Secular versus identity parties

Dina Shehata
Saturday 7 Apr 2018

What best explains the weakness of many political parties in the Arab world

It is often thought that one of the reasons for the lack or the fragility of democracy in the Arab world is the weakness of Arab political parties and their apparent inability to compete with the ruling regimes.

Often political or legal reasons are cited to substantiate this idea, including laws restricting party life, repressive measures, electoral fraud, internal factionalism and fragmentation within political parties and trends, the personalisation of leadership, the absence of internal democratic practices, the exclusion of youth and other segments of the population, an inability to recruit new members or rally grassroots support, and an intensely polarised socio-political climate.

However, the idea that political parties in the Arab region are weak and fragmented is flawed in some respects. While many parties and trends, especially secularist and leftist and liberal ones, tend to be structurally weak and vulnerable to schism, the sectarian, ethnic and religious oriented parties and groups present what we might consider to be the opposite problem: they are too strong.

They often operate as separate societies and almost as states within the state in some countries.

The phenomenon is at its most pronounced in the failed or quasi-failed states in the Arab world where such parties or entities have evolved into militia organisations with secessionist aims or plans to monopolise power.

In short, in the Arab world we have excessively weak secularist parties and excessively strong religious parties.

This antithetical condition has distorted political life in most Arab states and worked to strengthen authoritarianism, deepen social divides, and hamper democratisation.

The secularist parties, whether liberal, such as the Wafd and the Free Egyptians Party in Egypt and the Nidaa Tounes Party in Tunisia, Marxist-socialist, such as the Tagammu in Egypt and the Popular Front in Tunisia, or nationalist/Nasserist, such as the Baath Parties in Syria and Iraq, and the Karama (Dignity) Party in Egypt, share a number of characteristics.

Among them are the personalisation of leadership, the lack of internal democratic mechanisms, and the exclusion of women, youth and representatives of regional groupings and religious and ethnic minorities in their internal organisations.

These flaws lend an elitist and authoritarian character to these parties, and they are also prone to internal rifts and schisms and the proliferation of smaller splinter parties.

These things exacerbate another common feature of these parties, being their inability to rally grassroots support and to recruit new members due to poor financial resources, a lack of representation outside major urban centres, and a tendency among some secularist parties to enter into alliances with the ruling regimes.

The religious and/or ethnic identity parties in the Arab world, whether associated with Political Islam, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Movement, or affiliated with a sectarian/ethnic community, such as Hezbollah and the Amal Movement in Lebanon, also have common characteristics.

Above all, they represent communities that are separate from society as a whole, whether for linguistic or ethnic reasons, as is the case with the Amazigh (Berbers) in North Africa or the Kurds in the Middle East, or due to religious/denominational frames-of-reference, as with the Shia and Christian communities in various states, or socio-psychological ones, as with the case of the Islamist trends that seek to impose their religious/moral outlooks on the whole of society.

Often these parties evolve into parallel state entities with their own cultural, religious, educational, social, economic, sporting and, sometimes, paramilitary and policing institutions and agencies.

They also share an ability to mobilise and recruit supporters through their appeals to identity, their relatively strong and cohesive internal structure, and their confrontationist behaviour towards both the central government and the secularist parties.

Political Ecosystems:

The Arab countries can be categorised into four distinct political ecosystems that give rise to forms of interplay among secularist and identity-based political forces:

- Competitive or semi-competitive political environments in which there are regular and transparent elections, the separation of powers, and a system of checks and balances leading to autonomous legislative and judicial authorities with effective powers.

These countries exhibit an effective balance between secularist and identity-based political parties and impartial and professional security establishments. They include Tunisia and some monarchical systems, such as Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait. 

- Authoritarian systems in which the executive branch of government has near absolute powers, while the legislative and judicial branches are heavily restricted. These states are characterised by strong military and security agencies with sweeping powers, numerous legal and security restrictions on political party activity, and the extensive use of repressive measures against opposition groups among both the secularist and identity-based trends.

These systems often feature a dominant ruling party, with, perhaps, some acolyte parties, while the opposition parties and forces are excluded from the decision-making processes.

- Traditionalist monarchical systems dominated by a ruling dynasty, independently or in alliance with other traditional entities such as tribes, religious groups and religious establishments. Modernist forces and the educated middle classes are marginalised economically and politically in these states. Fully-fledged political parties do not exist and neither do independent or distinct legislative and judicial branches.

The quasi-parliamentary organs that exist are limited to consultative councils, while the judicial authorities are largely subordinate to the religious authorities.

- Failed or quasi-failed states in which the central government has either collapsed or is too weak to extend effective authority over society as a whole, as is the case in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq.

These conditions facilitate the rise of identity-based political parties and their transformation into militia movements that are sometimes capable of seizing control over sizeable geographic areas and natural resources and exercise state-like functions in the areas under their control. These states are characterised by acute forms of polarisation that can lead to the de facto and sometimes official partition of the country.

Secularist political parties in these areas tend to be extremely weak.

From the foregoing, it can be seen that secularist political parties tend to be stronger in competitive and semi-competitive political environments, which can give rise to a balance between these parties and their identity-based counterparts.

Conversely, the secularist parties weaken under authoritarian and traditional monarchical systems and are at their most fragile in failed and quasi-failed states.

Identity-based parties, by contrast, flourish under the latter conditions and grow less domineering and independent in competitive and semi-competitive environments that can give rise to countervailing forces.

Under authoritarian and traditional monarchical regimes, the identity-based parties tend to be either heavily restricted or co-opted by the ruling regime. In the event of that regime’s decline, the identity-based parties and forces are better poised to rally political support.

Potential scenarios for the evolution of political parties and the environments in which they operate in the Arab world range from the extreme of militia warfare and civil strife to consensual peaceful and democratic resolutions.

The first case could bring increasing social divisions and strife under a weakening central state.

All effective influence of civil/secularist forces would fade as society splits into mutually antagonist sectarian and ethnic groupings, each with its own militia forces and political, socioeconomic and cultural groupings.

Either anarchy would prevail in such circumstances or new authoritarian regimes could arise in the event that one of the rival parties becomes powerful enough to seize and consolidate political and military power and disarm or neutralise its rivals.

Regarding consensual courses that include transitions to constitutional regimes, it is possible to envision the transformation of some authoritarian regimes in the Arab region, such as those in Sudan, Algeria and Egypt, into democratic systems grounded in constitutional frameworks that maintain an effective balance between secularist and identity-based forces.

Societies would experience a reduction in political and social polarisation, the development of civil society structures in favour of civilian and secularist forces, and an increase in the professionalism and political neutrality of the military and security establishments.

Alternatively, the Arab monarchies in which there is currently a margin of institutionalised political competition, as is the case in Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait, might evolve into constitutional monarchies with increased powers vested in elected governments and officials and a decline in the powers of the ruling dynasty to the point that there is an effective equilibrium between diverse political forces.

Perhaps, too, some of the traditionalist monarchies in the Arab region might evolve into democratic or quasi-democratic constitutional monarchies with institutionalised forms of political competition, the growth of autonomous executive, legislative and judicial institutions that are distinct and independent from the ruling dynasty, and the decline in the powers of traditional structures in favour of democratically elected institutions.

The writer is a senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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