The hopes of real democracy sweeping through the Arab world have not materialised, argues Barak Barfi. Having travelled through the region, he says he saw different interpretations of what freedom means, frustrations having simply changed targets, and new problems replacing old ones. The regimes may have gone. But the societies, structures and problems they created over decades haven't, Barfi says.
When hundreds of thousands of Arabs poured into the streets at the end of 2010, many Westerners believed that they were witnessing a democratic revolution. One that would finally free the Middle East from the shackles of authoritarianism and introduce a reign of universal principles of freedom stretching from Chile to South Korea.
The good times: during the revolutions, few were concerned about the shape of the future - as long as it was different from the past
Twenty three months later, these hopes have been shattered. The Arab world has shown that its view of political liberalisation differs greatly from that of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
In Egypt, Islamists are pushing for a constitutional clause that would make it a crime to speak ill of the Prophet Mohammad and the first four caliphs. Liberals fear that it will muzzle the creative spirit of critical religious analysis. And days after the death of Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, the president of the interim government declared that an edict banning polygamy would be annulled - because it contradicts Islamic law.
As new Arab leaders focus on remaking society, they appear to be neglecting the political reforms at the heart of a democratic transition. These omissions largely stem from the foundations of the revolutions which were never about democracy itself, but rather ending corrupt, authoritarian regimes and their myriad hurdles to social and economic advancement.
These regimes saw their social bases erode and societal frustrations mount as people increasingly realised they could not win in a rigged game.
Today, many Egyptians are frustrated with the revolution’s pace of progress. The youth that fuelled the uprising seem no closer to finding steady employment than when President Husni Mubarak ruled.
Their vexation should come as no surprise. A government that could not respond to their needs cannot be reformed overnight. A revolution that topples the elites but leaves behind a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy will not implement the changes necessary to modernise the country to compete with the Asian Tigers. Among them is the need to remove subsidies that gobble up 28% of the national budget.
The most significant changes thus far have been the almost complete breakdown of security and an Islamist government focused more, I believe, on modifying societal mores than reforming a decrepit economy. Some Egyptians can no longer leave their homes at night without fear of being robbed. Thugs rough up patients in hospitals. And the perpetual demonstrations in downtown Cairo cripple the capital’s economy, leaving residents angry.
Rather than address these concerns, the Muslim Brotherhood that rules Egypt has been encouraging piety in the workplace. Veiled women who were banned from being anchors on state television channels under Mubarak now sport chic headscarves on air. Bureaucrats who feared growing beards associated with religious devotion now confidently display their whiskers in ministerial hallways.
And now the questions begin...is the best way to protect freedom with unchallenged powers?
‘We are finally free to be good Muslims,’ Nabil S. told me last summer, outside a mosque in one of Cairo’s numerous slums. ‘We don’t have to be afraid the security services will arrest us if we pray five times a day.’ But Nabil and like-minded Egyptians view freedom as an opportunity to impose their ideas on others. They want Egypt to embrace the Islamic values and suppress the rights of secularists.
Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s focus on societal change, President Mohammad Morsi has tried to institute some economic and bureaucratic reforms. He increased government workers' salaries by 15%. He promised to address shortages in basic staples and fuel. And he pledged to improve security and reduce the traffic jams that clog Cairo streets. But of the 64 goals he laid out during his campaign, only nine have been met.
The Brotherhood’s failure to improve Egyptians’ lot as their security deteriorates has created nostalgia for the ancien régime. In part, this reflects Egyptians' disappointment with the democratic values they have only selectively embraced. They want government to redistribute wealth and create jobs, without questioning what its true role is.
Unemployment, particularly of the young and males, is perhaps one of the Arab countries biggest challenges
These dilemmas reflect Egyptians’ frustrations. They are more concerned with rectifying their socio-economic problems rather than establishing their political rights. “We want our leaders to listen to us, to solve our problems,” Ahman F. told me in the Cairo suburb of Giza. But when I asked him and his friends what type of government they wanted, they were puzzled by the question. They were more interested in ranting about micro problems than articulating theoretical views of government.
Some liberals have tried to define what government’s role should be. But they are largely discredited for their relationship with Western countries and their advocacy of principles like freedom of expression and religion. Instead, a more Islamic model of government has prevailed, which emphasises social justice rather than political liberty; collective duties rather than individual freedoms.
In Libya, the revolution has taken a different course. But the frustrations are the same. After 42 years of Qadhafi’s idiosyncratic policies, people merely want some normality in their lives. The perpetual revolution against internal and external enemies that obliterated state institutions has left them utterly exhausted with politics.
Since Qadhafi’s fall, the state has receded. The new government has little authority beyond a handful of coastal towns. In the hinterland, ethnic groups clash over smuggling routes, with the central government seemingly powerless to stop them. At times Libyans are exasperated with the disappearance of the state. But at others, they are indifferent. ‘We want to be left alone,’ Muhammad al-B. told me during a March visit to Benghazi’s gold market.
Nevertheless, many Libyans yearn for the security stripped from them by the revolution. The militias that sprang up to topple Qadhafi are the country’s real power brokers. City states in Misrata and Zintan declare war on neighbouring towns. Theft and revenge killings are common. As in Egypt, some Libyans pine for a return to the previous era. Then, political freedoms may have been non-existent, but safety was abundant.
Much like in Egypt, the Western focus on individual rights is lost on many Libyans. Revolutions often lead to the removal and marginalisation of the factions that supported the former regime. But mass expulsion of these groups rarely accompanies a transition to democracy. Yet in Libya, militias from Misrata expelled the 30,000 residents of neighbouring Tawargha because they fought for the loyalists. Today they are scattered around the country.
Last December I visited Tripoli’s Naval Academy, where about 2,300 Tawarghans reside with frequent blackouts and no heat. ‘What does freedom mean if we can’t go home?’ asked Sabri Muhammad Milad. ‘Where is the government that is supposed to protect us?’
Many Libyans complain it is the government itself that is the problem. The National Transitional Council (NTC), the interim government that took power when Qadhafi was overthrown, stumbled out of the gate. In a country ruled by only handful of men, who rose to power with Qadhafi in 1969 or joined him in the 1970s, few have any political experience. But the NTC failed to clear even Libyans’ low bar for success.
Its secretive nature frustrated a people already exasperated with Qadhafi’s regime, termed ‘opaque’ by American diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks. ‘There is no transparency in the council’s decisions,’ a former NTC member told me in February. ‘We agree on things and then other decrees are announced.’
With political reform stalled and security deteriorating by the day, many Libyans have soured on a revolution they never viewed primarily through the prism of establishing democracy. Many Libyans see no tangible gains from embracing it. Elections have not brought to power leaders who can transcend the country’s fractious fissures. Iraqi-style bickering has prevented the establishment of a government three months after national polls.
Not over yet
Egyptians and Libyans’ initial encounter with democracy has left them disappointed. New economic, political and security crises emerge daily. In part their frustrations stem from the instability that accompanies transitioning to democracy.
But the populations themselves also bear some of the blame. Some of them believe democracy is a buffet-style political system, from which they can select certain principles - but not others. They have fervently embraced the right to protest but largely rejected individual rights that are a hallmark of democratic states.
If they want their revolutions to succeed, the people of the Middle East need to remake their societies by discarding traditional ideas - and embracing modern ones. Otherwise, their flirtation with democracy will end in failure just as an earlier experiment with pluralistic politics did.
In the 1940s and 50s, weak parties led by urban and rural notables with no social base proffered political programmes that contained nothing beyond preserving their interests. If today’s democratically elected leaders wish to avoid their fate, they will also have to avoid their mistakes. But none of their policies have so far demonstrated a grasp of the past that is so crucial for their future.