Democracy’s growing struggle in the Arab world
Tunisia’s President Kais Saied issued a set of decisions this month effectively extending the suspension of the nation’s parliament, which began in July, until the next legislative elections, scheduled for December next year.
More than a decade after the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s democratic progress is facing a major obstacle. Only 15 percent of Tunisians said that they trust the government, according to surveys for the Arab Barometer VI carried out between July 2020 and April 2021.
Therefore the widespread public support for Saied’s decision to suspend the parliament is understandable, especially when nine out of 10 Tunisians believe that corruption prevails within the government, and more than half point to the state of the economy as the most important challenge facing the country — two of the main drivers behind the president’s decision.
Even though polls show that 55 percent of Tunisians believe democracy is always preferable to any other form of government, for the most part the public appears to support their president’s power grab. This can be attributed to the fact that they tend to define democracy based on economic outcomes.
The peculiar factor here is that Tunisians, and Arabs living in other countries where the Arab Spring brought hope, have understandably become impatient about the prospect of changes in governance, especially those that tend to take time to flourish such as a transition to democracy. Having lived in countries with long histories of unitary control, they have grown less inclined to wait for the inherently slow process of political transition.
Transitioning to a democratic system is very difficult and needs to be carefully calculated. Egypt’s transition was rushed, for example, while Sudan’s was somewhat intricate; in both cases, the military seized power in less than two years.
Elsewhere in the region, Libya seems destined to follow a similar path. National elections that were due to be held on Dec. 24 have been postponed indefinitely, and there is no way can we expect the country to transition into a democracy — not even if we define democracy purely in terms of elections, which is a minimalist approach.
This is because Libya is set to hold elections without a constitution or a national legal framework in place to determine a political road map in the aftermath of Dec. 24. Several key points are left unresolved, including when the elections will now be held and what should be done if someone interferes with the vote or contests the results, to name but a couple of possibilities.
With divisive figures such as military leader Khalifa Haftar and Saif Gaddafi, the son of the country’s former dictator, among the presidential candidates, Libyans could find themselves in troubled waters.
The strong international persistence in pressing for the Libyan elections to go ahead on schedule is reminiscent of the images we see of citizens at polling stations with inked fingers that are celebrated, often wrongly, as a sign of democratic success. As it stands, Libya could find itself following a blueprint that was tried and failed in Iraq, as the best-case scenario, and Afghanistan, the worst-case scenario, or somewhere in between, as happened in Egypt and Sudan.
Iraq recently staged its fifth parliamentary elections since the 2003 US invasion, yet democracy is far from institutionalized in the country. In particular, it follows the aforementioned minimalist approach of viewing democracy purely in terms of holding elections. The recent parliamentary polls were held two years early, mostly to appease those in involved in the October 2019 protests. Similarly, parliamentary elections in Tunisia, planned for October 2024, are expected to be held two years early.
By employing elections to appease dissent, policymakers risk diminishing the essence of democracy and rendering it unpopular. In fact, data from the Arab Barometer and the World Values Survey suggest that the level of confidence among Arab youth in democratic institutions — political parties, elections and parliaments — amounts to only 41 percent. This is 19 percentage points lower than their trust in governments and a staggering 43 percentage points less than their affinity for their countries’ symbols, which are often utilized by strong leaders by virtue of taking political control.
Such dynamics point toward the increasing deterioration of the environment for the incubation of democracy in the Arab world. The region’s democratic aspirations might not even enjoy the political will of the West much longer. The only Arab state represented at the Summit for Democracy, hosted by the US this month, was Iraq. During the event, Washington reiterated its support for democracy around the world but the exclusion of key US partners in the Arab world, such as Jordan and Morocco, is rather troubling. The exclusion of Tunisia — arguably the region’s only democracy — is also puzzling.
Losing the public support of the West places the ball solely in the region’s court, either in the hands of policymakers who might feel less pressured to appease protesters, or in the hands of protesters who might find themselves facing detention without much international protection, especially in a region where protests calling for transparency, accountability and other democratic tenets are frequent.
Democracy in the Arab world is in a much worse place now, after the failed experiences of some countries, than it was in the mid-2010s. If the situation continues on this downward trajectory, it will take significant work to restore the idea of democracy, in principle at least, as a viable alternative.
- Mohammed Abu Dalhoum is the president of MENAACTION and a senior research analyst at NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions.