As the tsunami of popular revolt continues eastward from Tunisia towards the Arab heartland, engulfing Egypt and threatening the autocracies of Jordan and Yemen, it has inevitably drawn comparison with a similar wave two decades ago. That one swept away the ancient regimes of eastern Europe, and was thought to end history itself. Yet, when the waters of the current deluge recede, history will still be with us. And though many of the leaders would have been swept away, the Arab world will still be far from democratic.
While the origins of the uprisings are complex and embedded in local narratives, two common factors appear to have played a significant role. The first is the collapse of the “authoritarian bargain”, which, according to Raj M. Desai, is summed up thus: “Arabs rulers have remained in power by giving their citizens a generous set of social benefits (free education, government jobs, subsidies and other entitlements), and, in return, the public accepted severe restrictions on political life.” The inability of these regimes to sustain this expensive bargain in the face of acute economic strains led to its failure. Coupled with this, the youth bulge in these four countries (where around 30% of the population is 15-29 years old) is providing uneducated, unemployed and frustrated foot soldiers for the insurrection. Unless the old bargain is restored (which appears increasingly unlikely) or a new one is struck, these movements will sustain.
Against this backdrop, the prospects of democracy without economic reforms are dim (see “The End of History, again?” Mint, 4 February). Even with economic reforms, the evolving political system will be determined by three factors: Allah, army and America.
Although religion has not played a significant role in these movements until now, these remain fundamentally Muslim societies; Islamist interests will have to be accommodated within the polity for any future political system to be sustainable. This does not necessarily mean the establishment of a Sharia-based Islamic state (as many in the West fear), but could also take the form of a non-theocratic state with Islamic characteristics (like Turkey). One indication is the public snub by leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt’s banned Islamist party) to the endorsement provided by the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. A failure to include these interests could threaten the state, as was evident in the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat (Hosni Mubarak’s predecessor) at the hands of Islamist army officers.
Security forces in general and the Armed Forces in particular have been an integral part of the political and governance system in these countries. In Egypt, all four presidents were former top military officers and the serving chief of the Armed Forces serves as the defence minister. As Middle East expert Yezid Sayigh notes, what the army wants is “not power, but stability”; it is concerned “with the prospect of a hereditary presidency, the worsening social and economic strains…and the deepening lack of legitimacy of the political order”. Consequently, the armed forces will remain under quasi-democratic control at best, and will play a significant role during this transformation and beyond.
Finally, the US, which has underwritten the “authoritarian bargain” for decades through its annual multi-billion dollar aid packages, might have a significant say in the emerging system. However, the economic crisis is likely to undermine its abilities to bankroll these regimes. This could, ironically, provide a fillip to the cause of democracy in the Arab world though this form of governance might actually be detrimental to Washington’s national interests.
India’s policy of silent eloquence, though it has significant soft power through its non-aligned and cultural affinity in the Arab world, reflects its inabilities to effect historic outcomes. This is not the ideal portent for a country that aspires to play a more prominent global role.
W Pal Sidhu is senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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