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Democracy in the Wake of the Arab Spring

2012 September 25
Our distinguished panel. From left to right: Joseph V. Montville, Dr. Muqtedar Khan, Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, Dr. Laith Kubba, and Dr. Peter Mandaville.

Our distinguished panel. From left to right: Joseph V. Montville, Dr. Muqtedar Khan, Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, Dr. Laith Kubba, and Dr. Peter Mandaville.

By Christopher White

In the face of recent events in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), there are some voices in the media that continue to be skeptical of the region’s democratic transition. For these figures, the Arab Spring has been a cause of anxiety. It was good timing then that we recently held the second Conflict Prevention & Resolution Forum (CPRF) in our Democracy & Conflict series, “The Middle East and Arab Spring: Prospects for Sustainable Peace.”

The conversation that took place was illuminating and one of the main takeaways that struck me was that none of the speakers saw state-building as an airy abstraction. Working to realize a new form of politics in the states shaken by the Arab Spring will have to take account of the cultural context in which they are enmeshed.

Joseph V. Montville, Director of the Program on Healing Historical Memory, School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, served as our moderator. Our distinguished panel of experts featured: Dr. Azizah al-Hibri, Professor Emerita of Law, University of Richmond and Founder and President of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights; Dr. Muqtedar Khan, Associate Professor, Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware; Dr. Laith Kubba, Senior Director, Middle East and North Africa, The National Endowment for Democracy; and Dr. Peter Mandaville, Director of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies and Associate Professor of Government, George Mason University.

Muqtedar began discussing the political philosophy infusing debates on the ground in the MENA region. There are two distinct challenges facing political entrepreneurs in countries like Egypt and Tunisia that have gone through regime change. The first of these challenges is developing an authentic vision of a future state that is true to traditional sources that will still be able to serve the broader interests of the community.

Towards this end, Muqtedar highlighted the increased cache of the term dawla madaniyya in debates about the form and function of the state. Dr. Khan said that this rather nebulous term that means “civil state” affords Islamists (a term that both Azizah and Peter questioned the analytical value of) a unique opportunity. The term allows them to avoid militaristic conceptions of the state without using words like “liberal,” a term Muqtedar humorously referred to as one of the only “political four-letter word[s]” with global currency. Terms such as dawla madaniyya are establishing common ground for leftists, secularists, Islamists, and Salafists to all join a discussion about what happens after regime change.

The other challenge is the issue of citizenship. Muqtedar noted how, for political philosophers, the idea of citizenship presupposes the state, that the state determines the content of citizenship. What we are witnessing in Tunisia, however, is something very different. The Tunisian constitution implies a pre-existing citizenship and establishes the new state on it. This citizenship is loaded with notions of free speech as well as equality of religion and gender. This discourse of equality is what Muqtedar sees as the most positive result in Tunisia. Since everyone uses it, Islamists are put in the position of having to assert the compatibility between Islam and democratic citizenship.

Azizah, however, was skeptical of this talk about equality. She pointed out how the Tunisian constitution states that women complete men, a discouraging signal to hopeful women activists. While there is discourse about equality, she pointed out that women may even be losing ground on the historic advancements they have already made in the region.

Azizah sees the problem as the revolutionary pace of change. She brought up a schism she has noticed within the North African women’s movement. In this changing environment, there have been extreme secularists making demands while there have also been groups of average women who don’t think in terms of ideology and simply want their rights and to be treated fairly. When it comes to the question of inheritance, many women simply want what Islamic law would assure them. Wanting no more and no less than that, Azizah suggested that this simple desire for fairness within their own tradition suggests that you can’t simply swap out Islamic law for Western law in a revolutionary instant. She went on to say that there are Qur’anic supports for a philosophy of gradual change and that, for democratic ideals to seep into the minds of the people, just such a gradual process is necessary.

This point did not seem controversial at first but upon further reflection, I wondered where the virtue in gradualism lay. There is nothing particularly unique to Islamic tradition about a preference for gradualism. All political systems thrive on assuring people that justice progressively emerges through history. That is the promise of the American political system, but we are learning that economic inequality is more severe now than ever. Protestors in New York’s Zuccotti Park tried to make the point plain that we are buying this vision of a smooth transition to paradise on credit.

But Azizah had a point. Democratic movements have to be grounded in local realities. We’ve paid dearly for this knowledge in Afghanistan. Following on this point, Laith noted that historically, in the MENA region, the partisans of modernity have pushed the issue of religion into a corner and have been happy to pay it no mind until it finds new and ever-surprising ways of returning. Indeed, Laith’s remarks highlighted how religion has come to politically embody Freud’s “return of the repressed.”

Finally, Peter gave some perspective on the US government’s relations with Islamist groups in Egypt as the USG adapts to the new reality on the ground. The US’s refusal to meet the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the period between the early 1990s and 2005 should be seen as an aberration. Before this period, there had been fairly routinized contact between our officials and representatives of Islamist parties in the region. Reframing the USG’s attitudes, Peter discussed how this contact was curtailed at Egypt’s request and did not represent a principled stance against Islamism per se.

Wrapping up, Peter highlighted how heavy-handed trumpeting about human rights and the preservation of democratic institutions may come across as hypocritical to Egyptians. We are at a disadvantage in criticizing the Morsi administration for its shortcomings because of what the USG was previously willing to countenance with regard to the Mubarak administration.

As with any attempt at productively critiquing political processes abroad, a fair degree of self-criticism is required. Muqtedar made the apt remark that there is no definitive point when any democracy has become “sustainable.” Democracy is a continuous process no matter the culture. Pointing to the recent American Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and the increased leverage of moneyed interests in American politics, Muqtedar stated that democracy requires constant work regardless of whether the regime has been around for two days or two hundred years.

Christopher White, Communications Associate at SFCG, is a social media strategist and freelance writer with a focus on international relations, philosophy, and the arts.

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