POMED Notes: Democratic Transition in the Middle East
On Thursday, Professor Mokhtar Benabdallaoui of Hassan II University in Casablanca, Morocco presented his research entitled “Democratic Transition in the Middle East: Between Authoritarianism and Islamism” which tackled the current state of Islamism in the Arab world, as well as its likely trajectory in the future of politics. Professor Samer Shehata of Georgetown University followed Dr. Benabdallaoui’s presentation with comments and questions.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here.
Dr. Benabdallaoui began with a brief overview of the various uprisings of the Arab Spring, which he said were all marked by their diversity, unpredictability, and pervasiveness region-wide. Within these, Benabdallaoui found the degree of social integration within each country to be a key indicator of the nature and eventual success of the uprisings. Those whose social ties were comprised primarily by kinship and tribal networks, such as in Libya and Yemen, faced much more difficult and violent revolutions than those such as Tunisia and Egypt whose national identities were tied more to common ideas of citizenship.
On the topic of Islamization, Benabdallaoui emphasized the need to recognize the distinction between social Islamization and political Islamization. The social side, he argued, is defined by the individual; it is spontaneous, devoid of any greater structure, and often an expression of modernity. Political Islamization, however, is marked by dogmatic rigidity within a framework created to accomplish a set of political goals. Within the political side, Benabdallaoui called on the West in particular be more aware of the individuality of each Islamist group, which differ from each in other in degree of openness, structure, and influence.
Dr. Benabdallaoui then divided the Arab world into six groups, denoting not just those who have already undergone revolution, but also countries “in the throes” of revolution, Syria and Bahrain, those who have reformed, Morocco and Jordan, the “continuity” countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and two exception groups. In the “ostensible exception” group, Benabdallaoui placed Algeria, Sudan, and Iraq as countries overcoming civil war but who will likely transform once stability is reestablished. Lebanon was left alone as the one true exception.
Overall, Dr. Benabdallaoui credited the success of certain revolutions to such factors as available resources, the maturity of opposition groups, and the relationship between civil and military powers. In regards to the developments of Islamism in democratic systems, Benabdallaoui expressed optimism that the more these groups compete, the more likely they are to embrace democratic values.
Professor Shehata lauded Dr. Benabdallaoui exhaustive research and agreed with many of the key points, but cautioned Benabdallaoui in drawing too many similarities between the military in Tunisia and that in Egypt. Shehata also disagreed with the presentation’s assessment that the military’s retained power in Egypt would be positive in that it will force the Muslim Brotherhood to cooperate with the other parties to resist military control.
When asked about if it would make more sense to drop the Islamist label from these political groups, Benabdallaoui agreed that the growing diversity of parties often made such labels pointless. Benabdallaoui added this would likely become even more necessary in the future given the direction the youth are taking in more diverse perceptions of Islam. The more people compete over the meaning of religious symbols, Benabdallaoui said, the sooner the political sphere will be de-sanctified, as many of these unquestioned religious meanings open up to interpretation.
In regards to a question on Lebanon, Benabdallaoui said that while Hezbollah may be strong in Lebanon, he sees its strength in the broader region as waning. He also predicted that given the current state of Syria, the old dependence of the group on Syria will likely flip.
Also, Benabdallaoui underlined the continuing importance of the idea of dignity among young people around the Arab world. Benabdallaoui expressed a belief that these educated and more connected youths will not settle for bribes or negotiations over dignity.