Where do we go From Here? Transitioning from Dictatorship to Democracy in 2012

The democratic gains made from the Arab Spring are by no means assured. 2012 will see would-be democracies challenged to respond to and enable an historical transformation from dictatorship to democracy.

By Professor John Esposito for RUSI.org

RUSI.org's 2012 Perspectives Series

For more expert perspectives of the year ahead, go to www.rusi.org/2012

2012 will be a critical year in the Middle East. Old habits die hard. The emergence of new governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East will challenge many in Muslim societies and US as well as EU policymakers to transcend a longstanding conventional wisdom, a failed paradigm, and to adapt and pursue a new narrative.

The historical transformation signaled by the Arab uprisings, the overthrow of regimes and the potential fall of others in Syria and Yemen, will test the processes of democratisation and the extent to which a new order can emerge in the face of tribal and regional differences, secular-Islamist divides, the resistance of entrenched elites and the concerns and fears of many Western governments. Can a sufficient degree of national unity be achieved to enable citizens to reclaim their dignity and control of their lives, establish their government and determine their destiny through free and fair elections, assure government accountability and transparency, rule of law, and human rights? The extent to which the US and European Union clinging to an old paradigm and concern over the role of Islamists in emerging governments obscured the more potent threat to democratisation from entrenched militaries, security forces and bureaucratic elites.

The examples of Egypt and Tunisia are instructive and underscore potential pitfalls in 2012. In Egypt, the transitional military government has reasserted its power and made it clear that it will cling to power, extending the initial agreed transition period to civilian government. Like the Mubarak regime, it has resorted to violence, mass detention, torture, military courts and intimidation of independent NGOs and human rights advocates. It has exploited and provoked religious and confessional, secular and Islamist divisions and fears.

Challenges to democratic transition

The coming year will test the ability of reform-minded Egyptians, however diverse, to counter the attempt by the old guard and entrenched elites (military, security, political elites) to reassert its power and privilege.  The Islamic parties (the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party [FJP] the biggest vote getter, and the Salafist Nour Party) will have an opportunity to prove that they are prepared to work with other political and ideological currents.  The FJP has adopted an impressive platform, one that addresses issues of equality of citizenship and opportunity, gender equality, and religious and political pluralism.  It has an impressive cadre of leaders, many from the younger generation.  Will the party be able to stick to its stated reformist principles and agenda or will more conservative Brotherhood leaders backslide? Islamist parliamentarians in partnership with others will need to work together to draft a new constitution in bringing about the transition democracy. 

More importantly, the way forward for Egypt will be made more difficult by a military that has demonstrated its primary concern about its interests and immunity and desire to be independent from civilian oversight as well as remnants of the Mubarak regime, secularists (not all by any means) who are intransigent in their opposition to any place for religion in the state, despite major polls show that majority of Egyptians want both democracy in a society that is also informed by religious values. Christian minorities, in particular the Copts, are also concerned, in light of the attacks on churches and killings by extremists, about their rights and future in a 'new Egypt'.  The unity symbolised in the uprising and protests in Tahrir Square will continue to be critical in sending a signal to the military and to Egypt's new parliament to assure that the sacrifices of the past for a democratic future are not hijacked.

In contrast to Egypt, Tunisia has experienced a more rapid movement to democratisation. The Ennahda party advocates a civil coalition government of national unity, an accommodation of liberal and secular-humanist values within Tunisia's Arab-Islamic cultural heritage, and the desire to address common political, economic and social concerns. After scoring a 42 per cent victory it has moved quickly to pursue these goals in the establishment of an interim government. It has moved quickly, forming a coalition government with two secular parties, Congress for the Republic (CFR) and Block (Takattol) for Labor and Liberties, and supported the election by the Constitutent Assembly of Dr. Moncef Marzouki, leader of the secularist CFR as Tunisia's president. During the coming year, Tunisia's new coalition government will be challenged to demonstrate its ability to work across ideological differences and for the common political, economic and social future of a new Tunisia. Both Ennahda and its secular coalition partners have made a good beginning but the realities of establishing a new order will test their abilities to negotiate and accommodate. At the same time, one can expect that more hardline secularists will remain in strong opposition as will remnants of the Ben Ali establishment. It will be especially important for the military and security forces to make the transition to a new way of doing business. The most pressing problem for the new government will be the need to deliver the goods, and the need to work together on economic and job development will be critical to maintaining popular support.

No conflict between religion and democracy

New governments in Egypt and Tunisia also face a delicate and potentially divisive issue, how to accommodate the role of religion and religious values. As the Gallup World Poll has reported, majorities of Muslims want democracy but not Western secularism; they do not see an inherent contradiction between democracy and sharia as 'a' source of law. However, most do not want Shariah as 'the' source of law; nor do they want a theocracy (a clergy-governed state).Gallup World Polls in 2006 and 2007 found that large majorities of Muslims, both women and men, in many and diverse Muslim countries from Egypt to Malaysia, want Shariah as 'a' source of law. A recent Gallup report, 'Majority of Tunisians Feel Sharia Must Be a Source of Legislation, But Not the Only One (Gallup Data, Thursday, November 10)', indicates that a majority (61%) of Tunisians want sharia as a source, not 'the' source of law. While more hardline ultra conservative Salafis may call for implementation of their version or interpretation of Islamic law as the system of law, neither Ennahda nor Egypt's FJP have taken that position. Ennahda has indicated that it does not wish to change Tunisia's reforms affecting women and family laws or to ban alcohol. Although perceptions of what the Shariah represents and the degree to which it is possible to implement its rulings in society vary enormously, most want democratic and religious principles and values to coexist in their government and thus see a role for religious principles in the formulation of state legislation. Many forms of accommodation are possible.  

As we watch the emergence of new governments and the continued struggles for regime change or democratic reforms, the US and EU must move beyond a now discredited narrative and support Arabs, but not directly attempt to intervene and influence the outcome of elections, as they exercise the very freedoms our country was founded upon and which we cherish and promote. They must reassess their foreign policies towards the region, pursue a new genuinely inclusive paradigm based on equal partnerships that do not seek to dictate democratic outcomes. If many ask whether Islamists engage in 'double speak', many in emerging Arab democracies wonder whether the US and EU 'double speak' today regarding their transition from support for authoritarian regimes to accepting the right of self-determination without Western intervention or interference.

2012 will see would-be democracies challenged to respond to and enable an historical transformation from dictatorship to democracy. The ideological and political pluralism of secularists and Islamists alike will be tested; their ability to transcend ideological polarisation and seek common ground for national unity as they seek to forge a political consensus and institutions and laws which enshrine the status of all citizens, with full rights, responsibilities and equal opportunities regardless of political allegiance, religious belief, or ethnic identity.

Paternalistic relationships should give way to equal partnerships

The US and EU and their citizens will need to make a 'paradigm shift' from conventional wisdom and failed foreign policies that supported autocrats as a means to achieve 'stability' to new mindsets. Relationships with Arab states in the future should avoid paternalism and intervention and be based on the right to self-determination and mutual respect and on mutual interests. Western governments will especially be challenged in contrast to the past to recognise their legitimacy and deal with Islamic parties and elected officials as they do other political actors.

The United States and Europe should partner with emerging governments in building sustainable democracies in the Middle East with technical, economic and educational assistance and encouraging private sector investment thus play a critical role improving economic conditions and promoting stable democratic institutions. Gulf States too have a critical role to play, working with other partners in the international community to expand and facilitate investment in transitioning nations. 




Professor John Esposito is Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.


The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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