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Azmi Bishara

On political culture and stalled democratisation

At the outset, a majority of the Arab public adopted the rhetoric of change (AFP)

Date of publication: 27 December, 2014

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The lack of a democratic culture amongst the Arab elites is the single most pressing question within the topic of political culture in the Arab world.
I have never accepted the notion, that “political culture” determines the success or failure of democratic transition. Indeed, I devoted an entire chapter to this question in my 2007 book On the Arab Question, where I argue for the existence of an Arab exceptionalism, not with regards to democratic culture (as is often argued), but rather with respect to how the relationship between state, nation and national identity has developed. The fact that this relationship remains unresolved, in the Arab case, leads to the disintegration of existing nation-state institutions and thus, creates multi-faceted obstacles on the path towards democratic transition. One of the manifestations of is the emphasis on authoritarianism — as opposed to the state — as the guarantor of the integrity of existing political
     Opposition elites did not become more democratic while they sat in the opposition.
institutions against the challenges presented by sub-national identities.

In a chapter of On the Arab Question dedicated to the subject of political culture, I further argue that any impact that a society’s “political culture” may have on the democratic transition is heightened in the Arab case by the way in which large sections of the Arab publics have joined the political fray, a phenomenon to which the mass media has also contributed. It also demonstrates one of the paradoxes of the democratic transition in the Third World: given that the bulk of the European population was not politically enfranchised during that continent’s democratization, the Arab publics are asked in fact to be more democratic in their culture than the Europeans when their countries were democratizing.

However, even in the Arab region, democratization remains more sensitive to the political culture of the elites than that of the people as a whole. In effect, the lack of a democratic culture amongst the Arab elites is the single most pressing question within the topic of political culture in the Arab world.

The Arab peoples have acted in ways that reflect the extent to which they are invested in the matter of civil rights, notwithstanding certain specific and gleaming caveats around the topic of personal freedoms. Such difficulties, however, were exacerbated by the elites, whose interests and political culture lie at the heart of the formulation of popular discourse, and whose role is vital in deciding whether to guide the people, or frighten them; to persuade the public, or to whip them into a frenzy; whether to inform their opinions, or appeal to their baser instincts.

At the outset, a majority of the Arab public adopted the rhetoric of change against despotism, and for human dignity and social justice. Once they were assured that their votes will mean something and that the results will not be manipulated, they duly went to the ballot boxes in good faith. It was the elites, however, who did not show tolerance and pluralist political attitudes.

My use of the word elite here does not signify any recognition, prestige or virtue, nor does it necessarily indicate any sophistication. It reflects, rather, the influence and status enjoyed by sections of the military, political, bureaucratic, business and media establishments. Only a minority within these groups accepted the democratic process and its outcomes, or even countenanced the idea of sharing power with a new set of partners different from themselves. They also demonstrated indifference towards violations of human rights and civil liberties in spite of liberal rhetoric against Islamists.

In fact, for some of the political groups formerly in the opposition, the fear that a new breed of political force would wield influence outweighed other considerations and drove them into alliances with the ancien regime. For another section of the opposition—and specifically, religious political parties—which had never been a part of the economic, bureaucratic, political, military or media elites, the revolutions and the downfall of tyranny presented only a historic opportunity to rule.

This group had long been held out as the only alternative to the previous, tyrannical regimes: crucially, they alone, and not democratic system and governance, were the alternative. They were convinced of the dichotomy put forward by the former regimes: that they are the only alternative to tyranny. They have yet to accept democracy as a system of governance, of values and behaviors. At a time when elements of the previous regime remained in place, the only way religious movements could have gone through a process of democratization and guarantee stability in the turbulent period of transition would have been for them to cooperate with other forces within the opposition, instead of competing against them. In the case of Egypt, they preferred to rule and the so-called democratic elites declined from any cooperation with them in the transitional period.

It was, then, the political, bureaucratic, economic and military elites within the state apparatus, alongside the political and cultural elites within the opposition that aroused an already existing element of conservatism within the popular culture that was so averse to change and afraid of the unknown that it was prepared to submit to tyranny in order to avoid chaos. The media, too, played a facilitating role in this, and usually without any sense of professionalism.

The travesty here, and the source of my own great dismay, is born of the fact that the opposition elites (nationalists, leftists, Islamists. liberals) did not reform their ideologies and values, they did not become more democratic while they sat in the opposition. Some of these elites would still prefer a military ruler, or perhaps a former Minister of Interior and member of the old guard, even over another candidate drawn from their own ranks. They would prefer a civil war to dialogue, or to a coalition with other forces different to themselves. When opposition elites martialed their supporters against the competitors in other opposition camps, they did nothing to enhance the confidence of the public in them as an alternative, but rather laid the groundwork for an acceptance of a return of the old guard.

There are wide swathes of the youth movement who have been left disappointed, after having given democracy a chance to change the miserable realities in which they lived. The horrid sense of abandonment which these youth who led the protest movements now feel will go down as the defining characteristic of our present time. Marginalized by the present conflict, which more closely resembles an internecine civil war between undemocratic forces, or conflict of identities of communities (real and imagined), than a revolution, they are acutely aware of their failure to protect the gains of the Arab Spring. Without a doubt, the counter-revolutionary vindictive use of violence will drive some into the arms of terrorist forces who operate outside of the realm of the state.

This current period of counter revolution is bloody, but it will pass. Sooner or later, the time will come when the democratic youth of these days will come to lead. For now, they should prepare themselves and organize by understanding the scale and gravity of the responsibility which has fallen to them.

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