The Arab uprisings and the prospect for democratization


The Arab uprisings and the prospect for democratization

With the presidential elections around the corner in Egypt, political scientist and writer Hamdi Hassan takes a closer look at the Arab uprisings and their impact on democratization. uprisings and the prospect for democratization.

It has almost become a cliché to say that Arabs are engaged in battles over the identity and the future of their countries, but that is precisely what is happening. After the protests that swept the Arab region and the ousting of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, protests began in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria. People around the world began to wonder if they were witnessing an Arab region version of the revolutions within the former Soviet satellite states of 1989 or maybe the Arab analogue to 1848’s spring times of the people. 

These interesting parallels may offer the pundits some general insights about political reforms and democratic transition. However, there are no precedents in Arab or Islamic history for the historic changes that continue to shake the Arab region. The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya were successful in ousting long-time tyrants, but since then, the struggles to shape new and more just political orders has produced instability, uncertainty and violence.

While Egypt is in the middle of sociopolitical disarray, Libya is on the brink, Syria is in a civil war and Bahrain remains explosive, but those are outcomes entirely of Arab people own making. Many people, especially those in Western media and various pundits, implicitly or explicitly expect that if democracy is to be achieved, it would achieved in the span of a few months. However, this process took decades to fulfil elsewhere around the world. Building a viable state with solid and legitimate institutions and a democratic culture takes time.

Fundamental change may not only be achieved through political reform, but also through social transformation, such as changed ways of perceiving and interacting with religion. This struggle between the rule of tyrants with guns and citizens with universal human rights remains the central battle across the entire Arab region. The prevalent cynicism about the future of the Arab uprisings is undoubtedly inapt. It is true that the Arab region has its own distinctive blend of cultural, historical, and economic traits, but so does every other region in the world. There are no reasons to assume that the Arab region will be a perpetual exception to the rules of democratic transformation. However, looking at Egypt, there are many complexities and challenges on the path to democratic transformation.

Western Discourse

When it comes to how the Arab uprisings are narrated in Western discourse, there is a clear line between acceptable criticism and irresponsible insinuation. Some media and journalists have an unfortunate weakness for lazy harangues. At best, they reduce complex societies to war zones, in a kind of anti-imperialist version of orientalism, which risks suggesting that most of the tensions and conflicts in the Arab region, including the struggle over the meaning of Islam itself, is simply a reaction to Western interference.

In this discourse, one hardly gets a flavor of the various cultures, competing political and social landscapes and possible pathways to transform pre-political modalities of sects, families and clans into modern and viable polities within the Arab region. This systematic shortcoming needs to be bridged. The Arab region has to be transformed from a cockpit of bloodshed and sorrow to a place where people face mundane challenges that ultimately must be dealt with peacefully. This may change the way that the international community interacts with the Arab world and it may also have interact with and influence local discourses.

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