Political crisis has turned to become such a severe and chronic situation in the Middle East that it has affected potential and dynamic aspects of behavior in different political systems of the region. The latest anti-government uprisings in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa), with a head start in 2010 in Tunisia, left remarkable impacts on the political systems in the region with an unprecedented pace and scope. Though these transformations led to a process of transition to democracy in very few cases, with Tunisia as the most successful example among others, it turned out to a failed attempt leading to devastating civil wars, escalating religious extremism and more weakness in the nation-state constructions of the region. Thus, the process of transition to democracy in the Middle East has turned out to have significant challenges and opportunities on the complicated nature of interactions by and between political systems, civil societies, non-state actors as well as external actors in the region.
It is, however, true that a lack of national consensus in achieving joint goals and objectives was one of the main reasons for the failure of the democratization process. In addition, adopting ideological policies by internal and external actors has been a threat to the framework of national identity within and between states in the Middle East. On one hand, the authoritarian regimes having at their disposal all necessary political and economic tools embarked upon widespread suppression of protesters and on the other hand, the protesters themselves -reducing their national claims to sectarian ones- entered into a religious-oriented war which was mainly in the interest of external actors in the region. Meanwhile, some of the Arab leaders, most specifically in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, found the last resort in highlighting the threat of religious extremism to their national interests and started to brutally suppress the protests, whatever the costs would be, in order to keep the ruling elites in power. The latest situation with regard to these protests has not only been a failure in transition to democracy but also a devastation of their national interest and stability as a result of religious conflicts in the region.
In Bahrain, the process of democratization has been affected by religious expectations of the Shia population. In Syria, the conflict between state and protesters, seemingly a zero-sum game, has left no space for negotiation. While the ruling government persists upon its institutional legitimacy in order to continue suppressing the opposition and not to give up power, the opposition has failed the attempts to unify different groups under a single umbrella in order to cease armed conflicts in favor of political reforms. In Yemen, though the democratization process was followed by Presidential elections, the transition of power did not occur due to sectarian struggles between the government and the Houthis which has led to the dominance of Shia population over the North and Eastern parts and Sunnis dominance over the Southern and Western parts of the country.
Considering the current situation in the Middle East, it is visible that there are various reasons which explain the failure of democracy in this region with the lack of national identity, religious conflicts and external interventions in the national affairs of the states as the main reasons. A successful transition to democracy would be viable if the elites had common understandings on national identity which in case of Middle East, is suffering from huge sectarian and religious conflicts. A Middle East which has long been nominated with authoritarian ruling governments suffering from religious and sectarian conflicts.
It is true that nowadays, “democracy” has been regarded as the most suitable way of governing a state; an idea held by the citizens and elites of each and every society. However, the gap between state and nation in the Middle East has been one of the most important factors hindering the process of transition to democracy. In addition, religious conflicts, corruption and rentier structures of economy for most of these oil-rich countries have also been obstacles for this transition. So far, the world has witnessed three waves of democratization with the Arab Spring being recognized as the fourth wave following Samuel P. Huntington’s historical analysis of the global democratic process. It was started with Tunisia in 2010 and has affected all over the Middle East so far. Having been faced with severe resistance of authoritarian regimes in this region to confer their power, the reverse wave of this democratization is plausible since it would bring about a revival of their authoritarianism.
There is no doubt about the emergence of a new Middle East in the near future. The democratization wave can either bring about stability and institutions based on the principles of democracy and human rights or it may strengthen the dominance of religious and sectarian conflicts to serve the interests of authoritarian regimes of the region. The response to this current crisis demands for the proactive actions by the world community to prevent the revival of authoritarianism and embark upon constructing a new Middle East based on principles of democracy. Right now, two approaches can be identified to the future of the Middle East. First is an Islamic Middle East with the dominance of constant conflicts between a pro-Iranian Shia pattern and a Sunni-led one supported by Saudi Arabia and the second is a democratic Middle East based on principles of Liberal Democracy.
It also seems necessary to have a review on the historical evolution of the concept of ‘democracy’ in the turbulent region of the Middle East which has been always affected by religious and sectarian conflicts evident through three levels of analysis. First at national level, the dissatisfaction of Sunni population toward the sectarian arrangements of the states (mainly in Syria and Iraq and to some extent in Iran) along with the massive repressions by the governments have diminished the chance of transition to democracy even within its first phase of the fall of the authoritarian regime leading to more religious extremism in the region. Second, at the regional level, the religious conflicts between Iran, seeking a Shia hegemony over the region, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey, each with direct and indirect support of Sunni Islam, has intensified extremism which has, in turn, developed the scope of the crisis to the international level as the third level of analysis with the involvement of Russia as well as the former-reluctant United States in shaping a securitized order throughout the region. However, it seems necessary to pay due attention to other factors shaping the nature of states in the Middle East if we want to talk about the process of democratization. The fall of the authoritarian regime is not simply the first phase of this process since the Middle Eastern states are still struggling with unresolvable questions of identity and legitimacy with political unrest, religious intolerance and rentier structures of economy as the main feature of their structure.
Samireh Ahmadi was born in Kurdistan and educated in Iran and Germany, receiving master’s degrees in International Relations – British Studies from the University of Tehran and in European and European Legal Studies from the University of Hamburg.