‘Arab winter\'s’ choice between stability and democracy

Friday 22/01/2016
Stability or democracy?

Five years after the start of the uprisings in the Arab world, we may be near to coming full circle in Western attitudes towards the region. The perception in 2011 that a democratic wave was sweeping the region has been replaced by growing anxiety in Europe and the United States that the ensuing chaos threatens Western interests and national security.

That’s unfortunate, as the story in the Middle East has not been solely one of anarchy. While an exception more than the rule, Tunisia emerged from the transition away from president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali with some success. The country still faces problems but the approval of a new constitution in 2015 and the willingness of Ennahda, the main Islamist party, to compromise with its secular opponents showed there are paths open to Arab countries other than conflict.

Yet Tunisia is not the example that sticks in the minds of many Western officials. Rather, they look primarily towards Libya and Syria, and even Egypt, and what they see is that the breakdown of the state can breed frightening disorder.

Western ambiguity has not been reassuring. In Egypt, support for the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not really been questioned, despite the authoritarian streak in his rule. While there was early American reluctance to approve of the coup against president Muhammad Morsi, this has subsided.

Today, Egypt is threatened by a local version of the Islamic State (ISIS) and because of this most Western countries refuse to challenge Sisi’s method of governing. Indeed, the familiar equation that the region offers either democracy or stability has returned to the fore and, increasingly, the latter is regarded as the priority.

The situation in Syria and Libya has imposed different approaches to state breakdown. In both countries the West pushed for the removal of a dictator — in Libya successfully; in Syria somewhat less so. What is worrisome is that in seeking to re-establish stability, democracy may be abandoned.

The removal of Muammar Qaddafi created a void that rival Libyan factions have tried to fill, to disastrous effect. In an environment of all against all, ISIS sought to establish a presence. In response, the Europeans have sponsored an inter-Libyan accord to prop up a government that can defeat ISIS.

Until now, however, the European plan continues to be contested. While Libya is still too divided to allow the return of a centralised authoritarian regime, as peaceful solutions are thwarted the fear is that this may ultimately lead to favouring a strong leader little concerned with democratic government.

In Syria, too, the West has been of two minds over President Bashar Assad. While virtually all Western governments have called on the Syrian president to leave office, several have conceded that he may be allowed to remain during a transitional period towards a settlement. French politicians have called for cooperating with Syria in the fight against domestic terrorism.

Many countries, above all the United States, have coordinated with Assad’s principal backer, Russia, to facilitate the military campaign against ISIS. That’s not to say the Obama administration is happy with Russian support for the Assad regime but, in its list of Syrian priorities, the battle against ISIS takes precedence over democratic rule.

For decades the democracy-versus-stability argument was used by Arab leaders to neutralise Western demands for more open government. Arab leaders proved to be able manipulators of this game, ensuring they had just enough Islamist opposition to scare Western critics into silence. It’s either us or the Islamists, Arab leaders invariably warned.

Today, the issue may no longer be one of dictators versus Islamists but about what the priority in the region should be: stability or democracy? This has become all the more acute in that instability is now regarded as creating ideal conditions for terrorist organisations, such as ISIS, to thrive.

Better some sort of state, even an authoritarian one, than a vacuum that will attract violent non-state actors.

However, if this leads to an eventual acceptance of authoritarian regimes, it would be a major mistake. The reason is that the breakdown of states in the Arab world was largely facilitated by the existence of illegitimate regimes that survived through repression. Stability may have been guaranteed for decades but when it disintegrated the consequences were devastating.

The problem is that few Western states are willing to assist in the lengthy processes of Arab state formation or revival. Yet patience is required to give states the time and security needed to build institutions bolstering more representative orders. But Western countries, preoccupied with their own domestic challenges, seem reluctant to do so.

That’s not to say that Arabs have no role to play in resurrecting their states. Indeed, the dominant role is theirs. But outside help, particularly from the West, is vital to advancing democracy and providing the economic assistance allowing this.

If the choice is left to one between stability and democracy, democracy may again come a distant second.