Ziad Majed on the Middle East & Democracy

An Interview with Ziad Majed

To get a better perspective on the prospects for democracy in the Middle East, GonePublic’s author, Noelle McAfee, interviewed Lebanese intellectual and activist Ziad Majed, who has been working with other Arab researchers and activists for the past ten years to elaborate a regional democracy agenda. More recently he helped found the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy, which brings together researchers and activists from Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco to study democratic transitions and raise democratic awareness. Majed left Lebanon in September 2005 and now teaches Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Paris. He regularly visits Beirut and other Arab capitals.

Noelle McAfee: How might — or might not — the year 2011 be the Middle Eastern equivalent to Eastern Europe’s 1989?

Ziad Majed: We can definitely consider that 2011 in the Arab World is comparable to 1989 in Eastern Europe. Popular uprisings are overthrowing despotic regimes, hopes for freedom and dignity are unifying men and women from different cities and social classes, and a wind of change is blowing through the whole region.

In that sense, one can say that the fall of the “wall of fear” in most of the Arab countries today is equivalent to the fall of the “wall of Berlin” 21 or 22 years ago.

Nevertheless, the international context is different and many characteristics of the regimes in question are also different (while Eastern European regimes adopted “soviet socialism” economically, regimes in Egypt and Tunisia for instance have been through economic liberalization for more than four decades now). In addition, democratic transitions might take longer in the Arab World as the political processes, the socio-economic challenges and the regional situation are more complex.

NM: You know, the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe varied according to what kind of history and memory of civil society the various countries had — with Eastern Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia having a great deal, but Romania having very little.  The Romanians executed their leaders, whereas the other revolutions proceeded peaceably. The more history of civil society, the better the revolutions fared, during and afterwards. Are there any lessons here for the Arab world?

ZM: There are lots of lessons from Eastern Europe and from Latin America for the Arab World.

Police states, terror, censorship, corruption, the cult of personality (for rulers) were and are common trends in many of the regimes in question and understanding ways in which they were deconstructed in the different Eastern European cases is very useful for Arab democracy activists in the current phase.

What might be crucial, however, in influencing transitions in the present Arab situation — more than the history of civil society and its level of development — is the degree of social cohesion in the concerned country. Whenever a despotic regime relies on a sectarian or tribal basis, overthrowing it peacefully becomes difficult due to the fact that the clientelist networks and the military/police ones that the regime built are concentrated in this sectarian/tribal basis, and its members consider themselves directly threatened by the regime change. This is the case in many Levant and Gulf countries (and in Libya), while it was less the case in Egypt and Tunisia. In other words, countries with deep vertical divisions might confront more challenges than those with horizontal ones.

NM:  Many observers worry about religious extremism in the Middle East, thinking that a secular dictator might be better than an Islamist state. But of course the United States. has many religious fundamentalists vying for political power, or at least for their religious values to shape public law. Is this an apt comparison?  In your view, does Islam pose a different kind of challenge for democracy in the Middle East than Christianity does in the West?

ZM: There are three levels that need to be addressed while answering this question.

The first concerns the fact that the argument about “preferring” secular dictators to an elected Islamist party or to an Islamic revolution appeared as a “Western” political stance only after the Iranian revolution in 1979. This contradicted a long US/western “trend” that supported for instance the Islamic Saudi Arabia in its confrontation with the secular Nasser of Egypt (during the inter-Arab rivalry years and the cold war context), and the Islamist Ziya ul-Haq in Pakistan in his coup against the secular Ali Boto. It also contradicts the continuous support to Saudi Arabia – a country where religion supposedly rules over the state and the society — until this moment.

Moreover, this same logic led to the support of Saddam’s Iraq in the war against Iran (from 1980 to 1988) that killed more than a million people on both sides and that politically consolidated both regimes in Baghdad and in Tehran. The consequences are still ongoing…

The second is that those who are considered “secular dictators” contributed to the “Islamization” of their societies for different reasons, among them: Islam as a political identity became a refuge for many of those marginalized or excluded from the political and economic arenas; the dictators and their regimes had — each time their legitimacies were questioned — to show that they were the “real” Muslims (more Muslims than the Islamists), allowing thus censorship by religious institutions in the name of Islam to hit many cultural events and to reduce all margins of secular thinking. Dictators also allowed religious social networks (that do not adopt political positions) to expand in order to attract lower classes and bring them away from Islamist groups (those who have political agendas).

One can already see (from movies, books, newspapers, and social “taboos”) that religious conservatism progressed in most countries where regimes played (and blackmailed) on this false equation: “secular dictatorships or radical Islamists.”

Third, it is not true that democratic transformation in the Arab World will automatically see the Islamist movements on the rise. Neither is it true that these groups all look the same. They are groups with different backgrounds, agendas, priorities and organizational structures. They are nevertheless there, more organized than others, with more resources, with simple slogans and lots of promises, and at the same time with few concrete political, financial and economic proposals. They might play important political roles, but they will be competing with other old or emerging secular groups, with a young generation of men and women thirsty for jobs, for freedoms, and in touch with the World through the Internet, social networks and satellite TV that no one can control. They will have to run for elections, to please voters and to know that people discovered their way to the streets, to the public space where they can demonstrate and express their opposition to any policy that they do not approve, and no one will be capable of forcing them back home.

Therefore, without denying the fact that political Islam (in its different forms and schools of thought) is a serious challenge in most Arab countries, I think that Islamists in general are not the alternative to despotism, and they will only be strong political tendencies or currents among others.

As for comparing Islam to Christianity or to other religions when it comes to coexisting with (or challenging) democracy, I personally do not believe in culturalistic approaches, nor in civilizational cleavages. There are historical contexts and economic developments that shape peoples and their cultures. I think the Arab-Islamic geography where one empire has been brutally replacing the other for centuries now, oil and rentier economies that dominated modern formation of Arab States, and patriarchal-tribal social structures that survived many transformations have together influenced our societies more than Islam. They weakened citizenship, individual freedoms, work and production ethics, marginalized women and substituted transparency and accountability with a distribution of wealth based on loyalty and primordial ties. Military coup d’etats and despotism, conflicts, occupation and wars all continued to shape this Islamic/Arab saga in last decades. Decadent interpretations of Islam constitute in that perspective only one reflection of a severe malaise in our societies following its different failures. And of course, any religious discourse can create more impact on people due to the “symbolic capital” a religion carries, and to the fact that it deals with intimate beliefs and collective emotions.

NM: Conceptually, can a religious people have a secular state? Does Turkey pose a good model, one that might work in other predominantly-Muslim countries?

ZM: The Turkish model is becoming more and more a reference for many Islamists in the Arab World. Turkey’s AKP party in power today has a Muslim brotherhood background, the same as most of the largest Islamist parties in Arab countries (overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim societies). I think a compromise is possible, and it will depend on the balance of power that democratic secular groups would be able to impose in the long political processes to come, so that no attempts by any group (including the military) at monopolizing power would be possible.

It is important to add here, and this is also related to the previous question, that the Arab and Islamic political literature from what was called the renaissance era – in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – carries brilliant texts on religious reforms, on rejecting religious and political despotism, on women’s rights and on citizenship. They present within the Islamic scene the best response to obscurantist discourses and groups.  People like Al-Afghani, Mohamad Abdo, Al-Kawakibi, Ali Abdel Razek, and Kassem Amin left a great heritage that many Muslim scholars, like the late Nasr Hamed Abou Zeid of Egypt, further developed in recent years. Their work should be revisited today and better presented to new generations.

NM: Thank you, Ziad.

Deliberative Democracy Exchange

I’ve just come off of an amazing three-day meeting convened by the Kettering Foundation: the Deliberative Democracy Exchange.  There were about two hundred participants from all over the world coming together to exchange thoughts and think through little-d democratic politics, a politics that’s about deliberation, engagement, and civic agency.  I like to describe democracy as the opportunity for all who are affected by public matters to have the ability to shape their world.  That’s pretty basic, but still a lot to hope for.

Last night there was a panel of speakers form Latin American, Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and New Zealand who talked about the state of democracy in the world today.  I was struck by the Columbian who said to America, keep your money, help us build civil society.  And I was especially struck by the Jordanian, speaking for the Middle East, talking about why it has been so hard for the Arab world to become democratic.  There are internal and external factors, he noted.  Internally there was the problem that various Arab regimes seized on the Israel problem as an excuse for forestalling democracy. Externally there was the problem that the best beacon for democracy — the U.S. — was modeling anything but democracy in the Middle East, by supporting dictators and brutal regimes, by waging an endless war, not supporting peace.  I got the message from all that the United States is still a country that others in the world admire and love for its values; they just wish the U.S. would start living up to them.