Hazem Almassry

The Arab admires his past and his ancestors, but he is utterly oblivious to his present and future.”[1]

The pioneers of the Arab renaissance[2] were passionate about what was happening in the West in terms of democratic practices, as their efforts focused on getting knowledge of the principles, systems and institutions upon which the Western democratic practice is based, and their interest was reflected in two basic issues:

  The first: an attempt to understand democracy and learn about the political and legal system established by Western societies.

  The second: to establish an approach for democracy as a practice containing the lofty values of Shura[3] principles, as well as to approach Shura itself in terms of the controls that govern it and the possibility to apply it on the ground like democracy.

   Democracy in the West came as a result of a long historical development weaved by economic, social, political and ideological struggles in which the feudal class and absolute monarchy on the one side, and the bourgeoisie and the whole people behind it on the other side during the first stage, then the bourgeois power on the one side and the organized working class on the other side in the next stage after the victory of the bourgeoisie over feudalism, and these struggles took place under conditions in which there was no external enemy in the political, military and economic sphere.[4]

Nevertheless, these conditions are completely different from the conditions for the emergence of capitalism on the margin of the global economic system to which the Arab world belongs, as it appeared as a result of external aggression and the subordination of society to the needs of capitalist accumulation in the dominant centers. These needs led to a class alliance between the dominant foreign capital on the one hand and the local ruling classes on the other hand. That stood as a barrier in the way of the maturation of democratic consciousness and prevented the economic, social and political battles from flourishing that would lead to democracy[5].

Prospects for Arab Democracy

The Arab revolutions that broke out in 2010-2011 opened up opportunities for a new structure in political participation resulting from the change in the current political situation. This change had a positive impact on two basic pillars in the structure of political participation[6]:

The first: the place of political participation: The period of democratic transition in the Arab world is witnessing a change in the official political sphere, as accessing to this sphere before the Arab revolutions was only open to those in the internal circles of the system, whether the ruling parties or ruling families. However, After the revolution, the Arab countries witnessed a large number of new political parties and non-governmental organizations, especially in Egypt and Tunisia: in Tunisia more than 110 political parties were registered after the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2010, while more than forty new political parties in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak in 2011.

The second: expansion is the change in the means of political participation: Before the revolutions, the efforts of the opposition in the Arab world were, to a large extent, not institutionalized, operating mainly through social movements, which suffered from governmental repression and persecution (coercive measures).  But after the revolution, the progress towards institutionalization of oppositions through the formation of new political parties began, partly due to changes in the law, for example in Egypt the political parties’ law was amended to enable new parties to be formed.

The above leads us to ask the following question: If the Arab Spring truly represents a prelude to the process of democratic transformation. What are the obstacles that prevent Arab countries from transitioning to democracy?

the obstacles to the democratization process in the Arab world

61% of the countries in the Arab region are not democratic. There is a shackling of minds, inequality between the sexes, inequality in citizenship and a breach of human rights. Amartya Sen sees that: “If a person is one of the wealthiest people, but he is prevented from expressing his opinion freely, if he is prohibited from participating in public dialogues, or in making public decisions, then he is considered deprived of something valuable.[7]

Internal obstacles

There are several challenges facing Arab countries that must be overcome in order to achieve a cultured society that respects the privacy of each individual who interacts within his/her environment. Besides sectarian, ethnic and religious differences and the concomitant competition for power and influence, other internal reasons meet that stand as a barrier to the actual transition to democracy:

Tribal, family and clan

The Arab societies are still tribal, family, sectarian and religious, and this is what the elections that took place before and after the Arab revolutions showed. Peoples are still voting in the elections on sectarian, tribal and regional grounds, not on national grounds, for most regimes have ruled for decades in the famous colonial way. And just as colonialism strengthened the ethnic, sectarian and tribal contradictions among the inhabitants of the countries that it colonized, so that the people would remain preoccupied with their differences and conflicts so that it would be easy to control them and hit each other whenever needed if they thought of revolution against the colonizer, so the regimes that claim to be national ruled after the departure of colonialism from Arab countries still use the same colonial way[8].

Despite the absence of sectarian and religious conflicts in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, this does not mean that achieving democracy will be easier than other countries, as the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions have shown that political conflict based on ideological hatred is no less dangerous to impede the process of building democracy[9].

This can be traced back to the fact that Arab governments, which are considered an authoritarian oligarchy embodied in various forms of government systems, the most prominent of which are traditional systems[10] (Ibn Khaldun’s analysis of social elites in traditional societies: “- tribe, clan and sect – there is competition for control over the reins of power, without an attempt to change the organizational structures of traditional society[11] …), and the military and bureaucratic systems, the remnants of the colonial and military administration, these governmental systems came after political independence, and they did not have a vision for development, then they did everything in their power to nullify the citizen’s effectiveness to stay in power[12].

Political competition for influence:

The ambitions of a number of Arab presidents of states and their political speech exceeded the borders of their countries. They considered that the arena of the Arab system is a natural extension of their influence and leadership aspirations, and that they are responsible for the future of the region. Some presidents found in the arena of the Arab system a way to escape from their internal problems and the lack of legitimacy of their regimes, and they adopted slogans that touch the emotions of the Arab citizens and satisfy them by funding parties, movements and newspapers in order to get the mass support[13].

The imbalance in Arab-Arab relations

This can be attributed to three reasons, namely[14]:

The first: the imbalance in capabilities and resources among the Arab states: the disparity in the resources of the Arab countries, whether in terms of population, sources of natural wealth, or area, especially when the gap between oil wealth countries and the rest of the Arab countries widened in the 1970s, which led to the absence of one of the basic conditions for integration, which is feeling of mutual benefits and common interests.

The Second: Diversity in the forms of political systems and the different stages of their development: It refers to the diversity of forms and names of Arab political systems between the Kingdom, the Republic, the Sultanate and the Emirate, and until recently the Jamahiriya, and the forms of government systems vary between absolute monarchy, semi-constitutional monarchy, the presidential republic with the one-party or dominant system, and the parliamentary republic that adopts a multi-party system and sectarian quotas, which is unparalleled in any other region in the world, in addition to the difference in public policies regarding almost all issues like the role of women in public life, the concept of citizenship and the citizen’s relationship to power, and rights and public freedoms.

The third: mutual distrust between Arab governments and the personalization of Arab-Arab relations.

External obstacles

President George W. Bush made democracy in the Middle East one of the main topics in his Second Inaugural Address and his 2005 State of the Union Address in Congress, arguing that freedom in the United States depends on the success of freedom in other lands, calling Egypt and Saudi Arabia to assume leadership in the process of creating more open political systems, and from among his statements on the subject in November 2003 on the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the The National Endowment for Democracy (NED): “In many countries of the Middle East – countries of great strategic importance – democracy has not yet taken root and here the question arises: Are the peoples of the East Middle far from the reach of freedom? For my part, I do not think so … The advocates of democracy in the region realize that democracy is not ideal and it is not the path to an ideal world, but it is the only path to national success and dignity”[15]

The above statements explain the importance of the Arab region, despite the divisions based on several labels such as the Middle East, which shows the inevitability of Western countries to intervene in shaping the Arab regimes by imposing principles that conceal behind them misleading goals to Arab consciousness in order to achieve their interests under the slogan of democracy.

Some external obstacles can be summarized according to a set of the following points[16]:

  1. The interests and ambitions of the major countries and some other parties in the Arab world that may be affected by the political forces opposing them if they come to power through the democratic process.
  2. The unwillingness of some parties or states to see the Arab world enjoying security and stability.
  3. Fear of the arrival of Islamic currents to power through democracy.
  4. Fear of failure of peace process in the region between Arabs and Israel.

The post-Arab Spring experience cannot be judged now, as there has not been a radical change as required in the reality of the revolution, as we have seen and we are still waiting for it to be a continuation of what was with more popular awareness, but the road is still long and the results have not yet been determined.

Internal and external obstacles have combined to make democracy difficult to achieve. From inside, everyone wants to rule and achieve wealth at the expense of others, and no one extends a helping hand to the other for the sake of the homeland and to live in freedom and dignity, so changing oneself is the first step towards liberation from tyranny. And the external obstacles have intensified the crisis, as the policies of foreign powers carry a lot of contradictions, as they took upon themselves to spread democracy and at the same time play behind the scenes in order to consolidate more totalitarian regimes and they demonstrate seeking peace and cooperation, but the reality they seek to accumulate gains and interests at the expense of human rights and all values they claim.

Hazem Almassry: A Ph.D candidate in social research and cultural studies.


[1] Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck (1991): The Contemporary Islamic Revival: A Critical Survey and Bibliography. Greenwood Publishing. p. 24.

[2] The Arab Renaissance, also known as the Arab Awakening, or the Arab Enlightenment Movement; It is the intellectual and social situation that prevailed mainly in Egypt and Lebanon, and extended to include other Arab capitals such as Damascus, Baghdad, Fez and Marrakech, just as in the Diaspora, during the nineteenth century. It began at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and some historians put the date of the start of the renaissance in 1798 as the Bonapartist campaign. Among its most prominent manifestations are the spread of printing, the emergence of the press and publishing houses, the expansion of the establishment of schools and universities, the revival and realization of Arab heritage, and the interaction of Arab literature with Western literature in a deep interaction that led to the emergence of new literary arts that it did not have in Arabic existed before, such as stories, novels and plays.

[3] Shura is the opinion of those who are eligible to give advice, or it is the reconnaissance of opinion of the nation or its representative in public matters, and accordingly Muslims take Shura as a root and a base of governance, and based on it, they nominate Ahl al-hall wal-aqd (أهل الحل والعقد‎) the qualified people to appoint or depose a caliph or another ruler on behalf of the nation (Ummah).

[4] Amin, Samir (2002): Notes on the Methodology of Analyzing the Crisis of Democracy in the Arab Nation. In: Saad Eddin Ibrahim and others, The Crisis of Democracy in the Arab Nation, ed. 3 (Beirut: Center for Arab Unity Studies. p. 312.

[5] Ibid. p. 312 -313.

[6] Khatib, Lina (2013): Political Participation and Democratic Transition in the Arab World. p.12.

[7] Al-Badayneh,  Diab Musa (2010); Human Development and Terrorism in the Arab World, (Al-Rayyas: Naif Arab University for Security Sciences. pp. 127-128.

[8] Al-Qasim, Faisal  (2013): Arab Democracy in the Way of Dahis and Al-Ghobra”, Al-Ghad, No. 433, p. 10.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Al-Miqdad, Muhammad Ahmad (2007): Foundations and Foundations of Democratic Transition in the Arab World,” Al-Manara, No.13 p. 103.

[11] Behr, Timo (2012): Social Unrest in the Arab World: What did We Miss? Report for the ‘History of British Intelligence and Security’ research project.Wiltshire: Arts and Humanities Research Council. p. 10.

[12] Al-Miqdad, ibd. P. 103.

[13] Hilal, Ali Al-Din (2012): The Arab Regional System in Transition, Beirut: Center for Arab Unity Studies. p. 13.

[14] Ibid. 19-20.

[15] Council on Foreign Relations (2005): In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How”, New York: p. 31.

[16] Al-Hamad, Jawad Muhammad (2011): Democracy in the Arab Nation: A Realistic View of Democratic Transitions in the Arab World and its Future. in: Khaled Abdel Aziz Al-Shuraida and others, Democracy and Education in the Arab Nation. Beirut: Center for Arab Unity Studies. P. 468.

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