Hassan Hami
24 January 2024

Democracy: One Coin, Multiple Faces, the West, and the Rest

Democracy: One Coin, Multiple Faces, the West, and the Rest
Democracy: One Coin, Multiple Faces, the West, and the Rest

The idea of democracy has become a tool western countries use to hail developing countries that align with their strategic interests or expectations, and smear those that don’t.

There is no acceptance speech in the Middle East and North Africa’s political landscape. Independent observers are faced with dichotomous perceptions about the way democracy and the rules of law are played. Hence, the main political actors concerned do not ignore what these principles mean. 

Thus, they intend to play the game of getting the job done according to what suits them. They have a very solid argument: the hypocrisy performed at high speed by the promoters of democracy in the West. But also the blind trust their partisans in developing countries have been nurturing over the last six decades.

How can this happen? Simple: the political actors on both sides know very well how to handle each other’s excess pressure, if not zeal or expectations. They behave accordingly. Let’s dig deep into this assumption and focus on the Middle East and North Africa. What is requested of the political actors? 

What are their credentials? What are the assets they rely on to make their points? How they could be rewarded or dismissed depends on the options at their disposal. And to what extent are the “democracy promoters” in the West really sincere about seeing it soundly implemented in developing countries?

Acceptance Speech on Hold

The big mistake made by the policymakers and strategic planners in the West is that they think they could make change happen from top to bottom, regardless of the actors involved, time, and context. They don’t believe in cultural exceptionalism. They sustain the argument that the elite in every single country co-opted could be tempted to cooperate and even be bribed in one way or another. 

To them, smooth change is rarely possible in a society that lacks guidance in terms of meeting the minimum standards of democracy in a Western-style fashion. Western political experts close their eyes to the fact that the elite that has grabbed power doesn’t intend to share or give it, regardless of the argument put forward. They claim that genuine reforms need time, energy, and people’s adherence, which, according to them, cannot be sensed in most developing countries.

The missing element in this set of arguments is that such assumptions are outdated and cannot be accepted by the new generations of decision-makers in developing countries. The reason is that many among the latter have either graduated from prestigious universities in Europe, the Americas, or Australia or have been in epistolary contacts with influential decision-makers in the so-called Global North. They know how their counterparts’ mindsets and political cultures are forged. They don’t take for granted what’s at stake on both sides of the spectrum.

In the past, it was possible to use both seduction and blackmail to get what major players were looking for. Not anymore. Thanks to the information technology revolution, it has become hard for the main initiators to get through the psychological safety nets established by those who used to blindly accept all that came from the West as gospel truth. 

The new generation of decision-makers in developing countries is fed up with arguments that sustain the hierarchy of actors in the internal and international systems as a matter of fate and not a contextual situation that changes over time.

Those who believe that close cooperation with leaders with strong personalities would suffice to get the job done are shortsighted. Because leaders with strong personalities are inclined to use personal rules to get their views accepted by the majority of their people. 

Obviously, this was possible in the first post-independence decades, starting in the late 1950s. The leaders co-opted used to be labeled as charismatic and powerful. They fit the job description because they were part of the system they were supposed to reform without making it crumble at a glance.

Bold Reforms and Cosmetic Reforms

The transitional period from being totally submitted to a half-share of power produced some results. Nonetheless, this couldn’t erase dark records or make amends for a new beginning of mutual benefit. Furthermore, personal rules, no matter how dedicated the ruler is to dragging his people from the bottom to the top, engender dictatorial and authoritarian behaviors that undermine the whole process.

The precedent set by the Asian Tigers, Spain, Portugal, and Greece cannot be duplicated. The democratic process in these three last countries was accompanied by huge amounts of American investment to help accelerate their political transition. Not surprisingly, this has never been the goal in the minds of the main decision-makers in western countries with respect to developing countries in the Middle East and North Africa. 

When taking a look at the political landscape in North Africa and the Middle East—Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Morocco—it would be judicious to meditate on very interesting cases to put in the limelight.

All these countries share one piece of evidence, and that is the illusion of the charismatic ruler. Rooted in the culture of “let it be no matter what,” the leaders in these countries are faced with a Kafkanian dilemma — to play the role of saviors, providing that they wouldn’t be held accountable if they failed their task.

Tunisia offers the best example of misperceiving the political chessboard based on a false projection and a certain dismissal of accurate facts. John Entelis has rightly initiated a challenging debate (see page 44-47) by questioning  the rationale behind President Kais Saied’s behavior: would it be to get rid of the Islamic movement, whose leadership diverted the once hailed Tunisian democratic process from its main goal, halt the resurrection of Ben Ali’s proponents, or creatively deconstruct the system for rebuilding it? 

It seems that the Tunisian president is shattered at being reminded of his last job as a constitutional professor and his failure to be renowned as an enlightened despot, which he is not. He is stubbornly intending to clean up the system and eventually start from scratch. This does not seem impossible. At any rate, President Saied seems to have forgotten that being an outsider means he is requested to fill the void for a while and leave the stage at some point, no matter what.

As for Egypt, the personal rule has not matched the charisma that President Abdelfattah Sissi hopes for and hasn’t gotten there yet. He still wants to play the role of a savior, as Jamal Abdenasser and Anouar Al-Sadat did or had been labeled as such. To his credit, Egypt was experiencing a political vacuum. 

People were confused and lost confidence in Mohammed Morsi, who was completely manipulated by the party to which he belonged. He made a fatal mistake when he paid his first visit abroad to Iran. As a neophyte in politics, he thought that dialogue between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam would solve all pending endemic issues in the region.

How about Saudi Arabia? The intrigues behind the scenes are frequent and are part of the system. However, it seems that holding the country with an iron fist without addressing the causes of system dysfunction cannot be the right answer, nor can speeding up the process of cosmetic reforms be a key to stirring up social inertia and defeating cultural resistance in a political system whose legitimacy is rooted in conservative Islam and Ibn Taymiyya’s outdated ideology. 

Here again, some observers thought that the new Saudi leadership had no choice but to break certain rules to get the majority of people to adhere to bold reforms, mainly in the cultural and religious fields. The epistemological break would be inevitable in this respect.

The United Arab Emirates is another example that shows that building a political system from scratch is as hard as recovering from colonial rules or securing unity amidst the resurrection of calls for recovering an autonomous status as it had existed prior to 1971.

In the above-mentioned cases, we have, on the one hand, leaders presenting themselves as hardliners in an old-fashioned style. On the other hand, we are intrigued by young leaders who don’t abide totally by traditional rules to run their countries. They are hardliners too, but they are not afraid of showing and defending their way of thinking and ruling. 

Nevertheless, all the above-mentioned four cases prove to be out of control and don’t represent what the West calls peaceful implementation of democracy in developing countries.

Strategic Intermittents in the Eye of the Storm

Over the last three decades, Western policymakers and military strategists built up a theoretical narrative according to which, in order to control the political struggle in most issue areas, it is highly recommended to work at dividing the chessboard between major actors and minor actors, giving both the illusion of controlling the system to the detriment of their potential rivals.

Those among the actors that have shown some resilience and disposability to go higher in terms of nailing down their opponents have been selected to play a proxy role outside their strategic terrain.

Qatar is among these actors who have been assigned the task of playing political Islam and securing the survival of the family in power faced with enmity in its neighborhood as well as resisting internal feuds caused by the rise of political stars threatening the ruling family’s unity and cohesion.

Furthermore, Qatar was assigned the mission of challenging the other paramount expressions of Sunni Islam, with the first target being Saudi Arabia. Playing on historical rivalries, Qatar succeeded in bringing about some sort of internal political dissonance in almost all of its Arab and Islamic neighbors.

Joining forces with Turkey, Qatar thought it was entitled to play the role of peacemaker at the request of the international major powers, mainly the United States. This seemed evident after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and the transfer of the American bases from Saudi Arabia to Qatar.

Even so, this seemed less evident when Qatar entertained a close strategic relationship with Iran. Doha had no choice because the two countries share one of the richest gas fields in the world. However, it was astonishing that few observers in the West have rarely questioned the human rights situation in this country given the way the transmission of power has been operated.

Qatar proved by all means that its leadership has cleverly learned how to take care of the goat and the cabbage. Nonetheless, when the rulers tried to move in full sail, they were severely slammed.

The dire straits the country experienced from 2013 to 2021 are solid evidence that whoever, as a minor actor, dares to freely decide on what might be best for its survival without referring to its mentor, pays the highest price ever.

Qatar’s case is not different from Turkey’s. Every emerging actor who shows a tendency to defy the hierarchical rules set by major actors in the international system is punished accordingly.

Those among the state actors in North Africa and the Middle East that cannot keep pace with the required profile set up to move forward are momentarily saved before being sacrificed in the medium or long run.

In this regard, it is worth mentioning the case of Algeria. The military rulers behind the scenes are aware that their freedom of maneuver gets limited every day, but they are convinced that neither the Europeans nor the Russians (allegedly their main allies) can afford to let them down. They are running against the wind and have nothing to lose for the time being.

However, this situation won’t last forever, despite the fact that the international political and strategic context incidentally plays in their favor. They deem themselves lucky because their European neighbors are currently in an alarmingly bad shape amid a severe energy crisis exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war

So, somehow, Algeria’s European neighbors currently have no choice but to let the Algerian military establishment play the role of a super-medium power in the Maghreb, with Morocco as its main target and the other North African countries as a diverting zone for potential indirect confrontation.

In Doing so, Algeria raises another big question, namely the erosion of the dynamics that had shaped the relationship between the major and minor actors in North Africa.

The Patron-Client Relationship is on the Wrong Track

The Patron-Client paradigm can no longer be implemented, given the fact that both major actors and minor actors have lost ground in their effort to catch up with changes in the international geopolitical chessboard, not to mention non-state actors used as proxies to keep the regional balance of power functional.

The major actors in the international system are resorting to new groups of non-state actors operating from within each targeted country or on its borders. The so-called Arab Spring has shown that the lack of flexibility in managing the correlation between internal politics and foreign policy cannot help but break the fragile equilibrium set up by using the patron-client paradigm.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the aspiration for change has been calculated over a ten-year period each time the system has been unable to respond or meet new challenges.

However, there are some exceptions. Morocco offers an interesting case study about how to make flexibility the engine of a controlled but promising democratic process. 

In this respect, it is worth noting that what had been perceived by independent analysts as a setback in the democratic process in the 2004-2011 period was meant to assess the whole experience dating back to the 1960s.

The questionable wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of political Islam, the hostile neighborhoods, and the insignificant results produced by the first experience of alternation in power pushed decision-makers to have a second thought on whether to keep pace with full change or proceed step by step.

Read also: Europe and Morocco: The End of an Asymmetrical Partnership (Part II)

The dilemma in Morocco’s case was to identify the main pillars of the political system and find out whether they could be as strong or as flexible as possible in order to meet the King’s genuine desire to reform without getting conservative actors, involved in politics for decades, scared. The fear was that they would retaliate and turn the system upside down. This doesn’t mean that some didn’t try. It is now agreed that the reformist leadership was faced with two sorts of challenges.

The first was that people were not interested in politics; they had been used to witnessing reforms implemented in a smooth way. Some would even say that they lost confidence in politics. The second challenge was that the neighboring states perceived the Moroccan democratic process as a threat that could eventually jeopardize their fragile internal stability.

Not that the process implemented in Morocco was perfect or met all standards agreed upon in the West, but it was believed that the country was working hard to evolve. This behavior dates back to Sultan Hassan I (1873-1894), making Morocco a special case study in terms of centuries-long constitutional reforms. The protectorate regime failed to destroy this process because, despite the ethnographic and advanced studies it had commissioned, it couldn’t break the long-standing Moroccan system from inside.

The sensibility-vulnerability correlation was played at the highest speed. Besides, the high expectations shown by activists and important segments of civil society made it difficult for independent observers to get Morocco right. Yet, not only were the immediate neighboring countries worried, but the Arab monarchies in the Middle East felt indirectly threatened as well.

Read also: The Failure of Hard and Soft Pressures to Break Morocco’s Bones

Morocco suffered a lot from their interference in its internal affairs, notably when a new constitution was adopted in 2011, paving the way for the arrival of a political party with Islam as the main driver of its political action. The leadership in these countries couldn’t understand the deep significance of the notion of “Amir-Al-Moaminine” (the Commander of the Faithful) and its strategic importance for preserving Morocco from falling into permanent political instability.

The Arab monarchies couldn’t perceive the rationale behind the Moroccan model of political change, which responded to reasonable expectations by smoothly addressing complex subjects such as the family code, the reform of the religious landscape, or carefully coping with complex human rights issues.

The same ill-perceptions can be detected in the way independent observers depict the role of reformists as individual actors, regardless of what their followers think about their credentials or merits.

Weaponizing the Idea of Democracy

Indeed, it is a common practice championed by scholars in the Middle East and North Africa to compare leaders in the Arab and Islamic worlds. However, the purpose of the comparison is not to assess each leader’s achievement but rather to engrave the idea that those who were in charge in the past were better than the present ones.

The personality pattern is perceived in the framework of the nature of each political system as well as the ideology highlighted by the regime in place. Hence, many people have been led to think that republican regimes are by default better than the monarchical ones.

Yet the reality on the ground has proven that the republican Soviet-like regimes, or the military authoritarian juntas, to be more specific, have based their legitimacy on the assumption that the monarchical regimes were bad and the republican ones were better no matter what. 

When both systems are faced with serious management problems in meeting people’s expectations, however, the former prove to be stronger, more realistic, and more pragmatic, not hesitating to make concessions and adapt. Where the republican regimes have made ideology an engine to exist and survive, the monarchical regimes have used ideology as an ingredient and not as the crux of the mechanism sustaining the system.

Countries with no historical records, making up facts, and staging the victim syndrome gave themselves room to negotiate a comfortable place on the geopolitical chessboard. They were ready to walk with the devil to make their case. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed, these authoritarian regimes ended up becoming geopolitical orphans.

It goes without saying that the hypocritical behavior that the democratic West has been entertaining over the last four decades can be explained by the following: 

1) No matter what single success stories in developing countries prove to be promising, they are played down, if not smeared. 2) The idea of democracy as a gradual process is dismissed by facts. It is promoted when western countries, individually or collectively, have an interest in promoting a developing country that meets their strategic expectations. The idea is pushed back when the same country changes its strategic compass. 

3) The classification of actors depending on the problems at stake as deserving to lead or not in their strategic issue area is false and lacks the ingredients of feasibility. 4) The shared idea that democracy represents the final step to meet people’s expectations and their legitimate rights to enjoy equality, freedom, and dignity seems not to apply to developing countries. 

On the contrary, it is promoted to build up a wall of misunderstandings about the real significance of democracy, whether it’s debated in the West or in the rest of the world. If anything, various historical precedents have shown that democracy has never been synonymous with equality per se but rather equality of chances claimed by every citizen in accordance with the community’s shared values. 

Is the West really sincere about seeing democracy soundly implemented? 5) And what kind of democracy is this when we sporadically witness people in countries like France, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Germany, to cite but a few,  being molested for expressing different political views or going on strike to make their social revendications heard?

source : www.moroccoworldnews.com

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