Muslim world’s democracy experiment

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

Shahid Javed Burki

For more than half a dozen years, several countries in the western part of the Muslim world have been engaged in the democracy experiment. They have been trying to establish democratic political orders that will replace the numerous authoritarian administrations that had governed in the area. Some of these countries have made progress, but some other are still struggling. Those who were less successful have been on roller coaster rides. In both cases, it was the youth that agitated to bring about change. Some of the movements to create new political orders were the consequence of economic circumstances; some had their roots in politics. They have alternated between representative political systems and reversion to the old order. Egypt was the most dramatic example of this back and forth switches. Two things were common to the beginnings of these experiments. They involved the rapidly expanding middle class and they began with disruptive events.

While there were similarities in the factors that produced these movements, the initial outcomes were also similar. In most of the countries experimenting with new political orders, the establishment did not yield easily. This would not have surprised the academics who have studied political change. According to Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, the authors of the book, Why Nations Fail, “extractive political institutions, which concentrate power in the hands of a few, who will then have incentives to maintain and develop extractive economic institutions for their benefit and use the resources they obtain to cement their hold on political power”. The military has returned to power in Egypt. In Pakistan, while the armed forces have not attempted to occupy the centre stage of politics once again, the economic-political establishment, with which it has competed for space on previous occasions, has been reluctant to yield much ground to those who have been struggling to find some place in the space from which they got largely excluded.

In Pakistan, the movement towards the establishment of a new and more representative political order began with the lawyers’ movement of 2007. It resulted from the resentment felt by the middle class that it was being denied political participation by a regime that was becoming increasingly authoritarian. The legal community, once having hit the streets, kept the pressure on until the time the military president relented and held an election that was free and fair. But the progress was not linear. The country took two steps forward and one back, in the last seven years. The two elections held as a part of the process of political advance, did not yield the expected results.

In several Arab countries, the spark was lit by the self-immolation of a fruit vendor, doing business in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. He was distressed by the burden he and his economic class had to carry because of bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. This one spontaneous act of utter desperation led to the Arab Spring of 2011 that felled several authoritarian regimes. The pressure exerted by the street led to the removal of long-lasting regimes that had governed Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen for decades. But, as was the case in Pakistan, progress was not steady and did not move in one direction. In Egypt, elections led to the emergence of an Islamic government led by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood. But, the Islamic regime overplayed its hand and the military that had ruled the country for decades reasserted itself. In Libya, the regime headed by a military man was overthrown with the help of the West. What followed was a civil war that is still being fought. The result was similar in Yemen.

The democracy experiment in Tunisia has moved forward but has arrived at a delicate moment. Elections for choosing a new parliament were held in end October followed by the election for the president a month later. There has been considerable disillusionment with the country’s political evolution. According to a survey conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre, as the country prepared for the second round of elections, 59 per cent of the Tunisians supported a leader with a strong hand, up from 37 per cent two years ago. The second finding was even more troubling for those who had placed their hope in the development of democratic political orders in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Of the people surveyed by Pew, only 38 per cent expressed preference for democracy to solve the nation’s economic problems, down from 61 per cent in 2014. According to Carlotta Gall, who has become familiar with the changes in the Muslim world because of her work for The New York Times “those who have studied other societies in transition — namely post-communist countries — say it is to be expected that former officials will make a comeback after several years.” In her report on the Tunisian political situation, she quotes a political activist as saying that “the second elections always see the return of the old regime, but not the system.”

What we are seeing in the Muslim world, therefore, is extreme political ferment that will go back and forth between the old and exclusive political and economic orders, and new inclusive and representative systems.

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