Democratic changes in the middle east: Its there a plan for the future?



The uprisings of Arab masses in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and other countries where democratic changes and the revolution have set in represent a challenge for sociology researchers, especially in terms of looking for the reasons for their initiation and development.

The Arab masses are no longer merely the passive object of global processes, they have become active initiators of changes. The young generation in those countries has cut the chains of repressive regimes that have ruled for decades. They have sent an angry signal for radical changes that should lead to democracy without the dominant role of any ideology or political party. Political parties have lost their essential importance. Until now political parties were represented in regime parliaments on the basis of the will of the dictators, or they represented the opposition and had to pay the price of opposing the ruling regime through the arrests of their members and activists and bloody suppression of all different thinking people. The common denominator of uprisings in all those countries is the appearance of the progressive middle class which has been excluded from political life for decades. The Arab masses have shown that they are capable of thinking with their own heads, like the people of Eastern Europe who opted for democratic changes twenty years ago.

The young Arabs have gotten rid of their political apathy in which they lived for decades and entered spontaneously the political arena to change the history of their countries through peaceful demonstrations. They started to realise their longing for freedom and democracy through social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones.

Current events in the Arab world can be compared with various events in the history. Some analysts even claim that the current Arab uprisings represent the sixth phase of democratic development.

Thus the first phase occurred already in the Ancient Greece. The second phase was the 1789 French Revolution which was of key importance for the development of national states in Europe and had a significant influence on the American north-south confederation which ended with the adoption of the first democratic constitution of the United States of America in 1787. The third phase of democratisation started at the beginning of the 20th century prior to and during World War One with the liberal ideas of young Turkish and Arab officers in the Ottoman Empire, the 1917 October Socialist Revolution in Russia and the publication of Wilson's 14 points in which he recognised the nations' right to freedom. The fourth phase started in 1970s. The democratisation process in West Europe which started after the end of World War Two and the defeat of Nazism in 1945 was concluded. The last countries of the West Europe (Portugal, Spain, Greece) managed to get rid of military dictatorship which was the product of the regime from the period of the cold war. Following the abolition of those three military juntas the process of democratic transformation set in, especially in the light of the East-West reconciliation policy which was written down at the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1975. Although military overthrows were contrary to the idea of democracy, they were justified in case of West Europe, especially Portugal and Greece, as the beginning of the democratic transition during which political activities and trade union association in legal form and in line with the valid laws were ensured pending the realisation of free and fair elections. The same scenario is now repeated in Egypt and Tunisia, where the army has filled in the vacuum which emerged after the collapse of all state institutions and army generals have taken over the control in order to prevent violence and dissolution of the states. The fifth phase of democracy started in early 1980s in Eastern Europe and at the same time represented the process of transformation at the global level. This phase was marked with the disintegration of some totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia where, unlike in the first two states, disintegration was carried out peacefully.

After 20 years of radical changes and the formation of new borders in Eastern Europe, the process ended with the Hague international court's (ICJ) advisory opinion of 22 July 2010 in which it stated that Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia was not in violation of the international law.

The wave of democratic changes in Eastern Europe had stopped on the south coast of the Mediterranean due to the interests of the superpowers, especially the US, France and Great Britain which backed the ruling regimes there although they were behated by their own citizens.

The first serious blocking of democratic changes in the Arab world happened in January 1992 when the Algerian army nullified the results of the parliamentary election which was clearly won by FIS (Islamistic Salvation Front - Front islamique du salut). This was followed by political and security instability. The state became the hostage to the spiral of armed violence during which more than one hundred thousand Algerians were killed and seven thousand political activists disappeared.

The Americans became paranoid over the rise of Political Islam. During that period the Talibans violently took over the power in Afghanistan in 1996 and introduced medieval military government. At the same time al-Quaeda entered the scene calling for the overthrowing of pro-western Arab regimes. Al-Quaeda opted for terrorism and violence in order to achieve its goals, as was evident in Egypt (the massacre in Luxor in 1997 when 58 foreign tourists were killed) and Saudi Arabia (the attack in Al-Khobar in which 22 foreigners and 100 citizens of Saudi Arabia were killed).

A similar scenario as in Algeria happened in the territory of the Palestinian National Authority. The Islamist organisation of Hamas, which represents an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the elections in 2005. It received 76 of 132 seats in the Palestinian Parliament. However, despite its relative majority Hamas was not able to form the government on its own due to the pressures from the West. The US exerted pressure on Hamas's rival Fatah to compose the coalition government with Hamas, which lead to a bloody conflict in 2007. The result was that the Palestinians were led by two governments: Hamas government in the Gaza Strip and Fatah government in Ramallah.

Following September 11, 2001 the Americans started to realise the importance of democracy in this region. Without any detailed plans for the future nor strategy they changed the Taliban regime in Kabul in 2001 and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in 2003.

The US refused to accept the results of democratic elections in Algeria and Palestine, while it used military forces to bring deficient democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq without any plan which would engage the middle class in the process of forming democratic institutions of governance.

As mentioned above this middle class is the holder of today's changes in North Africa. Instead of pro-western type democracy we have now got tribal corrupted democracy in Afghanistan and clerically-ethnically divided democracy in Iraq. In both cases the citizens have become the victims of endless violence and bloody atrocities in which al-Quaeda is also involved. More than a hundred thousand coalition soldiers can not provide a solution for this crisis.

The sixth phase of democracy are the current events in the Arab world. The analysts were of the opinion that the time of spontaneous mass demonstrations (as witnessed in Eastern Europe) were over and that the only way to democratisation was to ensure a democratic transformation of those regimes.

The intimidation with the stories about Islamic radicalism and violent changes has ended with peaceful demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt and the bloody denouement in Libya. The army has joined the side of the protesters, thus showing its professionalism and opening the door to changes.

Previous political theories stating that every revolution requires a charismatic leader are no longer true. The peaceful course of those changes has also shown other countries the way to democratisation.

Nevertheless, the story of democratic changes has only just begun. During the transitional period the US and the West have to provide assistance in terms of political, constitutional and social reforms or else those countries may face the risk of military overthrow and the "misuse" of people's uprisings by the radical elements and extremists.

The West is slowly becoming aware that it can not stop the train of democratic changes and that it has no right to decide who will take over the power after the elections are carried out.

The first positive sign in this direction is coming from Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the administration would not oppose the arrival of the legally elected Muslim Brotherhood to power as long as they renounced violence and committed to democracy and the rights of citizens.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also alleviated Western fears stating that the Turkish example could be a useful model of co-habitation (modus vivendi) of Islam and democracy. He also stated that Turkey was not seeking to become the role model, but it could be a source of inspiration to the Arab world.

Turkey has shown that Islam and democracy can co-exist and function. However, the Muslim Brotherhood first has to transform from the political Islam movement to a modern political party modelled on the European Christian democracy.

The role of the professional and de-politised army is inevitable in those states, as was the case in Portugal, Spain, Greece, Turkey and recently in Egypt and Tunisia.

Ljubljana, 28 February 2011