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Arab democratisation may redraw borders

04:10 AM Jun 02, 2019 |

JERUSALEM – Two things stand out in the Middle East since the Arab Spring – one that happened, and one that did not. What happened was that for the first time in modern Arab history, authoritarian regimes and rulers were toppled, or seriously cha

llenged, by demonstrations, not – as in the past – through military coups. But what did not happen might be as important as what did. While dictators associated with military juntas were challenged overnight, the Arab Spring never came to the regions conservative monarchies. The dynastic rulers of Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states ( with the exception of Bahrain) remain more or less firmly in the saddle, even though Saudis regime, at least, is in many respects far more oppressive than the former Egyptian and Tunisian regimes.

Of course, oil money helps to sustain autocracy, but this is not a factor in Morocco and Jordan. It appears these monarchies enjoy a form of traditional authority that the regions secular nationalist rulers never had. Being descendants of the Prophet, as in Morocco and Jordan, or having custodianship of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, as in Saudi Arabia, bestows a legitimacy on the countriesalt39 rulers that is directly linked to Islam.

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The only monarchical regime that was seriously challenged during the Arab Spring was the Sunni ruling family in Shia- majority Bahrain, where precisely this sectarian divide seems to have been the crucial ingredient in the uprising, which was then brutally suppressed with Saudi military help. Yet, for all of the success epitomized by the protests in Cairos Tahrir Square, bringing down a dictatorship is one thing – a drama lasting a few weeks – while the transition to a functioning, consolidated democracy is quite another. Here, a lengthy process is involved, and its success – exemplified in the post- communist transitions in Eastern Europe – depends on key preconditions.

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Where these conditions exist the transition is relatively smooth. Where they are lacking or weak, the outcome is much more problematic. Simply put, a rosy outlook for countries like Egypt cannot be assumed on the basis of exhilarating images on CNN or Al Jazeera, or the fact that masses of young, well- educated, English- speaking men and women are connected through Facebook and Twitter. The great majority of Egyptians were not in Tahrir Square, and many of them lack not only access to online social networks, but also electricity and safe drinking water.

Democracy and free speech are not at the top of their agenda.

Egypts silent majority also identifies with the authenticity represented by various Islamic groups, while principles of democracy and civil rights seem to them to be imported Western abstractions.

So the tremendous victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al- Nour Party in Egypt – as well as that of Ennahda in Tunisia – should come as no surprise. A similar scenario could unfold in Syria, if and when President Bashar al- Assad falls from power, while both post- Qaddafi Libya and post- Saleh Yemen point to the difficulties that these countries face in constructing a coherent democratic regime.

Looking at Egypts prospects realistically, one should not exclude the possibility that the two strongest forces – the military and the Muslim Brotherhood – ultimately will find a way to share power.

The Brotherhoods vision of democracy is purely majoritarian, not liberal: winning an election, according to its spokespeople, permits the victor to rule according to his views. Minority rights, institutional checks on government power, human rights – the liberal aspects of democracy – are entirely absent.

Another, more fundamental, dimension to current and future changes in the region may come into view as well.

Most international borders in the Middle East and North Africa were drawn by imperial powers either after World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire ( the Sykes- Picot agreements), or, as in Libya and Sudan, earlier. But in no case did these borders corresp

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