Arab Democratization Picks Up Speed

By Dunn, Michael Collins | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1991 | Go to article overview

Arab Democratization Picks Up Speed


Dunn, Michael Collins, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


One often hears it said that the wave of democratization which swept Eastern Europe in 1989 and is now showing new strength in sub-Saharan Africa has somehow missed the Arab world. This is far from true: In fact, from the Atlantic to the Gulf, new political dynamics are driving the Arab world, sometimes generated from below, sometimes encouraged by existing governments. Each country has different traditions and problems, so each experience is different (as was the case in Eastern Europe), but a pattern is discernible.

"Democracy," of course, means whatever the commentator wishes it to mean. There is no one standard to apply worldwide. The three oldest major democracies -- the US, Britain and France -- have very different systems. Americans raised on federalism would find the French system far too centralized, and lacking checks and balances. Yet few would deny that all the major states of Western Europe are democracies today.

Since the self-destruction of Lebanon in the mid-1970s, it has often been said that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. This means that Israel has the only fully realized competitive multiparty elections in the region. This is true, or has been until very recently. Yet Israel's democratic structures do not extend to the inhabitants of the occupied territories. And within Israel proper, the electoral system has placed such extreme emphasis on plurality of parties and breadth of representation that the parties which win the most votes often have to bargain with tiny, one-issue parties (usually religious) in order to form coalitions. In its entire independent history Israel has never had a government which was not a coalition or did not include the religious parties.

As a result, the Orthodox religious establishment, which polls show represents only a minority of Israelis, dominates the civil law. It is a system so intent on maintaining a voice for minorities (excluding the occupied territories) that the minorities have in effect taken the majority captive.

While free multiparty elections have been rare in the Arab world, the region has not been the desert of dictatorships and absolute monarchies which critics often allege. Some countries such as Sudan have long histories of party politics, though they currently languish under military rule. Several, most notably Jordan and Algeria, are moving, in fits and starts, toward genuinely competitive pluralist systems. Others (Tunisia and Egypt, for example) are cautiously feeling their way toward genuine competition. In other states -- Mauritania and possibly Kuwait in the near future -- internal opposition pressures have pushed the government toward opening up the system.

Such pressures do not just come from liberals seeking to follow Western models. In May, Saudi Arabia's conservative Islamic 'ulama strongly urged political changes in the Kingdom, a critique from the right which may have surprised many outsiders.

Several Arab states have a long history of multiple political parties, but in most cases a spotted one. Lebanon's party system really was a reflection of its communal identities. It was not so much a democracy as a balancing act, or a sort of federalism of competing groups. Sudan has gone through a tragic cyclical alternation of democracy and dictatorship, with its political parties finding themselves unable to create stable coalitions and thus inviting military intervention. But several distinct political tendencies have always been visible. Playing major roles have been the Umma Party, the Unionists, the Muslim Brotherhood and, at one time, the Communists.

The most fertile soil for democratization right now seems to be the Maghreb. Algeria's rapid if bumpy march toward democracy has been the process most visible to the West, if only because it has erupted into violent outbreaks. Following the rioting of October 1988, President Chadli Benjedid promised a multiparty system and democratic elections, with no major catches. …

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