Updates on politics and society in the Middle East
Sign up for myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know about Middle Eastern politics and society.
Ten years ago, the peoples of the Arab world applauded the fall of despots. Now they applaud the fall of democracy.
These setbacks for political freedom in the Middle East have global implications. In the United States, President Joe Biden argues that the battle between autocracy and democracy will define this century. On the other hand, Beijing pushes a “Chinese model “ which emphasizes stability and order rather than political freedom. The events in the Middle East are a worrying sign for the democratic cause.
In Tunisia, President Kais Saied recently sacked the prime minister and suspended parliament for 30 days. But while the president’s actions are widely seen as a coup, they appear to be popular in a country reeling from years of economic crisis and inept government.
Tunisia is a small place, which has played a big role in recent Middle Eastern history. The Arab uprisings began there about ten years ago with the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power. The revolutionary spark spread from Tunisia throughout the region. The next to fall were Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, the longtime rulers of Egypt and Libya.
Egypt’s experiment with democracy ended in 2013, when a military coup, also popular at the time, toppled the elected government led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Libya sank into civil war after the death of Gaddafi. The democratic uprising in Syria has been crushed by the Assad regime.
But the survival of Tunisian democracy meant that hopes inspired by the Arab uprisings were still vacillating. The extinction of democracy in Tunisia would send the opposite message. And while Saied’s ultimate plans are not yet clear, it appears the country is moving in a more autocratic direction.
So how should those who sympathize with Biden’s arguments react to the decline in democracy in the Middle East? There is no need to give up the belief that political freedom matters, nor the hope that it may eventually take root in the region. But the principle must be balanced with empathy for the struggles of ordinary people stuck in failed states. Democracy, while important, ranks lower in the hierarchy of needs than food, shelter and security. If elected governments fail to meet these basic needs, then the temptation to embrace a strong man who promises stability becomes very strong.
In the Middle East, Lebanon and Iraq – two countries that are still, formally speaking, democracies – are dangerously close to becoming failed states. A year ago, Beirut, the Lebanese capital, was devastated by an explosion caused by chemicals left unattended in its port. Its political reformers have often been murdered, highlighting the reality that beneath the surface of elections and freedom of speech lies a country under the sway of warlords and Hezbollah, the paramilitary group.
Iraq, like Lebanon, has adopted a form of democracy that divides power on a community basis – a system that creates rigid interest groups and makes reform difficult. As they suffer from power and water shortages during scorching summers, it’s not uncommon to hear Iraqis ringing the bell. nostalgic for Saddam Hussein, a vicious dictator who at least delivered electricity.
The emerging democracies of the Middle East have also been unlucky. The richest and most powerful countries in the region – Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar – are autocracies with little interest in helping democratic experiments succeed. Instead, they waged proxy power struggles in Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Tunisia.
There is no reason to believe that the people of the Middle East are different from the rest of humanity by preferring freedom and the rule of law to dictatorship. But the past decade has also demonstrated the naivety of those who hoped democracy would easily take root across the region.
Instead, events have underscored how difficult it is for free elections to establish stable government in countries where decades of dictatorship have prevented the emergence of the other institutions that make democracies work – independent courts, free media, a professional public service and a literate population. . (At the time of the Egyptian revolution, about 26% of the population was illiterate.)
The experience of Asian countries, such as South Korea and Taiwan, suggests that a period of rapid economic, educational, and institutional development under autocratic rule can set the conditions that make the transition to democracy more likely to be successful. Even 18th-century Europe developed rapidly under a group of rulers known as the enlightened despots. The difficulty is that in the Middle East the unenlightened despots have been more common than the enlightened variety. One of the reasons the 2011 uprisings took place was popular distaste for years of corruption and stagnation.
“Autocracy” may seem tolerable in the abstract, but it usually means torture, murder and injustice. Previous generations of Arab autocrats may have tried to buy some legitimacy with subsidized food and services and plenty of government jobs. But that option can now be closed because so many governments are heavily in debt.
Experiments with democracy have failed to solve the problems of the Middle East. The renewed autocracy is unlikely to be more effective.