x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Decades of Arab autocracies keep transitions stalled

The narrative that when Arabs get rid of autocrats they invariably fall back on Islamists has been called into question.

How strange that Egyptian protesters relied on the armed forces to help topple the president, Mohammed Morsi. Less than two years ago, it was the military that many Egyptians feared would seek to reimpose an authoritarian order after Hosni Mubarak's removal. Mr Morsi's election represented a way out of that predicament.

We can learn much about the Arab uprisings knowing that many of those who overthrew Mr Mubarak looked towards the military for support to get rid of Mr Morsi. And in Syria and Libya, while there is scant nostalgia for the enforced tranquillity of dictatorship, there is growing disgust with the carnage accompanying the process (or in Libya the aftermath) of removing the dictator.

Why have the Arab revolts turned into such calamities? Surely not because what came before them was better, and definitely not because the democratic instincts of Arab populations were unreasonable. Rather it is because, during and after their struggles, those who ascended to power failed to reconcile the different aspirations of those who deposed the old regimes. Pluralism was inadequately integrated into post-revolutionary orders.

Syria is an anomaly, in that the regime of Bashar Al Assad remains in place. Elsewhere - in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya - societies have been passing through a phase where the challenge has been to establish more representative, open social contracts. And yet this ideal has not been met anywhere.

In Egypt, the military has retained the initiative, as rival political alignments have been in conflict for months and as Mr Morsi has alienated many Egyptians through high-handed methods.

In Libya, the central government has struggled to impose its will on a divided country, where militias remain powerful. And in Tunisia, there has been a rift between secularists and Islamists, with Islamists themselves divided between the ruling Ennahda party and Salafists.

In Syria, the regime's brutality has not precipitated its downfall. With sectarianism more pronounced than ever, the president has kept minorities on his side, while the opposition has not united around a national political project. As the war has dragged on and Syrians have suffered, the sense that this is a conflict between right and wrong has dissipated, for both sides have sinned by excess, even if the regime crossed all the red lines first.

The situation in Egypt illustrates the high hopes and disappointment that followed the Arab revolts. Mr Morsi won an election but alienated many Egyptians last November when he asserted powers placing him above judicial oversight. He also protected an Islamist-dominated assembly then writing a new constitution, when it was about to be dissolved by court order.

After that, the once-united opposition to Mr Mubarak broke up and Mr Morsi's legitimacy faded. His opponents said the new constitution advanced an Islamist agenda; relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and its critics worsened; and, most damaging, Mr Morsi could not alleviate the worsening economic situation. Egypt's foreign currency reserves plummeted to dangerous levels, presaging a severe social backlash.

With the demonstrations mounting against the president, the armed forces on Monday gave the political factions in Egypt 48 hours to find a solution to the crisis or the military would impose its own road map to do so. While the statement of army commander Abd Al Fattah Al Sisi was vague, it was viewed as a warning to the president. Mr Morsi remained defiant in a speech to the nation on Tuesday but a day later he had been deposed by the army.

Regardless of the admirable readiness of Egyptians to block Mr Morsi's efforts to accumulate power, the fact that the president was forced out by the street will do no good for the institutionalisation of democracy in Egypt. It means that a legitimately elected leader was denied the protection of his office and was made to submit to transitory popular discontent. This belittled the electoral process. Such behaviour may generate future instability and transform the army into a permanent arbiter of national politics.

In Libya and Tunisia, the consolidation of democratic institutions has faltered, in part because leaders have not been able to define a consensual identity for their states. In Tunisia and Egypt, especially, a new phenomenon has emerged in which Islamist parties have been tasked with running national affairs and have done so in ways that cast doubt on their competence.

The narrative that when Arabs get rid of autocrats they invariably fall back on Islamists has been called into question. In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the missteps of Islamists have mobilised opposition in ways previously unseen. Even in Syria, the growing sway of Islamists in the opposition has substantially dented local and international sympathy for Mr Al Assad's enemies, with many Syrians opposing an Islamist takeover of their revolt.

That the "autocrat or Islamist" formula may be ending is a bright light in a murky picture. More worrisome is that the alternative may be a return to military-backed rule. This is more difficult in Libya and Tunisia, where the militaries are of limited strength. In Syria, uneasiness with the opposition may ultimately allow Mr Al Assad to reimpose absolute control.

The bane of revolutions is that they are usually followed by periods of upheaval, as societies regain their footing. In the Arab world, decades of authoritarianism have made such transitions difficult. Those who take power have little experience in wielding it and see compromise as a challenge to their legitimacy. This makes conflict more probable, facilitating a return of those they had overthrown.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling