Two Years of the Arab Spring: Reflections about Democracy in the Arab World

Written by Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

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Info box collage for mena Arabic protestsDuring a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and several American senators, Rabin was asked how he could envisage signing a peace agreement with Arab regimes that did not profess democracy, but rather acted as oppressors of their own people. Rabin responded: "If we have to wait till democracy prevails in the Arab countries, then Israel will have to wait for a hundred years at least."

Since its very first days, Israel has been surrounded by authoritarian regimes where there is no freedom of speech, no personal freedom, or freedom of any kind. The citizens of the surrounding countries live in a world where many things are forbidden, where they must guess what is acceptable and suitable in order to survive. Instead of speaking their mind, they let their rulers hear what they want to hear and kept the truth to themselves, deep inside.

In the years following the end of Western colonialism, the Arab world was divided into monarchies and dictatorial regimes based on sectarian divisions, with the sole exception of Lebanon as a sectarian republic. In a later phase, the Arab world lost some of its monarchies to military juntas and dictatorships that further deepened the sense of lack of individual freedoms. This process did not spare other Arab regimes where military rebellions alternated with civilian regimes.

In any case, the result was the same: the core of the Arab world was ruled by the military, whereas the rest were ruled by hereditary monarchies supposedly chosen by Allah. In either option, the concept of Western democracy was never implemented since it could never be accepted by Arab rulers and was a concept foreign to Islamic tradition. The closest concept to Western democracy in Islam is the Shura institution, which is a sort of advisory board with no real powers, since authority is vested in the ruler himself. The adoption of Western institutions such as parliaments only mimicked the West, while in fact the authority and power to decide remained in the hands of the ruling junta.

In this reality, where opponents find themselves jailed for years without trial; where opposition groups are persecuted, tortured to death, and eliminated with no trace by the ruling authorities; where minorities suffer from blatant discrimination and their political rights are ignored, denied, or put aside and their leaders imprisoned with no reason; where the press is the mere reflection of the deeds of the ruling class and serves mainly to magnify its role; where human rights are insignificant; where citizens are punished by flogging if caught not worshiping Allah during the times of prayer; where more than 10 percent of the population is part of the internal security apparatus; where Shari'a rule calls for amputations, beheading, or throwing the accused from the highest tower in town; where adultery or being gay is condemned by capital punishment either by hanging or stoning; and where women have to undergo a "virginity test" performed by male military doctors just because they took part in a popular demonstration – there is no room for democracy. The only option for the opposition is to rebel and to take over the reins of power from the ruling junta and continue the same political language as before, because it has been so for years, decades, centuries.

Two years after the outburst of what was naively called the "Arab Spring" by romantics and wishful thinkers who thought the Arab world was about to witness a new era of liberty and democracy, one can only be disappointed by the realities on the ground:

Almost two years after the beginning of the "Arab Spring," the Arab world is more divided than ever. Most of the regimes that witnessed this blossoming "spring" have imploded or are on the verge of implosion. The disintegration of Libya, instead of creating a democracy, has created a situation where weapons from the Libyan arsenal have enabled the Tuaregs and their allies to cut Mali in two. Libyan weapons have also reached Hamas in Gaza and the rebels in Syria. North Mali (or Azawad as it is called today) under the Islamists has become a haven for Islamic terrorism led by al-Qaeda and a regional threat to the integrity of the countries of the Sahel. The forthcoming disintegration of Syria, far from bringing democracy, carries with it a potential existential threat to Israel (if Syria's huge stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons fall into the hands of Islamists) and to its neighbors, specifically Lebanon and Jordan.

The "Arab Spring" has proven beyond any doubt that the Arab world is far from ready to accept the concept of democracy. The effort spent to marry democracy and Islam has not borne fruit at all and it is still an open question whether such a scenario can be envisaged in the future.

Professing democracy in the Arab world is a futile exercise in today's reality. Too many crimes have been committed under the banner of democracy, while respecting human rights has proved to be a formidable challenge.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.


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