and stopped the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from rising to power, though democratization did not follow. The armies can be the guardians of Democracy.

Condition 4: Less Divided Societies

Dictators usually divide and conquer. The successes in Tunisia and Egypt were partly due to unified actions. Unless pro-democracy groups stand together, dictators will capitalise on this weakness to rise to power. Algeria and Yemen are countries with recent history of violence and highly divided societies. This kind of situation can lead to sectarian violence in a hurry. There is a great chance that revolts in these countries may not bring the desired outcomes. Particularly, where there are tribal and religious tensions, conflicts and violence can be easily triggered and the progress towards democracy can be derailed by forces with ulterior agendas.

Condition 5: Strong Democratic Institutions and Well Crafted and Acceptable Constitutions

Fair and free elections do not guaranty freedom without well-established democratic institutions and constitutions. Current revolutions may merely result in regime change. Building strong democratic institutions requires time, but this is the only way forward to build a democracy. So making meaningful constitutional reforms and building democratic institutions is one of the vital tasks needed to ensure democracy in these countries. Failing to do so will leave power concentrated in the hands of a few. And it will be simply back to square-one as far as freedom and democracy is concerned.

Condition 6: Better wealth distribution

Gradually improving on wealth distribution is also another necessary condition for democracy to flourish in these Arab states. An economic system where only some elite reap benefits of economic growth is most likely to fall back into chaos. A strong, educated and rapidly increasing middle class that can challenge regimes and create a check and balance dynamic is the backbone of a stable and sustainable democracy.

“What is most important for democracy is not that great fortunes should not exist, but that great fortunes should not remain in the same hands. In that way there are rich men, but they do not form a class.” (Again Alexis de Tocqueville)

Condition 7: Staying in Touch with the Youth

Many leaders in the Arab world have been in power for twenty, thirty and in some cases more than forty years. There is a great generation gap and these leaders are simply not in touch with the new generation. Their leadership style is from another century. According to the figures from the UN population division, in 2010 the youth in these Arab countries comprise more than half of the population. The Percentage of the population under age 30, in Tunisia is around 52%, in Morocco 57%, in Algeria and Libya 58%, in Egypt 61%, in Yemen 74%, in Jordan 64%, in Oman 62%, in Bahrain 54%, in Djibouti 66% etc… And according to Time Magazine 56% of young Arabs use the internet every day. Internet penetration rate is growing rapidly. This “Tech-Boomer” generation is increasingly becoming the driving force for democracy in these countries. Staying in touch with the youth and with 21st century reality is vital to ensure stability and ultimately to sustain democracy.

Similar to Abraham Maslow’s pyramid, society has a hierarchy of needs. Governments have to realise that and start making the necessary steps forward. When governments put their countries on a path of sustainable growth, they should also foster social transformation and make some real, progressive and carefully calibrated political reforms. All these should run in parallel although each country may have its own delicate balance.

The current fever of revolution sweeping through the Arab world will surely result in the departure of long time dictators. However if the seven conditions above are not met, the movements for change will ultimately result in more chaos and will only open doors for the rise of other dictators or hybrid regimes.