The tumultuous changes affecting the Middle-East have been widely described as representing ‘people power’ and claimed by many Western political leaders, including Australia’s, as representing aspirations for democracy. The uprisings from Morocco across to the Arabian Peninsula are, to be sure, a reflection of a popular desire for political change, but their chances of democratic outcomes is much less certain.
There has long been a tendency within Australia and other Western countries to interpret events based on preferred outcomes, rather than what is, or is likely to be. Based on such tendencies, an uprising understood to be of the people is hence seen as aspiring to democracy. Not only does this logic not necessarily follow, however, but it also fails to recognise the range of other possible outcomes that can result from political turmoil. The peoples of the Middle-East want change, but what they and the rest of the world end up with may be a long way from the often noble aspirations that have fuelled this widespread Arab protest movement.
Motivating the protest movements in each of the states is a profound desire to end decades of despotic rule and the debilitating corruption that invariably accompanies it. The overwhelming majority of citizens of the affected states see great wealth accumulated by a few and serious poverty shared by many. At times of rising food prices, this has become too much to bear and what the protest movements now want is accountable government.
Yet the way the protest movements and government responses are playing out indicates there will be a variety of outcomes, only some of which may be ‘democratic’ and only some of which might sit comfortable with the West. What the West has always wanted from this region has been stability and hence predictability, much more than democracy.
The slowness of the international community to speak, much less to act, indicates this ambivalence over preferred outcomes. In short, there is private recognition that out of the tumult is likely to derive outcomes that require a complete rethinking of engagement with the region.
The most positive of possible outcomes, in Morocco and Jordan, there have been early moves to open political space. Both are viable candidates for becoming constitutional monarchies with elected parliaments. However, the respective royal families are not likely to want to become purely ceremonial figureheads, which will set up continuing tension with more democratic or populist forces.
Other regional monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula are less keen about redistributing power, while their populist forces are often less democratic and more Islamist, in particular of the ‘purist’ Wahhabi strain. According to this extremist sub-branch of Islam, the only legitimate form of government is a theocracy, similar to that of Afghanistan’s former Taliban.
In terms of the democratic aspirations of other countries such as Egypt, it is important to remember that while the Mubarak government has been deposed and elections have been promised, the country is being run by the army more or less as it has been for decades. The principle alternative to this is a popular government driven by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is also informing the political challenges in the other north African states and Jordan.
Despite recent public comments aimed at facilitating political change, the Muslim Brotherhood also seeks an Islamic state. According to its logic, if the people vote for an Islamist government then it will have satisfied the key criteria for democracy. The three following questions are, however, whether elections will continue, if they do whether that ‘democracy’ will just be window-dressing and, finally, how such governments will organise themselves relative to the West.
Even where the Arab protest movements may produce more or less genuinely democratic outcomes, the aspirations that accompany such change invariably exceed the capacity to delivery on them. The resulting disenchantment and increased political competition for scarce economic resources has, in the past, led further internal conflict, a consequent closure of political space and, most commonly, a return to authoritarian government.
There is no doubt that the changes in the Middle-East represent a profound historical moment and a major political shift. But what is left when the metaphorical dust settles may be only slightly better and in many cases similar to or perhaps even worse than that which recently existed.
How the West engages with these new political forms, both ‘democratic’ and not, through their period of transition and as their longer term political shape becomes more clear, will re-cast the global political map for decades to come.