The Arab world’s democratic moment?

Who decides democratic knowledge? How relevant is this for the Arab Spring?

The ethos of pluralism, good government, and democratic identity defy being boxed into a single location, paradigm of knowledge, ethnicity, region, religion or civilisation, argues Sadiki [AFP]

The mass protests that have swept the world, from North Africa to Ukraine, display people’s verve and passion for a return to the basic tenets of democracy – rule by the people, for the people. What is striking about this historic moment, for the Arab world in particular, is the unraveling of the usual dichotomies that have for so long plagued Arabs, namely the coloniser-colonised power relations at the root of Arab-Western geo-strategy.

To borrow an “Orientalist” term, the “East” is no longer a workshop or a laboratory for experimentation with ideas and theories invented by the “West”.

The polarities that litter the narration of democracy’s global travel should not be framed in either Orientalist or Occidentalist terms. I see a new journey that calls for synergy, partnership and co-learning. The democratic moment North African revolutions have heralded has necessitated cross-pollination: The ethos of pluralism, good government, and democratic identity defy being boxed into a single location, paradigm of knowledge, ethnicity, region, religion or civilisation.

I think we can all bid farewell to the “clash of civilisations”.

Tunisia’s Arab Spring: Three years on

Mapping out democratic routes

Today, this region pulsates with the ethics and values of democratising civilisations. Democracy itself continues to be contested, making room for temporal, spatial and cultural difference and specificity as well as for shared spaces and commonality. 

Indeed, these newly emerging spaces spell out “in-between-ness”, negating democratic mentoring from the West to the rest, singular and top-down democratic knowing and “civilising” from without.

Democracy is intrinsically pluralist: It negates surrender to singular thinking, or single authors. It is a value system that opens up ways to map out democratic routes, reify democratic identities and build democratic institutions in a multicultural fashion. 

The historic moment – as far as the Arab Spring is concerned – may be labelled “the moment of agency”. We all recall the iconic cries of the Arab public squares: “Al-shaab yureed” [The people want]

Thus agency is repositioned in public consciousness as not simply the mantra of the still unfurling Arab Spring – with all its fluidity, bright and dark spots – but also as an ethos. This underpins the normative dimension which comes to the fore, hinting at the democratic futures and communities being re-imagined across the vast Arab geography.

Through the Arab Spring, bridges are being built to reach the West, this time, however, on Arab terms: Seeking democratic futures is no longer the figment of remote policy-making communities detached from unfolding events, struggles, and communities.

The Arab Middle East (AME) has historically featured as a contributor to Euro-Med cultures and civilisations.

The deluge of agency in the context of the Arab Spring has yielded democratic voluntarism. Arabs willingly seek democratic futures – discarding the need for systematic classroom-type induction such as through the now defunct “Greater Middle East Initiative”, itself the by-product of power relations engineered after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In other words, the time has never been more ripe for partnering voluntarily with the rest of the world on the basis of mutuality, reciprocity and equality.

Today an arch of possibilities is emerging within the democratic stories and struggles that accompany agency. Democracy exists in a fluid sense requiring constant renewals and, more importantly, in the Arab context reference to the Arab youths whose inventiveness and cries for freedom and dignity have opened up such an arch of possibilities in the first place.

A two-way flow

Integral to this is the didactic. Therefore, south-south democratic co-learning cannot ignore the demography of the Arab Spring and primary citizenry – which, in this regard differs from transitions in the 1990s in Eastern Europe, for instance. Plus, we all know that transition in Eastern Europe was from one ideology to another.

The Arab Spring was not catalysed by the quest for unhinging hegemonic ideologies – but more appropriately dynastic republics in whose hands conflated the means and resources of political, economic, informational, and coercive prowess. The Arab Middle East (AME) has historically featured as a contributor to Euro-Med cultures and civilisations.

Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Phoenicia all at one point in time or another mediated processes of infusion, inclusion and diffusion of learning. The flow was not one-way. The travel of ideas left lasting inscriptions on AME’s cultural map.

As the Arab Middle East enters its democratic and revolutionary moment, it is apt to address the question of democratic knowledge and trans-democratic exchange. This question is noted by glaring omission in most accounts of the Arab region since the eruption of the 2011 uprisings.

This moment registers continuity as much as rupture. It is a moment opportune for a break, encouraging the unshackling of the region from postcolonial histories of tutelage from without. Yet, at the same time, it renews the ethos of exchange, remaking North Africa as a shared space of democratising ferment, democratic exchange, and diffusion of democratic knowledge.

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Yet we have examples of bright spots of inspiration, learning and dialogue by the founders of Tunisia’s constitution who have exercised modularity very widely, picking the brain of democrats everywhere.

From Portugal for instance, the semi-presidential system; from France rule of law; from the US civil and political liberties; from the UK the robustness of parliamentary institutions. And the Transitional Justice Law crated in December was, among other countries, inspired by the South African model. 

Similarly, there are opportunities of learning community participation and bottom-up strategies of direct democracy or the relevant socio-economic and ecological values and the role of religion in politics from Southern and Latin American experiences (like the Zapatista movement)

The idea that south-south exchange could bring together students and teachers to share learning, experiences, stories, struggles and even triumphs of democracy must not preclude the possibility of Arabs learning from each other. The idea here is that those who cannot learn from within, will not be able to learn from without. These didactic processes must work in tandem.  

There are always highs and lows on any learning journey. However, it is the peoples we encounter through co-learning, dialogues, discussions, class-rooms, which create the greatest memories – and hopefully intellectual sparks. Examples attesting to a local repertoire of potentially useful democratic learning, include Kuwait’s parliament, Tunisia’s trade unions and Jordan’s charity and local development exercises.

One must underscore the importance of contingent and contextual variables in accounting for divergent trajectories of transitions within the Arab Spring, as scholars such as Laurence Whitehead of Oxford keep reminding students of democratisation.

This is why when framing south-south democratic co-learning, specificity (understood in positive terms not as an autarchic device) must still be accounted for – as one means of knowing where to locate good practices that transcend locality.

The Arab Spring states and peoples’ engagement must address the civic, the economic, the legal, the institutional and the attitudinal (e.g. compromise, dialogue, acceptance of defeat, free inquiry, etc). This must be realised through the creation of shared spaces and interlocking publics for the dissemination of democratic know-how: State-to-state, elite-to-elite and people-to-people.

This presents the region’s peoples with opportunities and challenges for exchanging ideas with other regions – dialogically and interactively.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a specialist in Arab democratisation, revolution and transitions, and has been an academic at Australian National University, Exeter University, Westminster University and Qatar University.