Tarek Masoud on Democracy in the Middle East

June 2, 2015
Interviewed by Doug Gavel

Democracy remains a rare commodity in the Middle East as the promise of the Arab Spring has given way to authoritarian retrenchment, democratic breakdown, and civil war. Countries that once seemed promising terrain for democracy now feature clashes between citizens and governments, military domination, and the imprisonment of activists and journalists. Associate Professor Tarek Masoud is a political scientist and Middle East specialist whose new book, The Arab Spring: Pathways of Repression and Reform, helps to explain why the region has taken a turn for the worse.



Q: Why is there so little democracy in the Middle East?

Masoud:  In 2011 and 2012, a series of uprisings took place in the Arab world that led many of us to expect the end of authoritarianism in much of the region. In the end, those protests only led to regime change – or more correctly, the resignation of a dictator – in four different countries. In Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled for more than 20 years, fled as a result of mass protests. A few weeks later, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled for 30 years, followed suit. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled for 42 years, put up more of a fight, but he too was driven from office after NATO intervened.  And in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, another longstanding dictator, also finally resigned.  All of these leaders had to leave as a result of popular protest. And though protests were crushed elsewhere – particularly in Syria – there was certainly a reason to believe that these countries at least were on the road to democracy

Now, surveying the landscape of the Arab world four years later, it looks like very few of those hopeful episodes have actually translated into something better. Of all of the countries where protests took place, only one can be called a functioning democracy. And that is Tunisia, where there have been two democratic elections in which the result has generally been respected by the majority of the population and in which the new government has actually been able to govern. In Egypt, there was an election in 2011 that brought in a new legislature, but that was subsequently dissolved by the courts. Egyptians then elected a new president, but he was subsequently overthrown by the military. The story is similarly grim elsewhere. Both Libya and Yemen are in states of civil war.  They look much more like Syria than they do like Tunisia or even Egypt.

So, the question is, why has the Arab Spring not translated into democracy for most of the Arab world?  I believe the answer is that the conditions necessary for democracy to take root generally were not present in most Arab societies. A country like Egypt, for example, is underdeveloped. Civil society in Egypt was weak. The Egyptian state has long been weak, unable to solve its citizens’ problems.  So after the revolution, as the economy continued to crumble, people very quickly began to lose patience with the government, and they began to attribute their misfortunes to this new democratic system.

Elsewhere, the terrain was even less propitious. Libya and Yemen have long been riven by tribalism – it was too much to hope that they would go from authoritarianism to democracy without first passing through a long period of struggle in which previously suppressed and oppressed groups made claims on power and resources.

Q: Why did democracy succeed in Tunisia?

Masoud:  If you compare Egypt and Tunisia, lots of people might tell you that the answer lies in the differing nature of the army in the two countries. In Tunisia, the army was always very small and always subordinate to civilian political authority, whereas in Egypt the army was always politically central. So people argue that it was only a matter of time before the Egyptian army tried to undo democracy, because that army was always accustomed to ruling. That could be part of the answer, but there are many other reasons. In fact, you could make the argument that the success in Tunisia and the failure in Egypt were almost over-determined. There were lots of reasons to expect Egypt not to succeed: from the dominance of retrograde, illiberal Islamists in the country’s first elections, to the general poverty of Egypt, to the weakness of that state apparatus. Tunisia, if you compare it to Egypt, didn’t just have a smaller military, but it was also more economically developed, its citizens were more literate, its Islamists were weaker, its liberals were stronger. So, there were many propitious conditions in Tunisia. And let’s not forget the big one: Egypt is a country of more than 80 million people; Tunisia, with 10 million people, has fewer inhabitants than Egypt’s capital city, Cairo.

Q: Are you optimistic about the possibility of democratic evolution in the Middle East?

Masoud: I think that you should never bet against the prospects for evolution towards something better in the Middle East. In fact, I wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t think there was not potential within the Arab region for more accountable government that was more responsive to its citizens.

But it seems to me that what we’ve learned as a result of the Arab Spring is that the revolutionary path is not likely to lead to success. If we survey the Arab world more broadly, the places where there has been some movement towards democracy, apart from Tunisia, have generally been those with regimes that were not really rocked by the Arab Spring, or that responded to the initial protests of the Arab Spring with concessions and with a broadening of the political space. For example, in Morocco, which, of course, nobody would call a liberal democracy today, the scope for democratic competition has expanded as a result of reforms initiated by that country’s king in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. We saw similar, limited liberalizations take place in several other countries in the Arab world in places that did not experience mass protests.  It may be that over the long-term we’ll find that those countries that enacted these limited, piecemeal reforms are the ones that are further along the path toward representative accountable government.

 Q: How powerful a role does religion in general, and Islam in particular, play in political movements in the Arab world?

 Masoud: Anybody who observes the Middle East can’t help but think that religion is this hugely dominant and powerful force that is reshaping the region. First, we saw that when elections were held in the Arab world, in places like Tunisia and Egypt, religiously conservative political parties emerged victorious. But even that electoral success of religion is dwarfed, by comparison, by this new phenomenon of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. We have seen radical Islamist forces capture huge swaths of territory and resurrect the idea of the caliphate, which is the notion that all Muslims around the world should be united under a single political and religious leader.

So, at this moment in time, people might be thinking that religion is supremely powerful, and that a lot of the problems that we observe in the region are a function of Islam and the way that Islam impels its followers to establish Islamic government. But I think we shouldn’t confuse ourselves. The reason that this organization called ISIL exists, and the reason that it’s been able to capture a vast amount of territory, is not because of the inherent power of Islam or the inherent power of Islamist ideology. It’s because back in 2003, the United States government made a series of ill-fated decisions that resulted in the disruption of the Iraqi state  which created opportunities for the emergence of non-state actors, like ISIS. The invasion of Iraq and its grim aftermath, which we’re still living with today, further reinforce my belief that the path towards positive change in this part of the world is the reformist path, and that when we try to effect a wholesale, immediate change in existing institutions, the result is almost always a negative one.

Q:  What about other fledgling democracies or other societies hoping for democracy – are there lessons they can learn from the trajectory of the Arab Spring, or the successes and failures from Tunisia and from other countries?

 Masoud: I think there are two big lessons that we can learn from the Arab Spring about prospects for democracy in developing countries around the world. The first is that the more revolutionary your revolution is, the less likely it is to lead to democracy. So, the more that you try to change, and the more that you try to exclude the old regime and the elites of the previous order from participating in politics, the more likely you are not to get to democracy, but some situation of conflict or maybe even civil war.

And one thing I think that we’ve known for a long time from studying democratization in Latin America and East Asia, and other parts of the world, it’s that democracy is more likely when all parties have a seat at the table. And I think that in the current Middle East, one of the things that we need to remember is that when we try to exclude old elites from participation in politics, when we try to say things like, “the old elite should not have any role in the new democratic order,” then all you’re doing is really setting up those old elites to try to play the spoiler and try to bring down democracy.

The second thing that I think the Arab Spring reinforces is the importance of the state.  You know, those of us who have studied the Arab world, we look at the Arab state as a bad thing, right? An entity that oppresses its citizens. Or we just take it for granted; we don’t think about it at all. And I think what we learn from what happened in Syria, what’s happened in Iraq, what’s happened in Yemen or in Libya, is just how important having a state is, if you want to get to democracy.

Because, after all, when there is no state, when there is no common power to keep everybody in line, then the result is – political philosophers have known for centuries – is chaos, is the kind of Hobbesian state of nature. And that is why we observe in Yemen, today, a civil war, or a civil war in Libya. So the importance of actually having a functioning state that can maintain order just can’t be exaggerated.

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"I think that you should never bet against the prospects for evolution towards something better in the Middle East. In fact, I wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t think there was not potential within the Arab region for more accountable government that was more responsive to its citizens."

—Tarek Masoud

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