After the Spring - part 2
"These revolutions have 'de-problematised Islam' – transcending the Islamist-secularist debate and leaving it behind," argues Dr Abdelwahab El-Affendi, Fellow in the Global Uncertainties Programme and Co-ordinator of the Democracy and Islam Programme at the University of Westminster. A key factor to the success of the uprisings was the co-operation and solidarity between all participants in the protests – including Islamists – which undermined the ‘divide and rule’ strategy of the authorities.
In his research Dr El-Affendi has examined how 'narratives of insecurity', such as the threat of an Islamist takeover, kept dictatorships going for decades. The sheer staying power of the dictatorships has puzzled political analysts, who were wondering about the lack of democracy in the Arab world – but therein lies a potential Western bias. "In many cases, it was like asking why mass slavery has endured for so long in the United States, or colonialism in Africa, or anti-Semitism in the West, or misogyny everywhere – then proceeding to answer the question by saying that it must be something to do with black people who could not handle freedom, or perhaps something amiss with Jews or women," Dr El-Affendi says. According to this logic, the lack of Arab democracies would be due to the inability of Arabs to understand – or even deserve – democracy.
Arab societies, went the argument, are too attached to religious dogma, too patriarchal, too tribalistic, too inhospitable to civility and civil society to accommodate democracy. "However, it was not clear why, if despotism was really a reflection of Arab cultural preferences, the victims were so rebellious or the dictators so brutal," argues Dr El-Affendi. "And why did empirical studies persistently indicate that Arabs were, like everyone else, rather keen on democracy?"
The belief in democracy as an external, Western idea that needed to be ‘promoted’ to Arab countries has not made for effective foreign policy, as Dr Michelle Pace shows in her research. Dr Pace is lead researcher on the ESRC-funded project Paradoxes and contradictions in EU democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East. "By focusing primarily on external democracy promotion, the impression is created that democracy is a political concept external to the Mediterranean region…invoking a false image of an unbridgeable cultural rift between the Europeans and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) sides in which democracy is framed as a Western concept," Dr Michelle Pace writes in the 2009 Democratization article Paradoxes and contradictions in EU democracy promotion in the Mediterranean.
"The recent uprisings have to lead to a paradigm shift in policy," says Dr Pace. "The assumption in EU policy towards Middle East and North African states has always been that if we support economic development, then a political change will follow. There is now an appreciation that this policy has failed." EU Commissioner Stephan Fule admitted as much after the ousting of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, when he said: "The Euro-Mediterranean partnership was mainly focused on economic reforms, and was unable to bring about the necessary political and institutional reforms."