The Arab world is in transition after a decade of uprisings, upheavals, “revolutions” and civil wars. By their very nature, transitions are critical phases in the history of nations, and this is also the case with the Arab countries.
The last ten years have witnessed almost the withering away of state institutions, and the very notion of the nation-state has sometimes seemed to be on the brink of disappearing. Egypt itself was under a threat of this sort for a brief period from 11 February 2011, the day when former president Mohammed Hosni Mubarak relinquished power, to 30 June 2013, when Egyptians from all walks of life descended on Cairo’s Tahrir Square to push for the overthrow of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.
That day will go down in history as the beginning of the end of the phenomenon known as Political Islam across the Arab world. Today, the tide of history is shifting once again to the benefit of the nation-state and nationalist-inspired attempts at the rejuvenation of the state in the Arab world.
However, in order to succeed, transitions need enlightened and progressive leaders and strong state institutions and political forces that enjoy sufficient legitimacy to bring about fundamental changes in state structures and the philosophy of governance. In other words, there needs to be a broad consensus for authoritarian regimes to transition to more democratic ones based on a commitment to good governance and the peaceful transfer of power in free-and-fair elections.
The Arab countries are well placed today to jump-start their transition to good governance. And whether dealing with the situation in Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, or to a lesser degree in Lebanon, the world is willing to help. Elections are scheduled for this year or next in many of these countries: in Libya next December, if things go to plan according to the agreed-upon timetable; and in Lebanon in the first quarter of next year. The Iraqis went to the polls on 10 October to elect a new Iraqi parliament.
Syria, the battleground for foreign and regional confrontations through proxies, is still searching for a way out of the destabilisation of the last decade. Despite the war unleashed in Syria in March 2011 against the rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the latter is still in power with a new constitutional mandate, however dubious this might appear to be in the eyes of those foreign, regional and Arab forces that have tried to overthrow the Syrian regime.
Today, the winds of change are also blowing in the opposite direction in Syria, and some of those very powers that previously worked against the Syrian regime have begun either reopening their embassies in Damascus or having their leaders call the Syrian president in developments not seen since March 2011.
The UN-instituted Constitutional Commission in Syria is scheduled to meet again on 18 October in Geneva as part of another attempt to come up with a Constitutional Document that can garner the support of the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition, whatever this term might mean in practice, and the foreign powers that have backed it.
The situation in Syria has come to symbolise all that has gone wrong with what we could call the “democratic winds” that blew across the Arab world in 2011. In retrospect, we have come to realise today that a great gulf has existed, and I presume continues to exist, between the democratic aspirations of the Arab peoples and the political forces that have come to the fore to claim that they are the true incarnation of these aspirations.
It goes without saying that the forces that came to the forefront in leading the democratic movement in Syria have themselves by definition been anti-democratic. Their only commitment to democracy has been the ballot box, and once in power they have shown no willingness to relinquish it. The Constitutional Declaration made by the Muslim Brothers in Egypt in November 2012 is a reminder of how undemocratic are all the groups that hail from Political Islam. Syria remains a living testimony of how far Political Islam has been willing to go to reach power through the tacit help of foreign powers.
The situation in Libya is no different from that in Syria, but there is a major difference between the two cases in that the neighbouring countries of the former, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, have provided a counterweight to the disintegration of Libya, realising, rightly, that such disintegration would run counter to their national security. For a brief period, Egypt suffered terrorist attacks from across its western borders.
The UN and the international community have been pushing for a successful political transition in Libya through the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2510 of 12 February 2020, which was adopted in its entirety in the Berlin Declaration of 19 January 2020.
According to the timetable agreed among the various Libyan political forces, with the support of their respective international and regional backers, presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled in Libya on 24 December this year. According to recent reports, the Libyan National Assembly has decided to hold the presidential elections on this date and to postpone the legislative elections until next year. But there is no consensus on this unnecessary separation between the two sets of elections.
In Iraq and Lebanon, elections are seen as the starting point for transitioning to more representative political regimes not based on sectarian or religious grounds. This is a tall order, however deep are the popular demands in both countries for more democratic forms of governance. To illustrate how challenging this transition could prove to be, there has been the regrettable decision by the Lebanese parliament not to allocate seats for women in the next elections out of fears that this could adversely impact the sectarian distribution of power in the country.
I have not discussed the situation in Yemen. This is because although Yemen witnessed a popular uprising in 2011 led by the Muslim Brotherhood, regional and Arab intervention in Yemeni affairs complicated the situation, and four years later Yemen saw a proxy war between Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran on the other. That war is still raging, and despite incessant efforts by the UN at mediation between the warring parties, it would be surprising if it came to an end before the Saudis and the Iranians work out their political differences that have seen each side trying to checkmate the other.
The Arab world today is at a crossroads. Either the transition to more open political systems succeeds, or it descends into a stalemate that will block the emergence of more democratic regimes in the Arab countries. The decisive moment could come when some Arab countries lead by example and decide to guide the transition to democracy.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly