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The trap of ‘democratization’ as ‘wishful thinking': The state of the art in the Arab world

Tamirace Fakhoury

The global policy and academic worlds expect the Arab world to democratize. But is this expectation helping today?

Are political systems in the contemporary developing world inevitably heading towards democracy, and will democracy triumph as an end product of the 21st century? Democracy studies, and more specifically the branch of transitology research, have in recent decades promoted a transition paradigm whereby liberalization of a country’s political system follows the dissolution of an authoritarian regime. In this strand of research, the collapse of the authoritarian regime can be the outcome of a negotiated pact by political elites as much as it can be induced by a mass uprising.

The media coverage, as well as academic literature dealing with the wave of Arab uprisings that began in 2011 have furtively entrenched some assumptions that need to be carefully analyzed. One of these assumptions, underpinning political analysis today and guiding not only policy making but also some academic literature strands, is that uprisings (whether labeled as a revolution or revolt) should lead to political liberalization. Is this hypothesis helpful?

To answer this question, let us review some facts and theories that underlie this thinking.

Political scientist Samuel Huntington has identified three waves of democratization since the 19th century. The First Wave of democratization spread to industrialized western countries, while the Second was a complex byproduct of the restructured post-World War II landscape and the ensuing process of decolonization. The Third Wave of democratization reached its zenith with the collapse of communism.

Conceptual and empirical research has been carried out with a view to explaining the contagiousness of democracy and the likelihood of it propagating itself across regional contexts. Factors explaining the diffusion of democratic norms are manifold. International and transnational linkages, along with policy channels, have the power to diffuse democratic norms across borders. Neo-functional and neo-institutional approaches to regional cooperation enhance our understanding of how democratic norms cross borders through institutionalized and non-institutionalized challenges. Further, states characterized by institutionalized democracy are thought to possess the capacity — through silver carrot strategies — to lure neighboring surrounding states into embracing democratic practices. The European Union with its neighborhood policy approach is a case in a point here.

These questions, which have inspired a plethora of literature in recent decades, have elicited contradictory reactions. The democratic transition paradigm which first spurred much enthusiasm gave rise to an ambitious prescriptive policy agenda seeking to promote democracy in resistant states. With time, failed transitions, the emergence of hybrid regimes, and the robustness of authoritarian systems in certain cases have called into question the inevitability of democratization.  Thomas Carothers’ article on the end of the transition paradigm (2002) illustrates in a cogent manner how ‘feckless pluralism’ may coexist with autocratic structures.

Today, the Arab world’s uprisings have sparked renewed interest not only in the democratic question but also in the ‘cascading revolutions’ theory, whereby one protest sets of others across a regional bloc. One of the big questions that has arisen is whether the transformations in the Arab world augur the era of a fourth wave of democratization, justifying the teleological victory of democracy as the most suitable political typology in the modern world.

While since the 19th century there has been increasing consensus regarding the dignity that democracy bestows humanity and how it is the best system to uphold human rights, it should not be confused with or reduced to what I call  ‘democratization’  as ‘wishful thinking’

The eagerness to see democracies emerge quickly in the Arab world has over the past year led to an overproduction of texts assessing the prospects for Arab democratization, debating whether Islamism would hijack the revolutions, and analyzing how the Arab uprisings conform to democratically inspired movements. All of these analyses are worthwhile endeavors, yet they should not prevent us from grappling with what is taking place on the ground.

At first, the unexpected nature of these uprisings spurred excessive enthusiasm. After all, authoritarianism now did not seem as resilient as it was once thought to be. The robustness of the state apparatus was not as well-anchored as social scientists across the world had initially imagined. The possibility of democratization unfolding after decades of authoritarian rule suddenly seemed like one worth debating.

Today, however, the utopian and revolutionary character of these uprisings has lost its glamor. The difficulties of crafting institutions in a post-authoritarian framework and the hijacking of revolutionary platforms by actors who had not played major roles in the Arab street protests made the possibility for an ‘Arab spring’ at best a fleeting reality.

The degeneration of the Syrian government’s crackdown on protestors into a civil war reminded social scientists and policymakers of the lurking dangers of sectarianism and polarization. The confrontational nature of Egypt’s protests foreshadows the many disruptive contours that contentious politics may acquire. In a broader perspective, the overarching specter of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with the eruption of the Gaza war in November 2012, signals that — despite ‘progressive’ regional transformations — the conflict’s protracted nature had not changed.

Now that we have entered the phase of skepticism, what lessons can we learn?

First and foremost, we can now clearly see that the question that guided social science and policy-makers’ agendas regarding whether the Arab world would democratize or not is both loaded and highly prescriptive.

Notwithstanding the Arab revolutions’ forward-looking nature, prognoses about their outcomes must be unpacked and further scrutinized.

While the lead question in the last two decades was why the Arab world was  immune to democracy, the reformulated question in light of the uprisings is whether the Arab world is heading towards democracy or not.

Both questions are yet built on a cluster of assumptions and on a system of knowledge reifying a certain pattern of understanding of the processes and finality of social transformations.

While democratization in the Arab world is a worth pursuing trajectory, debating its prospects should not blind our analysis of what is actually happening today in the Arab street and within emerging institutions.

Eminent scholars have recently attracted attention to this analytical pitfall. An invitation to look beyond the ‘authoritarianism-democratization’ spectrum and binary categorization patterns, and to reflect on shades and degrees of Arab political transitions as well as on disruptions and uncertainties has been sent.

Against this backdrop, focusing on smaller-scale analyses — such as understanding the complex intervals of transitional politics, studying emerging but also exiting political actors, grappling with changing narratives and perceptions, accounting for the role of non-political arenas in sociopolitical change — hold various insights into emerging realities.

Resisting the urge to fit political transitions within trajectories might leave social scientists with a feeling of dissatisfaction, yet it would help ‘un-program’ and put into perspective longstanding paradigms that have been used to look at the Arab Middle East.

Before we hurry off to study whether Islamists truly have a democratic agenda or not, and before we hurry to write articles on whether the Arab uprisings and the post-uprising phase conform to the democratization paradigm, let us take the time to understand what is happening at the micro level.

Let us take time to analyze the interactions of those social movements that played a major role in the revolutions with the victorious political actors leading Arab countries today. Let us carefully study not only how constitutions are forged, but which counter-public spheres and new grievances arise as a result of these new constitutions. Let us not lose sight of what is happening by over-zealously focusing our attention on what is expected to happen.

In short, let us content ourselves with describing and rendering an astute understanding of social transformations in the Arab world before falling into the pitfall of ‘democracy’ as wishful thinking.

Let us not sacrifice the minute details of human politics for the sake of grand schemes and abstract paradigms.

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Comment to "The trap of ‘democratization’ as ‘wishful thinking': The state of the art in the Arab world":
    • Avi Rosenzweig

      It’s curious to me that you don’t explicitly address the issue of the non-separation of mosque and state, or the tangled nature of national, ethnic, political, and religious identities. The theorists you allude to all operated in contexts where political states and their power/knowledge structures could be distinguished from religious institutional interests. That’s clearly not the case in the Arab world.

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