Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The clock can no longer be turned back in Syria

A remarkable omission from discussions on the Middle East these days is the notion of democratisation. That is strange for two reasons: a decade ago the topic was at the centre of deliberations over the region, especially in the US, and in 2011, the Arab uprisings began with calls for democracy.

The mood change was predictable in June 2009, when Barack Obama made his much-publicised speech in Cairo. Democracy was one of the four points Mr Obama raised in the address, though he did so briefly and non-committally.

Most noticeable was the president’s reference to the “controversy” surrounding democracy in Iraq. Betraying his thoughts on the subject, namely that the Bush administration used democratisation to justify a war he opposed, Mr Obama added: “No system of government can or should be imposed on one nation by any other.”

For a long time this association between democracy and war tarnished all talk of democratisation. A natural extension of the condemnation of the Bush administration was criticism of democracy promotion – viewed as an excuse to pursue an agenda of US expansionism.

Oddly enough, when the 2011 Arab uprisings occurred, almost nobody seriously revived the debate over democratisation, except to say that what was taking place went against what Mr Bush had advocated. Rather than change coming from outside, the Arabs were showing that real change came from within.

Today, however, the descent of several Arab states into cycles of violence – from Syria to Iraq, and from Libya to Yemen – show that a democracy debate is necessary. Yet the heart of the conversation should no longer be whether democracy is desirable, but rather to determine what kinds of open systems work best in each particular national context, because social realities vary.

Multi-sectarian and multi-ethnic states, such as Iraq or Syria, are less likely to put in place a one-person, one-vote system that focuses on the individual over the community. There are countless possible alternatives to such an arrangement, but these must have a basis in a country’s complex make-up.

Lebanon was an early model for a divided society that tried to manage its differences through a consensual, sectarian power-sharing arrangement. Ideas that have circulated in Lebanon – sometimes implemented, sometimes not – may have relevance for other Arab states. This can include reserving specific posts for certain sects, administrative decentralisation, separate personal status laws for different communities, and more.

Democracy in mixed Arab societies may also have to contain elements favouring pluralism over individual liberty. Liberty is undoubtedly at the heart of democracy, but in many conservative Arab societies resistance to some aspects of personal liberty may translate into opposition to the very idea of democracy itself. That is why a balance has to be struck between freedom of the individual and of the community, in the expectation that the latter will enhance the former.

A wider discussion is now necessary over new political arrangements governing Arab states, of which democracy is but a part. Syria, Iraq, even Yemen are all undergoing fundamental changes and a radical transformation in communal relations.

In Syria, the state has effectively broken down into separate entities, a development accelerated by the Al Assad regime and backed by Iran. Their establishment of a de facto Alawite-dominated statelet between the coast and Damascus, which includes most of Syria’s population, facilitates Bashar Al Assad’s and Tehran’s control over what is described as “vital Syria”.

Whatever happens in Syria, the country is unlikely to go back to what it was: a united, multi-confessional country that buried its rifts under an ersatz layer of Arab nationalism. Yet sooner or later the country’s nightmare will end and Syrians will have to define what political order best suits their society.

Alternatively, what may follow is partition, but even there some sort of understanding will have to be worked out between the country’s separate components. And an essential factor in this will be whether Syria’s entities can interact in ways that preserve the interests of minorities. This may not be democracy per se, but a debate over democracy will lead precisely to the questions Syrians will have to address in the future.

The worst thing that can happen to the idea of democratisation is that it remains politicised as it was after President George W Bush used it to validate his campaign in Iraq. Since that time Mr Bush’s foes have erred in throwing the baby out with the bathwater: in denouncing Mr Bush they have denied any legitimacy to a sensible examination of Arab democracy.

With the focus today on ISIL and violence throughout the region, this trend has only been reinforced. Nowhere, it seems, is democracy less likely to flourish than in the Middle East.

But deadlock and suffering also often impose innovative thinking. For the states of the region to return to the repression of the past while also remaining secure does not appear feasible. Nor will fragmentation bring long-term stability. The democracy debate will inevitably return as Arab societies search for arrangements that are both permanent and peaceful.

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