The Middle East: a long-term view

By Foulath Hadid - Mishana Hosseinioun, September 29, 2013

Scholars during the Abbasid Caliphate

Scholars during the Abbasid Caliphate

The Arab world's problems of conflict and misrule are deeply rooted in the region's history. But its awakened peoples' demands for accountable government and a new social contract offer hope, say Foulath Hadid (1937-2012) and Mishana Hosseinioun.

A few days after this article was completed, its co-author – the respected Iraqi-born scholar and honorary fellow at St Antony’s College Oxford, Foulath Hadid – died on 29 September 2012. The article is published here to honour his memory.

Arabs walk in the shadow of a glorious past, which makes their present all the more painful. They are aware both of historic glories and of recurrent failures to restore them. The Arabs of today are, after all, heirs of the earliest civilisations and of the founders of world religions. In the 7th century CE, the tribes of Arabia took the ancient world by storm. Philip Hitti, in his seminal History of the Arabs writes: “Around the name of the Arabs gleams that halo which belongs to world conquerors. Within a century after their rise this people became the masters of an empire extending from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the confines of China, an empire greater than that of Rome at its zenith.”

These great conquests were cultural as well as military. In a time when medieval Europe was held back by poverty, ignorance and religious dogma, the Arab libraries and seminaries of Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba were flourishing centres of learning. It is in Arabic that Greek philosophy and Asian science and mathematics came to Europe, with great contributions being made by individual Arab scholars.

An essential part of the rich intellectual heritage of the medieval Arab world was the search for proper government under a “rightful” ruler. Yet this concern, though it produced a vibrant political and intellectual life, never resulted in an institutionally accountable government. The Arab experience did not include an advance towards full membership of the democratic modern world. Indeed, it could be argued that the absence of democracy is today at the root of the Arab world’s problems.

True, some scholars believe that the tendency to juxtapose the notion of a glittering Arab past with present disillusion is itself seriously flawed, on the grounds that most contributions to Islamic science and philosophy and the like were made by non-Arabs (such as Persians, Indians, and central Asians). Arab culture, it is argued, distinguished itself rather in poetry and oral tradition. Yet even if this is accurate – and there is much evidence to the contrary – the very fact that the Arabs themselves retain a strong perception of their wide-ranging intellectual and creative achievements in the past is itself an important influence on their current outlook.

In any case, even were contributions from non-Arab cultures vital to the scientific and other discoveries of the Arab lands, this would not explain the failure of a democratic paradigm to emerge centuries later. Some scholars do argue that the diverse cultural influences at play in Arab cities (Assyrian, Byzantine, Babylonian, Sumerian, Ninevan, Persian, Turkish) hindered the growth of a cohesive line of social, cultural and political evolution. But elsewhere, such plurality – in the United States and Canada, for example – has been a route to the creation of a multicultural yet cohesive society with strong institutional democratic foundations.

The conundrum, therefore, remains. Why should millions of citizens, from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to those of the Indian Ocean and all points between, be bereft of assured political rights and civil liberties? Why has democracy as a form of government not taken root and been fully adopted by any of the twenty-two members of the Arab League? The phenomenon is even more striking in that most Arabs freely admit that democracy is the most successful form of government in the world, and themselves clamour for participatory and accountable politics.

The burden of history

A full answer is well beyond the scope of a short article. But its ingredients may be found in five themes in the modern history of the Arab world.

First, the role of Islam in blocking progress towards democracy is much discussed. A number of analysts, for example Patricia Crone and Martin Hinds in God’s Caliph, has argued that Islamic movements do not subscribe to the concept of democracy. The ruler is installed by divine right and therefore is answerable only to God – not his own people. This contradicts the principles of democracy. The ruler is perceived as just, an ideal figure to run the affairs of the umma, but there is vagueness about the standards by which he is adjudged just and ideal, how he is chosen and how long he will rule.

It is difficult to extrapolate a fully structured state from the Qu’ran without resorting to secondary Islamic literature such as the hadith. Further, although Islam provides a system of governance, it is in practice impossible to administer without resorting to secular institutions such as the executive, the judiciary and the legislature.

Yet there is a complex history of debate in Islamic thought about the proper form of government, political participation and state legitimacy, whose legacy is reflected in the differing contemporary factions of political Islam. Shura, or consultation, is an injunction in the Qur’an. It may not be western democracy, yet it is meant precisely to prevent the emergence of “pharaohs”, who are the epitome of tyranny in the Qur’an.

Moreover, the frequent use of political oppression as a means of curbing political movements all over the Arab world casts an unflattering eye on the essentialist assumptions of “undemocratic Islam”. The example of Algeria, where elections were abolished in the name of democracy so as to prevent the Islamist FIS from gaining power, provides a good case-study of a false democracy in action. Was the will of the people merely allowed to manifest itself only to be denied when the “wrong” result was announced?

Second, the advent of Arab nationalism and communism in the Arab world is closely connected to the failure of democracy in the region. Both movements use demagoguery and violence to achieve their goals. Once in power, they install a totalitarian regime and stifle any opposition. Arab nationalists are most to blame in that they have been in power for a longer period, though the experience of communists in power (as in South Yemen) does not suggest any greater democratic orientation. In many ways these two ideologies have shaped the political language and culture of contemporary Arabs. Arab nationalism provided no ground on which to build democratic institutions, and left the Arab political landscape largely barren during its reign.

A wave of military-controlled governments took over several Arab countries in the 1950s and 1960s, claiming to rule in the name of the “masses” and initiating various populist and nationalist policies. Yet these regimes led also to the withering of democratic processes, if not their complete death. Without the intellectual resources  to understand their enemies at that time (especially Israel) and plan their combat on strategic and political levels, Arab countries succumbed to armed solutions and military government by either revolution or coup d’état. These were often long on nationalist rhetoric and bombast but woefully short on steps to put democracy into practice.

Third, tribalism is a perennial factor that is difficult to ignore in Arab politics. Various Arab states are in effect ruled by tribes, yet the strength of the phenomenon goes even deeper into society. Tribalism is often blamed for the clientilist nature of certain regimes in the region, and for the failure to build institutions. Alliances within the ruling clique (or tribe) are often an essential base of power. Tribalism is also often blamed for a seemingly incomplete understanding of the political process: the tendency to vote for kith and kin rather than for parties or political programmes. At the same time, if the filtration of tribalism into Arab culture entrenched undemocratic and hierarchical practices, this can be seen as but a strong version of a universal trend. Most cultures, after all, are less than democratic in their early stages and tend to cohere around some kind of tribalism. The challenge is how to evolve beyond this.

Fourth, the role of colonialism in shaping the political destiny of the Arab world, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, has been vital. The interference of colonial powers in the internal politics of Arab societies, such as Egypt and Iraq, greatly reduced the legitimacy of the old regimes in these countries. In the Egyptian case, British intervention in 1882 crushed Urabi Pasha’s uprising against the autocratic Khedive Tawfik, reflecting the new overlords’ antipathy to popular will. The legacy of colonialism is still felt in many ways, and is central to any consideration of why democracy has failed to take root in the Arab world.

Fifth, the processes of socio-economic development are part of the balance-sheet in accounting for the absence of democracy. In countries such as Egypt, industrialisation went a long way, yet did not produce the vibrant powerful bourgeoisie that in the west helped pave the way for a pluralist society; nor did it create a strong and farsighted labour movement. The internal power structure remained largely tribal, remaining almost unaffected by urbanisation and the extensive growth of an oil-funded state bureaucracy (as in the Gulf countries) or of a hegemonic military. Whatever the impact of industrialisation, and of the consequent destruction of old social and economic structures, the Arab world has lacked influential elites that are ideologically committed to democracy, or able and willing to pursue it.

The missing contract

These five common denominators in the Arab world’s evolution since 1918 have done much to prevent the growth of democracy. The arbitrary way governments have ruled Arab countries; the role of Islam in politics; political waves such as nationalism and communism; military governments, tribalism, and colonialism; the absence of agrarian development and industrial progress – all have played a part.

The accumulated result is that Arab states function in a way that hardly recognises anything resembling a social contract. The state’s legitimacy is not rule-based but arbitrary; the state is merely an alien and unpleasant fact of life, impinging on people who are granted at best a minimal role. The institutions of so-called civil society, if they are allowed to exist at all, and the various representative and judicial bodies, tend to be pushed to the margins. All this suits the rulers, who enjoy a protective comfort-zone from which they look down on what they see as malleable subjects rather than (as in a democracy) demanding voter-citizens.

The political currents that swept the Arab world in the 20th century (such as Nasserism and Ba’athism) paid scant attention to the idea of citizenship. In the name of protecting the state, all political debate was stifled and coerced. The individual was always subordinated to some idea of sacrifice for the good of the state. This produced revealing statements, such as Henry Kissinger’s reported comment that the day Israel comes to fear the Arabs is the day Arab rulers treat their people as citizens.

The effective absence of a social contract highlights the reality of political life in the Arab world. The lack of willing consent from the subjects to the regime’s authority automatically forces the latter to resort to coercion, ensuring the growing power of the police state. The lack of a clear basis of legitimacy increases the role and importance of the official, state-controlled media. Where politics is absent or fragile, “facts” are considered dangerous, as are any independent media sources. Hence the traditional concern of non-democratic regimes with media control. The more coercive the state, the less free is the media. The result is an emaciated media and press, devoid of political content and largely superficial and laudatory.

In this situation, political culture – stuck between state-controlled media (and education) and a fierce police state – is characterised by fear and intolerance. Years of arbitrary rule create a general surrender to the status quo, and, perhaps even more threatening, a binary view of reality, where people and ideas are often defined vis-à-vis the regime’s own positions: right or wrong, loyal or traitorous, “with us or against us”. (In this sense, not much has changed from the edict of the original Arab-Jew, Jesus Christ himself: “He who is not for me is against me”). The result is even less tolerance of political debate.

The path to progress

The matrix of denominators helps explain most of the plight that the Arabs find themselves in. Almost all articles written about the Arab world, especially since 11 September 2001, have referred to one or more of the aforementioned five themes, yet very little research has been done to examine them comprehensively. The deficiency of democracy in the Arab world, which has sapped the human and economic resources of the area and left its people with virtually no voice in the running of their affairs, remains to be addressed.

The events which since 2010-11 led to the overthrow of several antiquated regimes in the region, however, are indicators of a reawakening across the Arab world. Despite the slow pace and the setbacks, they are a sign that the peoples of the middle east and north Africa are imbued with a renewed sense of historical purpose after decades of repression. The heart of their movement is an end to arbitrary rule and for a binding social contract to be put in place once and for all. This is the precondition of all democratic progress.


Mishana Hosseinioun is a scholar of the middle east at Oxford University, where in 2013 she completed a DPhil thesis on “The Globalisation of Universal Human Rights and the Middle East”

Foulath Hadid (1937-2012) was an accountant, diplomat, adviser and scholar of the middle east, who latterly was appointed honorary fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford. His books include Iraq’s Democrati Moment (C Hurst, 2012)

Article courtesy of Open Democracy


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