The Winter of Discontent

by on March 7th, 2015
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The “Arab spring” is in full swing. The fall of regimes that have outlasted a full generation of Arabs all over Middle East is a sight to behold. The collapse of Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni and Libyan regimes have garnered a sense of optimism not only among the young Arab population but also the general masses all over the world. Some including Hilary Clinton, have suggested that this is the turning point for Middle East, from the fiefdoms of dictators to the democracy of the people. Such optimism, while expected, is in all practicality far from the truth that awaits these rapidly democratizing states in Middle East.

One of the more influential trends within democracy has been the rise of the illiberal democracies in the last few decades. While there are some disagreements among scholars like Fareed Zakaria and Levitsky (who coined the term ” competitive authoritarianism) about how democratic these illiberal democracies are, what is not disputed is that these states exist. And looking at the composition of middle eastern values, history and above all the reactionary nature of the politics, this author argues that despite the optimism of a new dawn in middle east, the newly found democratic states will resemble Illiberal democracies like Israel, and Iran, as opposed to liberal democracies that have dominated European and American understanding of what democracies should look like.

It is a contentious idea to put Arab states within the same category of Israel for any scholar of political science. As the political hubris that follows irrational assessment of one’s own country is sufficient enough to take offense to such a notion when none of the Arab states have any real relationship with Israel. But the fact of the matter is that Israeli democracy despite it’s initial promise of being a liberal democracy have become more or less an illiberal democracy where suffrage and equal rights are not extended to minority groups like Israeli Arabs. And this phenomenon of limiting the rights of the minority is quite prominent with Iran as well. So the two somewhat functional democracies in Middle East are democracies that have been under siege from outside forces (Iran being under pressure from the West, Israel being under pressure from the rest). And this is unlikely to change in the near future.

So the countries that have newly elected governments or are in transition will inevitably replicate some of the ills and woes of what is inherent within a specific cultural/ political climate. Egypt and Tunisia are already going through a process of de-liberalization based on religious expectation/attachment. A gradual erosion of co-habitation with Israel is inevitable, as it will be impossible for any leader to get any political traction without anti-Israeli views. Along with a more illiberal foreign policy, the domestic policies would also exude a sense of cultural attachment at the expense of secular attachment. The latter being one of the more prominent component of all liberal democracies, it is no surprise that Middle Eastern democracies will be viewed as illiberal. To further assess this idea of the rise of illiberal democracies all we have to do is look at what is happening in Libya right now. The transitional authority while declaring ‘independence’ from Gaddafi, also stated that the ban on Muslim men having multiple wives will be lifted. The reason such an announcement was made among other far more important issues (from an outsiders perspective) is because it is an important issue for the Libyans. So cultural attributes and markers has already started dictating policy on many levels, and that would come at the expense of secular, liberal values.

The issue with minority groups has always been a point of contention within liberal democracies. To fully comprehend how this issue plays out within societies that prescribe to multiculturalism, we have to first focus on the theoretical aspect of the issue. Multiculturalism is considered one of the basic markers of a liberal democracy. The promotion of diversity as a primary component of liberty has existed since conception of the U.S. constitution. Liberalism as it is understood, within the framework of liberal democracies, has evolved and can be assessed as having nuanced and differing definitions. However, the general trend within scholarly circles concerning the definition and the principles of liberalism can be divided into two groups. The first school of thought understands liberalism as a dyad of political and moral philosophy. This idea while having roots in ancient Greek thinkers was explicitly addressed in the works of John Rawls’s seminal work called “Political Liberalism” which addressed some of the flaws of his initial theory of justice. Rawls’s understanding of liberalism within the framework of the state can be assessed as “thin liberalism”, which came under scrutiny from Michael Sandel and Susan Okin who posited the idea of a more comprehensive liberalism, or “thick liberalism”. Martha Nassbaum who advocated a “thin liberal” position argued that in the case of conflicting values, the political liberals should promote a fair balance in each particular case, as opposed to having individual or gender equality be an outright determinant of justice within a liberal framework of state. So as we can see there are some legitimate disagreements among scholars in how to address this friction of group rights, vs individual rights and what should take precedence, just within the liberal camps. And the introduction of multiculturalists like Will Kymlicka who viewed this specific issue in his studies of multicultural societies like Canada and Switzerland, added another dimension to this debate. Kymlicka agrees on principle that there needs to be more scrutiny into intra-cultural rights of groups that live under the umbrella of liberal democracies, but use that protection to propagate illiberal customs to its own members. But Kymlicka departs from the notion that individual right trumps all groups rights (as suggested by the comprehensive liberal camps), and proposes a notion of differentiating and dissecting group rights and providing a framework for them to exist within liberal democracies that will indeed help create a more inclusive conception of justice.

If we consider these theoretical and eventually practical aspect of liberalization and democratic values, we will see that none of the countries in middle east are equipped to progress sufficiently in a manner that would incorporate minority rights as one of the primary foundations of their states. The most prominent democracy in Middle East, is unquestionably Israel, and it has a rather dodgy record of protecting its minorities. The second on the list is Iran (though some scholars would frown at the idea of considering Iran to be a democracy, but the bar is set pretty low for illiberal democracies, and thus Iran qualifies as one), which has a consistent record of suppression of dissent along with subjugating its minority groups. So Middle East has the template for illiberal democracies and nothing else. And due to the cultural precepts that will dictate policy in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, we will see a steady rise in democratic hostility toward another illiberal nation-state of Israel. We will also see a solidified effort from these countries to challenge pre-existing US foreign policy in the form of removing themselves from the sphere of U.S. influence when it comes to issues concerning Israel and Saudi Arabia. The popularity of various conservative Muslim political parties will make it impossible for a leader to provide a basis for stable peace in Middle East, as that would mean political suicide. The secular values which had a rather uneasy existence under rulers like Gaddafi, Saddam, Mubarak, has already been discarded as they are viewed with disdain and incompatibility in a more religious, more conservative domestic sphere.

All this seems a little bleak. But that is better than the pure darkness that preceded it. We should be optimistic about Middle East finally finding some level of political discourse that would be beneficial for them in the long run, but we should also be vigilant as citizens of this planet, about the rights of the most vulnerable, be it in the form of the Palestinian refugees in Israel, women in Libya or Egypt or foreign workers in Yemen. So here’s a toast to middle east, but lets not get happy drunk just yet as it would be both culturally uncouth and rationally imprudent to be optimistic at the expense of reality.


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