Perilous transitions to democracy

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 30 Nov 2021

Democratic aspirations have stalled across the Arab world, drawing attention to the principles that must be in place before they can succeed, writes Hussein Haridy

There is a general consensus that the uprisings over the last ten years, the “Arab Spring” and its sequels, that have affected republican regimes throughout the Arab world have laid the foundations for more democratic regimes.

Yet, from Tunisia and Libya in the west of the Arab world to Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq in the east and Sudan in the south, democratic aspirations have stalled. While there has been agreement on the objectives of these uprisings, commonly referred to as “revolutions,” there has been no agreement on the causes of the political regression that has taken place in these same countries and difficulties in establishing the necessary foundations for democratic governance.

Tunisia had a head start in the race for democracy, and the world took the Tunisian experience as a success story and as a model to be followed in other parts of the Arab world. Tunisia became the reference point in evaluating other “democratic experiences” in the Arab world, but Tunisia, too, has been facing challenges in the transition to democracy that have posed serious problems for the country.

In Sudan, hopes ran high after the overthrow of the dictatorial Islamist rule of former president Omar Al-Bashir in 2019. The joint rule between the Sudanese military and the forces of the “Sudanese Revolution” raised expectations worldwide that Sudan would successfully manage its transitional period of three years on the road towards complete civilian and democratic rule.

In order to help the Sudanese people to follow this transition to its desired conclusion, the international community proved not only helpful but also generous. It decided to write off $ 50 billion of Sudan’s foreign debts, which had reached $60 billion prior to the overthrow of Al-Bashir.

US President Joe Biden decided to provide the transitional governing authority in Sudan with $700 million in financial assistance. Other Western countries, like France, for example, did the same by providing much-needed assistance to enable Sudanese officials to deal with the difficult economic situation inherited from the previous regime in Sudan.

In Lebanon, the Lebanese people took to the streets two years ago to demand the abolition of a system that, though considered a “democracy,” is based on a sectarian distribution of power. Today, Lebanon’s democracy is facing unprecedented economic, political and security challenges that pose grave threats to the very idea of the state as a viable institution in the country.

The democratic experiment in Iraq has been endangered by the rejection by the country’s pro-Iranian militias of the results of the recent general elections, which were otherwise seen as having been free and fair. This rejection, which should not be seen as surprising or unexpected, stems from their defeat at the ballot box and their claim that the elections were rigged.

This argument is not limited to Iraq. Historically, political parties, forces and politicians in Arab countries often claim that elections have been rigged when they lose them. In Iraq, the claims about the recent elections have not been made out of respect for the democratic process as such, but rather out of a desire to preserve the sectarian division of higher political posts in the country, among them the presidency, the premiership and the speakership of the legislature, and of parliamentary seats.

In both Tunisia and Sudan, the democratic transition is in peril, and the two countries are now at a crossroads. 

In Tunisia, the president, who was elected through the ballot box, announced a state of emergency in the country on 25 July, promising it would end in 30 days according to the Tunisian Constitution. Parliament has been suspended, and supreme political power is in the hands of the president.

In Sudan, disregarding the Constitutional Document that is considered the basis and framework for joint military-civilian rule in the country, the Sudanese military for reasons unknown decided to end its partnership with civilian rule on 25 October. It arrested the prime minister and other political figures and assumed unchecked political power.

Street demonstrations and international pressures then forced the military to change course. On 21 November, the Sudanese military and the country’s former prime minister, Abdullah Hamdok, reached a political agreement to restore the constitutional order from before 25 October, after Hamdok had been released from house arrest.

In Libya, the road to democracy is uncertain. Although the country’s political forces and the Libyan National Transitional Authority have agreed on holding presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 December, concerns are growing that the elections, supposed to usher in a new political system in Libya after a bloody and insecure decade, will be postponed. The pro-Turkish Libyan Muslim Brothers are stonewalling in order to accommodate Turkish interests in the future of Libya. If the elections are postponed, the likelihood of a successful democratic transition is doubtful.

Whether in Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon or Iraq, democratic transitions in order to succeed need native democrats and political parties and forces that firmly believe in the foundational principles of genuine democracy, among them the rule of law, the separation of power, civilian control of the military, respect for human rights, transparency and accountability, and the need to fight against all forms of corruption. 

Most importantly of all, they need to respect and honour the constitutional texts in the context of which democracies thrive, with these not being subject to the whims of rulers or other political forces.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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