The recent rise in pluralism in the Arab world has not resulted in the democratization of political systems so far. Arab publics are exposed to a much broader range of ideas and are engaging in new discussions as a result of an increase in the number of national and pan-Arab newspapers and satellite Television Stations, as well as the appearance of an active blogosphere. But incumbent regimes have tightened again their grips on political life. As a result, publics are increasingly disenchanted with formal political life, as seen in decreasing voters’ turnout. In this atmosphere of disenchantment with formal political systems, political parties find it difficult to build up their constituencies and to influence policies. In their new book, “Getting to Pluralism: Political Actors in the Arab World,” Carnegie’s Marina Ottaway and Amr Hamzawy present the collected findings of years of research and direct engagement with key political actors across the Arab world. In a series of events held in Brussels, Berlin and London between the 7th and 10th of December, Ottaway and Hamzawy discussed these findings. In Brussels, they were joined by Michael Koehler, Head of Cabinet, Task Force on Political Islam, at the European Commission.

Social Movements

At the start of the book project in 2005, Ottaway said, there was a general sense of movement towards reform, as well as an impression that participation in the formal political process might lead to real changes in the balance of power in the Middle East. The situation has shifted radically since then. Governments regained a sense of control and previously successful Islamist parties began to lose votes in elections. 

Nevertheless, a new form of politics has begun to emerge, one that moves away from party and electoral politics and into the realm of social movements. The Arab world is witnessing a succession of movements and events that governments seem incapable of controlling, such as strikes, protest actions, the emergence of new labor organizations, and the use of modern media and communications technologies to voice dissent. 

Distribution of Power, the Rule of Law, and Low Voter Turnouts

The Arab world, Hamzawy explained, has moved towards greater pluralism in civil society and the media, and formal politics.  However, greater pluralism has not resulted in significant changes in two key areas of democratization: the distribution of power and the rule of law. When it comes to these key factors, Arab countries have remained unchanged since the last decades of the twentieth century.  The current trend is towards greater concentration of power, visible in countries such as Egypt, Yemen, and Syria. 

Hamzawy offered a few chief reasons for why greater pluralism has not resulted in further democratization: 

  • Ruling establishments, despite having come to accept a degree of competition in formal politics, have managed to maintain their authoritarian grip over society. 
  • Secular opposition parties remain hopelessly weak and lack popular support. 
  • Islamist parties, which benefit from significant public backing, have not been able to create change in the political process. They are now preoccupied with their own internal problems rather than with their role in the political system.
  • Arab societies do not have the necessary means to channel dynamism in the informal political sphere into the formal political arena, where they could create a consensus to push for democratization. This is illustrated by the sharp decline in voter turnout that has taken place in most Arab countries.
  • Arab populations no longer debate political reform and democratization. They now focus on the crisis of the state and the failure of its modernization project. Arabs see nation states all around them, even seemingly stable countries like Algeria or Egypt, as either disintegrating or in crisis.

Democracy without Democrats

Koehler argued that there is no popular demand in the Arab world for formal democracy, in comparison to other regions of the world. The growth in protest movements, he said, should not necessarily be equated to real change. Arab regimes have succeeded in changing the societal basis of their power, without changing the formal mechanisms of their power. Koehler also noted that it is significant that the increase in pluralism comes not as a result of internal impetus in the Arab world, but rather from usage of technologies developed outside the Arab world. 

Socioeconomic and Ecological Challenges

Arab regimes are facing socioeconomic and ecological problems that may overwhelm the traditional methods of kinship and clientalism that the governments currently use to maintain their authority, Koehler warned. In Egypt, for example, due to rising water levels, up to 20% of the country’s population may have to be evacuated from the Nile delta. Displacing such a large number of people, he continued, would undoubtedly have important consequences on political life in the country. A significant number of Arab countries may be faced with challenges so big, he concluded, that they could change how political parties are formed, how decisions are made, and who holds the reins of power. 

Pluralism in the Media and Civil Society

In comparison to the end of the twentieth century, Hamzawy maintained, pluralism in the Arab media has increased, not only in terms of the quantity of media outlets, but also in terms of the quality and diversity of the opinions being expressed. This is increasingly true even of state-run media outlets, including television, radio stations, and newspapers. Equally impressive progress has been made in the domain of civil society, Hamzawy continued. In Morocco, for example, significant progress has been made in women’s rights, social and economic rights, and in devising strategies to tackle poverty. The missing link, he concluded, is for the advances in the media and civil society to be reflected in the formal political process. 

The Role of the European Union

Neither the member states, nor the formal institutions of the European Union, Koehler argued, have a coherent strategy for Arab countries and the changes that are taking place in them. Europe is currently disillusioned by the failure of potential Euro-Arab or Euro-Mediterranean partnerships during the latter half of the 1990s. The launch of the European Neighbourhood Policy in May 2004 demonstrates the failure of Europe to find a way to work with the Middle East as a region, instead of on a country by country basis. It remains to be seen if Europe will be able to develop a more cohesive strategy with respect to the various forces in Muslim and Arab societies in the future. 

Obama’s Policy on Islamists

Ottaway argued that the Obama administration’s policy towards Islamists has essentially gone no further than the president’s Cairo speech. The Obama administration has been consumed by domestic debate. Only the Peace Process and relations with Iran have received significant high level attention from the White House. Moreover, the administration has made no decisions on its policy on advocating political reform in the Arab world, which would force it to take a clear stance on how to deal with Islamist parties.