By Hamza Jilani/Staff Reporter
The Arab Spring sparked political and social changes through revolution and the movement was initially celebrated in the region and around the world. However, experts at the Doha Forum yesterday said a number of the challenges had resurfaced and hindered the success of recently-established democracies in the region.
Mixed views emerged from the panelists and front-row audience regarding the challenges facing the rebuilt architecture of political life in the Middle East’s latest governments, even as aid and ideas were offered by Western countries.
While the panellists referred to world fears concerning the rise of political Islam among post-Arab Spring nations, such as Egypt, they failed to answer several of the key concerns of the audience. “The West thinks that when dictatorships fall, democracy is the solution. They selected (Mohamed) Morsi to suppress militants and secure Israel. That’s all that’s important to the West,” one observer said.
“There is no voice for the opposition in this meeting, and it’s lacking as a ‘forum,” another member of the audience said.
Dr Abdul Aziz bin Othman Sager, president of the Gulf Studies Centre, wondered whether the Arab Spring “really helped us forward or only brought certain people to power”. He said Western democracy was only interim and imposed, suggesting that Islamic democracy was the long-term answer.
“Islamists are a part of Middle Eastern society; our various cultures have redrawn themselves around Islam and Islam is the will of a lot of people here. If we bring them to light, they won’t keep their operations in the shadows,” he said. “Islamists didn’t come to power by coup d’etat, they came by the people’s will. There’s no reason to keep battling them.”
Humza Yousaf, Scottish Minister for External Affairs and International Development cautioned that if the Arab youth weren’t given the right attention and social inclusion could not be achieved in countries like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the outcome would be “a total catastrophe”. “However, if these issues are addressed, then we will reap great success”.
“Two-thirds of the population in the Middle East are under 30 years. The danger we now face is that the young are ignored and not included in the process of rebuilding,” he said. “They’ll become disillusioned with the revolution they started.”
Yousaf said what distinguishes a dictatorship from a democracy is the “authority’s reaction to new ideas and views”.
Panellist Dr Mustafa Osman Ismail, Minister for Investment in Sudan, said the “new world order” replaced a “bipolar order”, “which didn’t serve anyone but the interests of a few elite”. “It didn’t take place in the Arab world because of gripping dictatorships, but took place elsewhere through soft diplomacy. Arab elites used Palestine as an excuse to hold onto power,” he said, adding that in the Arab dictatorships, reformists were accused of being “agents and spies, which, in turn, gave rise to extremist rebel groups because they weren’t engaged”.
He said the main challenges for democracy were the lack of trained and capable leadership, the fear of an “Islamist tsunami” in the region, concerns of what would happen to Palestine and leaders being truthful to the cause.
Mona Yacobian, Middle East project director at Stimson Centre, suggested that an Arab plan similar to the post-WWII Marshall Plan (the US-financed programme aimed at rebuilding Europe) could be the “most successful blueprint towards transition” as it brought “good to Europe, advanced stability and promoted trade”.
“When countries work together for trade and economy, it helps to bring stability. When goods cross, soldiers don’t,” she said.
Robin Wright, foreign political analyst at Woodrow Wilson International Centre, shed light on what she described as a corrupted democracy taking hold across the region, also noting that one-third of the Arab world’s 350mn people were in transition or struggling on the path to transition from dictatorship to democracy.
“The dirty little secret is that corruption is deepening and spreading and we’re seeing a corruption of democracy,” she said. “In Jordan, for instance, there is no sense among people that the parliament represents the people or is answerable to them. They sell votes for 10 or 20 dinars or gift heaters, blankets and mattresses. Democracy means aid to them and nothing else.”
She added that in Libya, there are over 300 militias that have been included in the democratic process and “every person has 4-5 guns, including newborns”.
“The plight of women is worse now than before. In Egypt, the quota (for women) has been eliminated. Even though they were on the frontline during the revolution,” she said of post-Arab Spring women’s rights. “There is a sense of public acceptance of more rights, but it’s not being realised by and discussed for women.”