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Popular revolutions and democratic struggles


By Adeed Dawisha


The Montréal Review, April 2011


"Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation" by Adeed Dawisha (Princeton University Press, 2009)


If we are to entertain the hope that the present popular Arab revolutions might eventually lead to an Arab political awakening, then we could do worse than consider, and try to learn from, an earlier period of political revival that swept majestically through the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s only to eventually sink in the treacherous quicksand of Arab tyranny.

The earlier period of Arab awakening occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, and had similar manifestations of popular passion and exuberance. It was led by young men who were singularly dedicated to political and social change. These young reformers had become alienated from the existing political elites whom they saw as stagnant, corrupt and most of all as puppets of colonial and imperial rule. If one is to look back at that era and evaluate the goals and performance of this thirty-something crowd, one is bound to conclude that there was much that was eventually achieved. By the early 1970s colonialism was eradicated from all Arab lands. Through land reform and state controlled economic policies that were more egalitarian, aimed at bridging the vast divide between the obscenely rich and abjectly poor, a perceptible socio-economic transformation would take place. And with that, substantive improvements in health and education would occur. No less critical was a fundamental change in the Arabs' psychological landscape. Years of colonial subjugation had taken its toll on the Arabs, leaving them with an overwhelming sense of inferiority toward Europe and the West. But that would dramatically and permanently change as the young revolutionary reformers would think nothing of taking on the West, casting aside its dictates, and moving resolutely against its interests.

So what is wrong with this tale of accomplishment and success? With such a luminous legacy, how is it that the contemporary Arab world has been looked at universally with dismay, disdain, and a sad shake of the head. According to the World Bank, if one excludes the small petroleum-producing sheikhdoms of the Gulf, Arab countries have some of the lowest GDP/capita in the world. Transparency International endows the Arab region with the unenviable distinction of having some of the most corrupt regimes in the world. And according to Freedom House, the Arab world fares worse than any other world region in terms of political rights and civil liberties. So what went wrong?

Looking back, if one were to extract one pivotal element from the various factors that gradually contributed to Arab political stagnation, it would be the downright unwillingness of the ruling elites to create institutions of political representation that would have built on their earlier successes. Had they built democratic institutions, the legitimacy that grew out of their earlier achievements would have become routinized and permanent. But the dedicated and visionary young leaders of years past, and their inheritors, grew into today's self satisfied, self aggrandized fat cats, caring little about political reform, and much less about the welfare and political rights of their citizens. They designed constitutions, and wrote electoral laws, aimed at keeping them in power; they stuffed ballot boxes to prevent opposition from mounting even the most insignificant of challenges to their authority; they gagged the media, making it an instrument of political control; and they made the judiciary an arm of the regime. Perhaps the most damning transgression of all was the institutionalization of one-party systems, where the party became simply a mobilizational tool, treating citizens like sheep, herding them from one ideological spectrum to another in accordance with the leader's will and whim. And when all else failed, the man in charge would unleash the unforgiving fury of the security apparatuses against his unsuspecting citizens. The first Arab awakening which began so full of promise, with so much popular support and goodwill, was eventually choked to death by the willful action of rulers and elites determined to sabotage any effort to build representative institutions that might encroach on their limitless hold on power.

There is a lesson here for the leaders of the present waves of revolutionary fervor that seem to be succeeding in ousting entrenched authoritarian rulers along with their minions. The euphoria that has accompanied these momentous happenings is more than justified. But to transform these revolutions into a resilient and sustainable era of political awakening and social progress, the revolutionary leaders of today need to learn from the errors of the past, and embark on building robust and sustainable institutions of political representation.

The revolutionary virus of freedom quickly spread from Tunisia to other Arab lands. But it will be in Egypt, the pivotal Arab state and for over two centuries the intellectual center and cultural and political role model, where the ultimate success or failure of these Arab revolutions will be determined.

In terms of democratic transition, things have gone well in Egypt so far. Egypt's despot for thirty years, Husni Mubarak, was ousted, and a new government, seemingly not connected to the old ruling elites, has been formed. Some of the most egregious articles in Mubarak's constitution were amended, and recently these amendments were put to a referendum and approved overwhelmingly. This paves the way for parliamentary elections this fall-the first free and fair elections in Egypt's contemporary history.

Exhilarating as all this must be, there are two not insubstantial concerns. First, the responsibility for moving Egypt toward democracy has fallen on the defense establishment. One can hardly be sanguine about this eventuality as the military constituted the backbone of Mubarak's rule. Yet they now have become the main arbiters of power in Egypt, exerting immense influence on the process of democratic transition.

Secondly, the quick transition to democracy could benefit groups whose fidelity to the democratic ideal is at best questionable. Yet these groups could achieve electoral success because they possess what the young men and women who led the revolution do not: grass roots organizational structures. One thinks specifically of Mubarak's ruling party, the National Democratic Party, as well as the Organization of Muslim Brotherhood. The former could call on decades of institutional patronage established throughout Egypt, and the latter would utilize the organization's intricate and country wide mosque-based network of popular support.

In spite of these possible pot holes on the democratic road, Western support for these Arab democratic initiatives should not waver. Democracy not only guarantees peoples' human rights and dignity, but, as Immanuel Kant, the great 18th century German philosopher, tells us, it constitutes the most effective guarantor against global violence.

Looking at Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, it would be impossible to predict with any certainty a happy democratic conclusion. However, for the first time in many generations, Egyptians and other Arabs have a chance of becoming the masters of their political future and architects of their political destiny. One can do no more than hope that these popular revolutions that have been calling for true democratic transformations will not be hijacked by forces that feign fidelity to the democratic ideal.


Adeed Dawisha is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Miami University, Ohio. He is the author of a number of books, the latest of which is Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation (Princeton, 2009).


With each day that passed after the 2003 invasion, the United States seemed to sink deeper in the treacherous quicksand of Iraq's social discord, floundering in the face of deep ethno-sectarian divisions that have impeded the creation of a viable state and the molding of a unified Iraqi identity. Yet as Adeed Dawisha shows in this superb political history, the story of a fragile and socially fractured Iraq did not begin with the invasion--it is as old as Iraq itself.

Dawisha traces the history of the Iraqi state from its inception in 1921 following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and up to the present day. He demonstrates how from the very beginning Iraq's ruling elites sought to unify this ethnically diverse and politically explosive society by developing state governance, fostering democratic institutions, and forging a national identity. Dawisha, who was born and raised in Iraq, gives rare insight into this culturally rich but chronically divided nation, drawing on a wealth of Arabic and Western sources to describe the fortunes and calamities of a state that was assembled by the British in the wake of World War I and which today faces what may be the most serious threat to survival that it has ever known.

Iraq is required reading for anyone seeking to make sense of what's going on in Iraq today, and why it has been so difficult to create a viable government there.

-- Princeton University Press


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