Global Policy Forum

Arab Spring: Late and Cold


By Gilbert Achcar

Le Monde diplomatique
July 2005

The Arab world is in a social, economic and political crisis. Authoritarian regimes are monopolising power while their peoples dream of democracy. And military interventions will not help.

Three recent events have marked the Middle East. The death of Yasser Arafat on 11 November 2004, followed by the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the Palestinian Authority on 9 January; a big turnout in the Iraqi elections on 30 January with the majority of voters taking part; and the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, on 14 February, which prompted big protests demanding the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon and an end to heavy-handed control by Damascus over Beirut's affairs.

There have been other less important events, such as the municipal elections in Saudi Arabia - split into three stages from February to April - and the announcement by Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, of a reform of the presidential election. Voters will be able to choose between several candidates, whereas previously parliament named a single candidate, subsequently ratified by plebiscite.

The conjunction of these events, hailed by some observers as an "Arab spring", has prompted considerable interest in the world press, much of it touchingly naive. Many former critics of George Bush have seized the opportunity to admit the error of their ways and acknowledge that his policies produced positive results after all. His longstanding supporters made no secret of their satisfaction, nor did Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. Unfortunately, several stubborn facts contradict the overall impression. For instance, Arafat, having been democratically elected by universal suffrage, repeatedly demanded the right to organise new Palestinian elections. But he was denied that right, simply because the Palestinians would certainly have elected him again.

Only massive public mobilisation in January 2004, in response to a call by the grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, secured the principle of elections in Iraq. This was a setback for the US administrator, Paul Bremer, and his masters in Washington, who were determined to set up a constituent assembly appointed by the US. As for the opposition's impressive mobilisation in Lebanon, the murder of Hariri triggered it, not anything Washington did, unless we are to suppose the US was in some way responsible for the attack.

In the case of US client regimes, such as the Saudi "protected kingdom" or Egypt, the main recipient of US foreign aid after Israel (1), pressure from Washington is directly responsible for reform. But it is a very narrow view of "democratisation" that boasts of Saudi elections in which only male voters were asked to choose half the complement of municipal councillors, the other half being appointed by the monarchy, in a country without a parliament and where political parties are prohibited. As for the reform promised by the Egyptian president, it in no way constitutes a step towards real democracy. The new law, passed by parliament on 10 May and ratified on 25 May by a referendum condemned by the opposition, is framed to exclude candidates not approved by the president in person. To enter the race, candidates must be sponsored by 250 elected officials, including at least 65 members of parliament, where Mubarak's National Democratic party holds 412 out of 454 seats.

The region is still far from democracy. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has just published a devastating report on the state of freedoms in the Arab countries (2), which focuses on civil rights in the broad sense, embracing civil and political liberty, and social, economic, educational and environmental rights. The latest publication is the third in a series of four (3). As it did last year, to Washington's continuing discomfort (4), it singles out Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and multinational occupation of Iraq as "hindrances" to human development in the Arab world. It does, however, place much of the blame on Arab rulers. Most of them, with authoritarian or traditional, religion-based, regimes, deny basic rights: freedom of speech, expression and association. With the extra excuse of the war on terrorism, repression is all the more severe.

The report describes the lack of democratic legitimacy of most Arab regimes, which pervert elections and representative bodies by cheating on the rules of the game. Only rarely does the judiciary enjoy any real independence from government, and in many cases it operates exclusively through exceptional courts. Many obstacles keep opposition parties, when tolerated, on the sidelines of politics.

There is no idea of habeas corpus for the citizens of Arab countries, nor yet a guarantee of their right to life, caught in the crossfire between violent extremist groups and government forces unconcerned about innocent lives. Women and cultural, religious or ethnic minorities suffer double subjugation, persecution specific to their group besides general oppression. "The modern Arab state, in the political sense," the report says, "runs close to this astronomical model, whereby the executive apparatus resembles a black hole which converts its surrounding social environment into a setting in which nothing moves and from which nothing escapes" (5). With the gradual loss of forms of traditional or charismatic, religious or nationalist legitimacy, political life has been stripped of any substance, leaving a vacuum that organisations of civil society have failed to fill.

The report does not restrict itself to describing symptoms. It also offers diagnosis of the causes of the Arab democratic deficit. In keeping with a recent comparative international report (6), it rejects culturalist explanations, rooted in a biased perception of the Orient, Islam and the "Arab" mindset. The question of whether Islamic doctrine is compatible with democracy is a matter of interpretation (7), and many exegeses are actually designed to suit practices not originally inspired by religion. The behaviour of global powers in the Arab world is severely criticised: they care little for promoting democracy - their prime concerns are oil, the state of Israel and now terrorism. At the same time the main groups opposing western domination, regardless of whether they are Islamist or nationalist in inspiration, have in the past adopted a strictly opportunist line on democratic liberties. The real or imaginary anti-democratic character of some Islamist opposition movements is still used to justify the refusal to organise elections, referred to by the report as the "the trap of the one-off election".

The status of civil liberties in the Arab world is linked to the dominant social organisations. The report highlights the survival of traditions rooted in tribalism and an education system that inculcates voluntary submission. Together with poverty and increasing social inequality, they prevent the underprivileged from playing a part in politics. The rentier mode of production, particularly in oil-producing countries, means government is not accountable to tax-paying subjects.

As solutions, the UNDP report mostly offers conventional remedies to the shortcomings it identifies, advocating political, judicial and constitutional reform to set up democratic institutions. It acknowledges that pressure from outside may be a positive factor, but only if civil rights and popular wishes are upheld in a way clear of any domineering relationship. The overall picture is most instructive, even if it contains little that is really new to those familiar with the Middle East. The fact that it was published by a UN agency and written by Arab authors, including several well-known intellectuals, makes it a valuable tool that Arab democrats can use without running the usual risk of facing demagogic accusations.

However, the report has its shortcomings, due to the conditions under which it was produced and because it was published by an intergovernmental agency. It underestimates the fundamental contribution of satellite television, in particular the pioneering al-Jazeera (8), to the emergence of independent Arab public opinion. Its assessment of the political potential of Arabic-speaking peoples is consequently excessively gloomy. It is also far too cautious about religious matters. Whereas separation of religion and state must be a basic condition of freedom, the report goes so far as to consider that even if the constitution of a country designates the sharia (Islamic law) as a basis of legislation this may still be consistent with human rights.

Above all, the report appeals to governments and their subjects to implement the necessary changes. To avoid the "impending disaster" that would follow widespread revolt - which, it fears, would only lead to civil war - reformers in government and civil society must negotiate a redistribution of the political stakes in order to achieve "good governance". Given the reality of oppression in most Arab countries and the social make-up of their governments this seems remarkably unlikely.

A report unfettered by institutional constraints would be more likely to conclude that democratic forces must unite and impose radical change from below. As history has shown often and recent events have confirmed, the larger the turnout, the less need for any bloodshed. It is impossible to consolidate democracy without a major redistribution of property and income. In the Middle East there are many patrimonial states where ruling families still corner a large share of national agricultural and mineral riches. It is consequently foolhardy to suppose that concerted action in partnership with segments of the ruling classes will lead to the lasting establishment of civil liberties and democracy. There is no more chance of this working than with the absolute monarchies that once ruled Europe or the bureaucratic dictatorships of the former Soviet bloc.

But it is a far worse illusion to claim that military intervention by outside forces, whether followed by occupation or not, may usher in such change. Iraq is the most glaring example of how ill-suited the method adopted by Washington is to its stated aims. The political situation there is deteriorating with worsening tension crystallising around ethnic and sectarian differences. The US authorities justify their continuing occupation by claiming that pulling out the troops would trigger a civil war. But the longer occupation continues, the more likely it is that their claim becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moreover, the spectacle of the chaos into which Iraq is sinking could well discredit the idea of democracy in Arab public opinion.

What is at issue is not so much whether military occupation is a valid means of bringing democracy to the Arab world - since it is demonstrably counter-productive - but whether the Bush administration's claims of promoting democracy in the region are genuine. The double standards Washington applies to its relations with Arab regimes should be enough to convince us that despite all the talk about a new paradigm in foreign policy, not much has really changed on the ground (9).

Bush tells us that when he invites the leaders of nations to his Texas ranch it is a token of his friendship. So the much-publicised reception of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, including the spectacle of Bush walking hand-in-hand with him in front of the press, is surely instructive. Despite the kingdom being one of the world's most obscurantist regimes with a pitiful record on women's elementary rights, Washington clearly still sees it as a key ally. In December 2003 all that the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi needed to do to regain public acceptance was to let Bush and Tony Blair announce he was giving up attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction. Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, Gerhard Schrí¶der and Jacques Chirac visited Libya soon after.

There is no denying, however, that by kicking the Arab anthill with the invasion of Iraq, followed by statements on promoting democracy, as a plausible replacement to destroying WMDs, the US has further undermined the stability of the region, bringing to the surface popular discontent, previously stifled by despotic rule (10).

We are told a wave of democratisation is sweeping through the Middle East, using formulas already tried and tested in former fascist states after 1945 and in eastern bloc countries after 1989. But the actual results are far from pleasing to Washington. The present instability has opened cracks through which various political forces have slipped, most of which the US sees as cause for concern or openly hostile. The death of Arafat, and his replacement by Mahmoud Abbas has led, for lack of any progress on the Israeli side, to growing support for Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. After years of boycotting elections, Hamas has decided to take part in future votes. In Iraq the elections sidelined Washington's liege man, the former prime minister Ayad Allawi. More importantly, they were won by a coalition of parties and other groups, most of them Shia Muslims, and fundamentalists to boot, more sympathetic to Tehran than to Washington. The show of force by Hizbullah demonstrators in Lebanon fuelled mostly fanciful fears (see The limits on Shia power, page 8) shared by the US and its Sunni allies, that a Shia crescent is forming from Lebanon to Iran, through Syria's "Alawite regime" and Iraq. Even the Mubarak regime in Egypt has had to face a wave of demonstrations led by rejuvenated opposition groups. Mostly dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood (as in Jordan and Syria), they are taking their cue from events in Iraq and Lebanon. At the heart of the modern school of directly political Islamism, the famous brotherhood has decided to launch a region-wide political offensive to take advantage of the instability to which Washington contributed so much deliberately and, even more, involuntarily.

Confronted with the alarming results of its own policy the Bush administration, encouraged by Saudi Arabia but much to the disgust of US neoconservatives, is trying to limit the damage by seeking contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, now presented as moderate Islamists, a term not much heard in the White House for some years (11). Once again, the US is playing the unhappy part of sorcerer's apprentice to the Middle East.

Translated by Harry Forster


(1) Annual US aid to Egypt amounts to $2bn, of which $1.3bn is military aid, a priority that says much about a country still suffering from terrible poverty.

(2) UNDP (with Arab partners), Arab Human Development Report 2004, published on 5 April 2005 and available for downloading (in Arabic and English, free of charge in Arabic) at

(3) The report published in 2002 gave a comprehensive appraisal of human development in the Arab world, and pinpointed three main problems: knowledge, freedom and women's status. The 2003 report was devoted to "building a knowledge society". The 2005 report will focus on women.

(4) See "Greater Middle East: the US plan", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, April 2004.

(5) AHDR executive summary.

(6) World Values Survey (

(7) Even Bernard Lewis, the Princeton professor, has refuted, on many occasions, the idea of Islam being incompatible with democracy. See his latest comments, in "Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East", Foreign Affairs, vol 84, no 3, May-June 2005. In his case, though, the prime concern is to justify US intervention in the Middle East. Lewis supported the invasion of Iraq and advocates subversion of the regime in Iran, in the name of democracy, the new version of the "civilising mission" of colonial times.

(8) See Olfa Lamloum, Al-Jazira, miroir rebelle et ambigu du monde arabe, La Découverte, Paris, 2004.

(9) This article restricts itself to the Arab world but the above comment holds true for US policy all over the Muslim world and beyond. See David Sanger, "There's democracy, and there's an oil pipeline", New York Times, 29 May 2005.

(10) See "Absence of democracy", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, June 1997, which expressed views on outside support for Arab despotism, similar to those outlined in the UNDP report.

(11) For more on the debate among the Muslim Brotherhood on Washington's opening, see

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