Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The End of History in the Arab World?

For a long period of time, the Arab world was seen as immune to democracy by various specialists on the region. However, the recent surge of political unrest necessitates that we revisit this thesis.

The uprisings in North Africa remind me of Francis Fukuyama's book "The End of History and the Last Man," in which he contended that liberal democracy would ultimately conquer other ideologies such as monarchy, fascism and communism. So in the context of contemporary politics in the Middle East, will there be a triumph of liberal democracy over the existing systems?

The Arab world has commonly been characterized by its resistance to democratic and human rights principles. Countries in the region have suffered from the trappings of heavy-handed authoritarian rule such as party-based regimes, single ruling parties, juntas, ruling royal families, the lack of open political systems and repressive action against any opposition movement.

This picture corresponds to Freedom House's 2009-10 world survey measuring political rights and civil liberties. Of 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa evaluated, 14 were classified as "not free," while three states (Morocco, Kuwait and Lebanon) were labeled "partly free." The only "free" country in the region? Israel.

So, what went wrong?

Explanations range from economic (mainly valuable natural/energy resources) and geopolitical dimensions to security interests in the region caused by internal and external factors and actors.

In Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had been in power for 23 years, while in Egypt Hosni Mubarak had held power since 1981 before he stepped down last month. Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has ruled for three decades, and Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi has been in power for 41 years. In Algeria, a state of emergency has been in effect since 1992.

In the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, the ruling royal families remain a significant force, although there has been an increasing role for commoners to exercise power in government, like in Saudi Arabia. However, the tyranny of the majority and sectarian disputes pose another problem as Shiites are severely oppressed by Wahhabis there as well.

The ongoing revolts in the Middle East may lead to power vacuums or instability. What is worrying is that revolution and usurpation in the region has in the past given birth mainly to dictatorships or other non-democratic rule. For instance, in the early 1950s Egyptian nationalists led by Gamal Abdel Nasser abolished the 1923 Constitution and political parties as well.

Similarly, the Iranian revolution guided by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 overthrew the dictator Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Today, the country is governed by a theocratic system that oppresses opposition and civil society movements and groups striving for political reforms.

Aside from the fact that revolutions may just lead to new forms of tyranny, the possibility of a resurgence of Islam as a political force in the Arab world needs to be taken into account.

Scholars like Samuel Huntington have taken a skeptical view of the chances for democratization in this regard, arguing that the absence of democracy in the Muslim world was due to the anti-democratic nature of political Islam or, even more generally, the incompatibility between Islam and democracy.

However, Indonesian Survey Institute founder Saiful Mujani's 2007 book, "Muslim Democrats," has challenged Huntington's claim, arguing that Islam in Indonesia is congruent with democracy. In this respect, it is noteworthy that the highly fragmented Arab world may be able to use lessons from Indonesia's experience in an attempt to assure a peaceful coexistence between liberal, secular and Islamist forces.

But do citizens of the Arab world actually want democracy?

In to a Pew Research Center survey last year, 59 percent of Egyptians said democracy was preferable to any other kind of government - just a little less than the 65 percent of Indonesians who shared that opinion.

The Arab Barometer, a survey of democratic attitudes in the region conducted in 2006 by Princeton and the University of Michigan, showed great support for democracy across the region. The survey in Morocco, Algeria, Palestine, Jordan and Kuwait showed that 86 percent of respondents agreed that democracy was the best system of government, while 90 percent believed that democracy would be a good system of governance for their country.

However, Arab governments have long looked unable to respond seriously to these attitudes toward democracy, and the current revolt is some indication that more of the same is no longer an option. Adding to the complexity of the situation is economic deterioration and stagnation including rising unemployment rates, fatigue with long-term dictatorship and rampant corruption, a desire for reforms, increasing youth populations and last but not least, the rise of capitalism and modern technology in the form of social media.

Sooner or later, people's discontent is likely to move forward to bring history to its end in the Arab world.

Faisal Nurdin Idris teachesinternational relations at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta.

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