Middle East

Viewpoint: Why Arab Spring has not delivered real democracy

Egyptian policemen at polling station in Suez
Egypt has held multiple polls since the revolution, but the military continues to play a key role

On the face of it, one might conclude that democracy is thriving in the Arab world.

On Tuesday millions of Syrians are voting in presidential elections. Egyptians have just chosen a new head of state and will elect MPs in the near future.

Earlier this year, elections were held in Iraq and Algeria. Kuwaitis are voting in by-elections in the coming weeks and Tunisians will be going to the polls before the end of this year.

But appearances are deceptive. For the reality is that Arab democracy has made little progress thus far in breaking patterns of leadership established during long decades of autocratic rule.

The Arab Spring promised much, but thus far it has achieved little.

Old guard

Egypt is a case in point. Since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egyptians have voted in two presidential elections, as well as polls for both parliament and the Shura Council [upper house], and three referendums.

Yet for all these displays of democracy, the military and security services remain the power behind the scenes. The latest constitution enshrines the right of military courts to try civilians, and a new law imposes tight restrictions on protests - hardly a basis for democracy.

Former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi may have been the convincing winner of the recent presidential election. But he comes to power in a country polarised between Islamists (not least the former ruling and now banned Muslim Brotherhood) and secularists.

Most Brotherhood supporters and many liberal Egyptians expressed their dissatisfaction at the current state of affairs by boycotting the vote.

Single success

The presidential elections in Syria are taking place in a country torn apart by war. In those areas under government control, the circumstances are no different from those prevailing before 2011.

In the absence of free debate or a serious challenger to Bashar al-Assad in this one-party state, the latest poll, like others in recent Syrian history, is merely a formality.

Tunisian workers march on May Day (01/05/14)
Tunisia has arguably made the furthest transition from autocracy

The overthrow of Col Muammar Gaddafi in Libya was followed by the country's first free elections in 2012 that appeared to herald a new era.

But since then, the central authorities and national institutions have not been strong enough to resist militia power. The chances of an inclusive democratic system taking root in the foreseeable future seem remote.

Of all the countries affected by Arab Spring upheavals, Tunisia - where the uprisings began - is the single success story.

The army has remained in the wings and the various political groups have managed to make compromises and agree on a new constitution that meets the needs of most sections of society.

Tunisian democracy faces challenges, but the robustness of the country's civil institutions means that it is better placed than most to resist them.

Sectarian interests

In two other Arab countries largely untouched by the Arab uprisings, Iraq and Lebanon, the democratic processes over the years have been distorted by sectarianism.

In both, the electorate is denied the opportunity to choose candidates espousing the common good of the nation as a whole, rather than the interests of individual communities.

Iraqi election commission officials count votes (06/05/14)
Iraq held parliamentary elections, but excluded areas wracked by violence

Democracy in Algeria is practised under the shadow of the military and the interests of the ruling elite, while constitutional changes in Jordan and Morocco, prompted by uprisings elsewhere, have scarcely loosened the control of those countries' monarchs over political life.

Most Gulf states, meanwhile, argue that Western-style democracy is unnecessary in societies where the population can communicate their wishes or complaints direct to their rulers by the traditional majlis system of open councils.

Lack of debate

Eliminating autocratic patterns of leadership in Arab countries will be a hard and long process.

Reforms to public education systems, with the replacement of the culture of rote learning with one of questioning and analysis, would be a step towards encouraging open and rational public debate.

Political discussions on Arab satellite TV channels invariably end in angry exchanges. Agreeing to disagree and conceding a point to an opponent are pillars of democracy that are yet to be erected.

At present, Arab countries are practising democracy in different ways and to differing degrees.

But one vital ingredient is missing - politics in its broadest sense. There is a need for political visions of different kinds that encompass not only what is best for the nation but also the economic and social needs of the population.

When elections become a contest among competing political visions, then the annual calendar of voting dates in the Arab Middle East will have real meaning.

Gerald Butt is a Middle East analyst, author and former BBC correspondent

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