POMED Notes: The Arab Awakening: Is Democracy a Mirage?
On Wednesday, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars held a panel discussion called “The Arab Awakening: Is Democracy a Mirage?” Former Egyptian Ambassador Moushira Khattab, President of Intercultura Foundation and former Italian ambassador Roberto Toscano, Former Director of the UN-ESCWA Centre for Women Fatima Sbaity-Kassem, and Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown University and the U.S. Institute of Peace discussed the future of democracy in the Middle East in light of recent setbacks.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF version.
Roberto Toscano started the discussion by addressing his three greatest impediments to democracy. First he identified a lack of “citizens” who identify primarily with the state instead of with sectarian identities. Without equal citizenship, he argued, democracy ends up being composed of the citizens and the tolerated. Toscano tied the notion of secularism in with this, discussing how long the separation of church and state took to develop in the West, as well as the rejection of “secularism” in the Arab world due its perception as foreign and atheistic. Second, Toscano discussed democracy and the rule of law, arguing the former without the latter is destined to fail, using Afghanistan as an example. Democracy in the West, he added, only developed after centuries of established rules that were not always democratic. Third, Toscano discussed the disconnect between civil society and democracy, saying that liberals in the streets have so far failed to carry their momentum over into elected office. He also warned of potential setbacks from “imitation” democracies or from “mob rule” governments. Toscano concluded by saying he believes democracy may further away than it appears but that it is coming.
Moushira Khattab followed saying Egypt’s recent troubles are indicative of the struggle any country of Egypt’s size and history will have to endure to create a democratic culture, but that this makes her optimistic that Egypt is indeed making the transition. Khattab went to say that despite living in “constitutional disarray,” four successful elections have taken place and the people have been engaged, even if perhaps displeased, throughout. She also hailed South Africa and its constitution as the best model for Egypt due to its respect for women and the rights of children.
Next Fatima Sbaity-Kassem addressed Islam’s compatibility with democracy, arguing indeed it can be as non-Arab Muslim nations have been heralded for their democratic cultures. Sbaity-Kassem then refuted the idea of “Arab Exceptionalism,” saying the calls for dignity above all else in the Arab Awakening is proof there is no despotic orientation in Arab culture. To address the Arab world’s deficits of freedom, knowledge, and women’s empowerment, Sbaity-Kassem outlined non-violent leadership, minimal foreign intervention, pluralistic societies, democratic political culture, and tolerance as the main criteria to progress. Sbaity-Kassem also spoke of a second round of the Arab Spring, but warned the next phase regimes will either reform willingly or will fight back.
Daniel Brumberg spoke last, saying the “wall of fear” between the masses and their ruler may be gone forever, but that Arab countries must now break down the walls of fear within their society. He argued that the military in Egypt in particular is skilled at manipulating these walls of fear and exploiting tensions. Brumberg also discussed the necessity of pact making not just within a political system but within political parties to overcome deep divisions that precede last year’s revolutions. Ultimately, Brumberg said he believes the process may take ten to twenty years, but that he too is optimistic.
Responding to a question about comparisons to democratic transitions in Latin America, Brumberg discussed the likely necessity of having to pay off the military in some way in Egypt to get them to disengage from power. In a later response, Brumberg added that the Constitutional Assembly must be independent of the military for the masses to accept any such concessions.
When asked about what the U.S. can do to shore up Arab democracies, Khattab said U.S. foreign aid needs to be completely restructured, with a focus on trade and education to develop Egypt’s “human assets.” Khattab criticized the lack of vision for educational development in the country, and called for a new emphasis on innovative learning and critical thinking.