This post is excerpted from “The Seven Pillars of the Arab Future.” The full version is available at Democracy, and is reprinted here with permission.
The early days of the Arab uprisings were uncomplicated and inspiring, as they reaffirmed many Westerners’ long-held beliefs regarding universal values, human rights, and democratization. With the fall of long-standing dictators and the spread of unrest and protest, historical parallels were quickly drawn to the transformative events of 1989, which witnessed the fall of the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe and the acceleration of events that soon thereafter led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The ultimate success of the Arab uprisings will depend heavily on the development of seven core areas. This post discusses the sixth of those seven pillars: pluralism. Previously I’ve discussed the first four pillars, Economic Growth and Equality, Education, Security-Sector Reform, Transitional Justice, Decentralization and Regional Norms, and provided an an introduction to the series, which offers an overview of the Arab uprising and its recent aftermath, and provides a high-level sketch of the seven pillars.
In an important sense, all the preceding factors depend to varying degrees on these societies becoming more pluralistic—allowing more democracy, more dissent, more breathing room for secularism. The ongoing transitions, however, have made clear that the future of open, pluralistic politics is far from assured. In fact, key political actors in the region have made it their goal to support notions of religious supremacy and to restrict rights and freedoms based on regressive interpretations of Islam and Islamic law. Coupled with the region’s zero-sum politics, the challenge of pluralism can be seen in terms of preserving space for dissenting political opinions and protecting equal citizenship for religious and ethnic minorities.
At root, much of this discussion is grounded in the approach of Islamist political parties to constitutional construction and ideas of citizenship. Tunisia’s Ennahdha party, for example, offers a more minimalist approach to Islam’s role in a constitution. Ennahdha’s leader Rached Ghannouchi has stated that his party is satisfied with the description of Tunisia in Article 1 of its old constitution as a Muslim country. In contrast, Egypt’s new constitution privileges certain forms of specialized religious discourse and establishes a constitutional order bound by religious interpretation. In this regard, religious institutions and clerics will have an active role in legislative matters and affairs of state. The implementation of Islamic law in Egypt represents a critical issue that will extend beyond the drafting and approval of constitutional frameworks. This process will represent the critical step in whether or not Egypt truly remains a “civil state” that embraces an expansive definition of citizenship and anti-majoritarian protections.
The slow glide toward repression is a key concern, as the region’s Islamist parties have a highly majoritarian definition of democratic politics. This emphasis on the mandate of the ballot box at the expense of rights protection is further aggravated by the rightward pull of more rigid Salafi political parties. In both Tunisia and Egypt, Ennahdha and the Muslim Brotherhood have been loath to alienate these actors, seeing them as both allies against non-Islamists and rivals in the electoral setting. The region’s mainline Islamists would also have to make clear that violence has no place in democratic politics. While these groups have long abandoned violence as a tool, cynically allowing other actors to intimidate and coerce political opponents will fuel cycles of violence.
With the radicalizing effects of the civil war, Syria’s post-Assad fate will be heavily influenced by how that country’s Islamists deal with their more radical brethren. If mainline Islamists refuse to distinguish their politics from those of their radical Islamist rivals, the future for pluralism is bleak and, in that postwar context, could lead to mass atrocities and revenge killings. It could also lead to Syrian soil being exploited by transnational jihadi groups with goals that extend far beyond Syria’s borders.
This potentially grim future is not limited to the fate of minority populations, but could also apply to dissent. The region’s lack of experience with practical politics, inclusion, and democratic discourse has led to a zero-sum understanding of political power and an abiding allergy to direct criticism. The difficult art of compromise is not a self-evident practice and will be dependent on robust representation of non-Islamists in elected positions, the rise of effective civil-society groups, and the slow acculturation to a more dynamic political life.
More importantly, the coming years will illustrate whether political movements grounded in Islam can govern effectively and whether their approach to governance will respect the role and rights of non-Islamists within the Arab world. To the extent that the region’s newly empowered Islamists fail at these tasks, they will stigmatize democratic politics in the Arab world and chill support for further democratization. Lastly, if these groups attempt to re-establish a form of repressive stability, the revitalized politics of the region will likely lead to further instability and violence.