Arab constitutions, for the most part, specify and guarantee human rights in their wordings. However, the reality of the individual in the Arab nation reveals something quite different from that which is written in the constitutions. The state is charged with providing citizens with sufficient opportunities by granting them the right to participate in political, economic, social and cultural life in addition to rendering the private life and private affairs of individuals inviolable. Arab regimes’ commitment to democracy is tenuous and in the main, these regimes preserve reference to democracy in their constitutions simply as a means for improving the image of the regime and as a pro-forma attempt at applying a modus operandi of a modern state. Despite the fact that laws are promulgated to regulate political work, the press and media, and the institutions of civil society, they are deprived of their function and impact through superficial or highly restricted legislation. For more than five decades, academic researches and writings on the obstacles to transitioning to democracy have increased and multiplied; and various ideas and opinions on the subject have been advanced. This article attempts an explanation of the phenomenon of Arab authoritarianism which fostered the crisis of the ‘Arab Spring’ and explores the reasons for the failure of democracy in the region.

KEYWORDS: human rights in the Arab world; dissension in the Arab world; social and economic rights in the Arab Region

The Arab ummah (hereinafter after referred to as ‘Arab ummah’ or ‘Arab nation’) comprises 22 states, 19 of which have a constitutional document. Of these, the constitutions of 16 characterize their respective systems as either ‘democratic’ or ‘parliamentary–representative’;2 and eight lack any sort of article granting the right to organize political parties or express political pluralism.3 Despite the fact that three Arab states lack a constitution and three others have ones that do not specify a democratic or parliamentary system, the Arab nation established an Arab Parliamentary Union in June 1974. The union comprised all 22 Arab countries: 13 of the parliaments were relatively freely elected; three others in which parliamentary elections were controlled by the prerogative of the ruling regime to appoint and field candidates; and six in which the members of parliaments were appointed by the ruling regime. Significantly, all the Arab countries professed to have apparatuses of accountability and oversight of state revenues and expenditures.

Thus, all these Arab regimes had the right to be members of the Arab Organization for High Apparatuses of Fiscal Oversight and Accountability, even if most of these apparatuses did not enjoy actual independence as a result of their subservience to the rulers of the respective states.4 All this points to the tenuous conviction of official Arab regimes to democracy; and that, in the main, such regimes preserve reference to such in their constitutions simply as a means for improving the image of the regime and as a pro-forma attempt at applying a modus operandi of a modern state. In reality, this is predicated on the authorities insisting on the separation of the legislative, executive and judicial institutions as well as on the oversight of the fiscal and administrative offices. Laws are promulgated to regulate political work, the press and media, and institutions of civil society. Yet, these are deprived of their function and impact through superficial or highly restricted legislation given that the institutions and structures in question remain within the orbit of the regimes, serve to protect them, are expressive of their will and are subject to the security, intelligence and political apparatuses that actually ‘pull the strings’ in the various countries.

As for what pertains to general and public freedoms as well as human rights, all Arab constitutions contain a section on the rights and duties of citizens. This section typically contains provisions to the effect that citizens are equal in rights and duties and that there is to be no discrimination between them on the basis of gender, origin, language, religion (aldin) or credo (al-‘aqidah). Moreover, the state is charged with providing them with sufficient opportunities – granting them the right to participate in political, economic, social and cultural life in addition to rendering the private life and private affairs of individuals inviolable. This is from the standpoint of conferring a certain sanctity on the private domicile, guaranteeing citizens access to private mail as well as private telephone landlines and other communications. The state is also barred in terms of exiling nationals, preventing them re-entry into the country or surrendering them to a foreign power. Likewise, nationals are generally permitted the right to move within the territories of the state and to leave them. The state is also barred from surrendering refugees seeking political asylum based on their principles and defending their freedom. Likewise, freedom of belief is typically guaranteed along with the right to express one’s opinion freely and openly, both verbally and in writing or by any other means.

Additionally, freedom of the press, printing and publishing, and distribution are guaranteed along with the media and its independence. Typically, the right to assemble and demonstrate peaceably are also stipulated, as well as to go on strike from work. Freedom is granted to establish associations and guilds; and every accused person is presumed innocent until proven otherwise in a just court of law. Accused persons are granted the right to a trial and the right to review and contest all charges against them as well as to defend themselves before a judge. It is forbidden to investigate or detain anyone without just cause or a ruling issued by a special court. Similarly, it is prohibited to torture or humiliate anyone. In sum, Arab constitutions, for the most part, specify and guarantee human rights in their wordings. However, the reality of the individual in the Arab nation reveals something quite different from that which is written in the constitutions.

Western indicators

Given these factors, there is little difficulty when using Western indicators5 in categorizing the authoritarian regimes of the Arab nation, despite the existence of clear and explicit texts in some of the Arab constitutions suggesting the adoption of a democratic system. In the 2015 Democracy Index,6 all the countries of the Arab nation were categorized as having ‘authoritarian regimes’, with the exception of Tunisia which was categorized among the states with a ‘defective democracy’. As for the states such as Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, these are classed as ‘hybrid regimes’, where democracy is mixed with authoritarianism. The remainder of Arab countries are classified under the rubric of ‘authoritarian states’. The Polity Data Series indicator7 categorizes systems of government according to three types: democracy, anocracy8 and autocracy. According to this indicator, Tunisia was the only Arab state classified as a democracy, with the others being categorized either as anocracies or autocracies, to varying degrees.

As far as public freedoms and human rights are concerned, the annual CIRI Human Rights Data Project Report9 places most of the states of the Arab nation lowest on the list, where in the last year eight of these showed a drop in measures for ‘physical integrity rights’. As far as freedom of the press is concerned, the Freedom of the Press Report puts all the countries in the Arab world under the category of ‘not free’ with the exception of three that are classed as ‘partly free’.10 The 2013 Worldwide Index of Human Freedom categorizes one Arab state as ‘free’, six as ‘partly free’ and 11 as ‘not free’. It happens that this is actually an improvement over previous years, given the entrance of two Arab countries onto the list of ‘partly free’ in the year of the survey.11

As far as what pertains to financial and administrative corruption, the indicator of the Global Organization for Transparency,12 known as the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), has all Arab countries scoring in aggregate an average of 35 on a scale of 100 points. They failed to attain the minimum level of the global average of 43 for reaching a stage of reasonable transparency and integrity.13 Moreover, the indicators for most of the Arab countries showed no tangible change in their rankings over the previous years and less than the requisite average to prevent their classification as ‘corrupt states’. The Arab states did manifest variation in their relative standing between more and less corrupt states, according to their rankings.

Impediments to democracy

For more than the last five decades, academic researches and writings on the obstacles to transitioning to democracy have increased and multiplied; and various ideas and opinions on the subject have been advanced. A brief note will be made of the major trends in this regard as they pertain to the Arab world.

There are those who see that the effectiveness of the democratic mechanisms and structures is not viable, except with the existence of a capitalist economic framework driven by free markets,14 where a liberal capitalist economy serves as a guarantor for the development of a working middle class representing the bourgeoisie. It is said that one of the reasons for the rise to prominence of democracy in Western Europe was due to the inception of the bourgeoisie to the extent that it is claimed that ‘there is no democracy without a bourgeoisie’. Furthermore, the existence of such a class is considered to be a guarantor for the transition of societies to ones with a civil character, which transitions individuals from their belonging on the basis of ethnic, religious or partisan affiliations to belonging to institutions of civil society. These institutions drive individuals to adopt the democratic mode of operation in choosing representatives of associations or their administrative councils. Likewise, their general associations engrain the importance of oversight and accountability in terms of performance and accomplishment.

There are those who see that the success of democracy correlates to mean individual income15 that should not be less than US$10,000 per annum. An increase in the level of income guarantees an increase in the standard of living16 and leads the individual to pledge loyalty to the state before any other loyalty. In the case of states that exhibit a low average individual income, voter orientation remains subject to the pressures of basic needs and staples, leading to situations where whoever secures the most of their needs is elected. This typically ends, for the most part, in the predominance of the ethnic, religious or factional factor.17

Yet, there are others who see that democracy, as a model of governance, is tied to the culture of Western societies (Zeng 2015) and that it proved successful there as a result of its natural inception in those societies, in which case it is not necessarily the case that it should prove successful in other societies. This contention is most often echoed among East Asian countries that hold that their cultures oblige them to modify the democratic model in ways suitable to the culture of their societies. This is perhaps what explains China’s abstention from adopting this model as well as the current model of government in Russia.

In addition to these views, there are those who hold that good governance is more important than democracy,18 and such is predicated with a model that grants preponderance to integrity and transparency over political rights and freedoms. Proponents see that this drives perpetual growth as well as a comfortable life and luxury in a secure fashion, most often citing the experience of Singapore as evidence for the veracity of these contentions.19

There are also those who see that external factors are decisive in the success of the democratic experience from the standpoint of intervention or lack of intervention in the politics of a particular state. The geopolitical position of a state or the nature of the interests of the major powers in it are all issues that factor positively in the potential success of the experience.20 For example, there are what are termed ‘confrontational states’, that is, those in proximity to Israel; and they will remain subject to international pressures and intervention in order to guarantee the peace and security of Israel. This is a matter that is not denied by any of the Western nations and, at the forefront of them, the United States. Another example can be culled from the oil-producing states, the security and stability of which will remain contingent upon their responsiveness to global oil policies. The United States is adamantly opposed to any thinking on behalf of the producer countries about using oil as a ‘weapon’, even if it brokers no objection to its use as such – in agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states – in its altercations and differences with other major powers.

Explaining the phenomenon of Arab authoritarianism

In addition to the aforementioned general obstacles to democracy, those in the Arab world take on a particular nature. Democracy requires structures of a modern state on which to build its institutions. The impasse in the Arab nation lies in the self-absorption of the ruling elites in constructing their hegemonies at the expense of building the state. They are closed elites that do not permit the entrance of anyone into their spheres except those in agreement with their special criteria, commensurate with the nature of the ruling elites themselves. This ‘closed’ aspect leads to the monopoly of a very exclusive group – ‘a political clique’ – which controls the centres of leadership, employment and politics within the state. Such factors in the accumulation of maladies within the system such as political and employment ossification, administrative stagnation, clinging to office, divvying up of benefits, nepotism, clustering around the particular leader and competing for his favour. The era of the 1960s and 1970s, which were characterized by the predominance of a comprehensive and unitary political organization, gave rise to the development of an educated elite characterized by a unity of thought and action. With the passing of time this transformed into the ‘old guard’ of the Arab systems, genuinely fearful of democracy, change and development as that would expose their dangers, flaws and interests. Yet, strategically, they were compelled to raise the slogans of democracy on public occasions, while making war on it as a reform initiative within the system’s corridors of power.

Some of the Arab regimes have endeavoured to justify their crisis of democracy with co-optive policies in which the masses are directed towards national issues such as confronting colonialism, imperialism and Western ambitions, or towards specific cases such as that of Palestine or confronting Israel. In recent times, democracy has been co-opted in factional and sectarian battles at the regional level, or it has been used to feed ‘sectarian–religious’ contentions among members of a single nation, which puts citizens before a set of sensitive and destiny-shaping priorities. Other regimes have endeavoured to position democracy as a mechanism of government in conflict with religion, where these regimes consider that religion has put in place a system of governance for the state and they have made the Quran their ‘constitution’.21 Following this logic, there is no need to draft a constitution or to ratify one given the existence of the Quran. There is no need to set up the structures of democracy in the presence of an institution of hereditary or dynastic governance. This discourse resonates powerfully and has wide appeal among the ranks of salafists, to the extent that this led to the enthusiastic pronouncement of some of them to the effect that the mechanisms of democracy are clearly contradictory to Islam, and some even consider them tantamount to unbelief (al-kufr) (AlJaami 2005).22

The crisis of the ‘Arab Spring’

The Cold War during the 20th century provided most of the Arab regimes with security cover through the concept of ‘sovereignty’23 specified in the Charter of the United Nations that conferred a guarantee to Arab regimes that foreign states would not intervene in their internal affairs. This helped to facilitate these regimes in dealing with their populations individually and with impunity, imposing their will upon them however they saw fit. This situation did not change until the end of the Cold War and the beginning of Western intervention to remove the peoples of Eastern Europe from the grip of their communist regimes, where this intervention was varied and took political, military and humanitarian forms.

The events of September 11 in New York pushed the United States to announce three strategies24 between July 2002 and February 2003. These bore the features of change for the world order in the coming stage from the perspective that they introduced a new authoritative ‘moral’ referent for ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ensconced in and represented by ‘American legitimacy’ and based on military might instead of international law to preserve global peace. This was the case even if it entailed the United States taking on the task unilaterally and constricting the concept of sovereignty of the nation-state and declaring a war on terror by force of weapons rather than force of law, conferring a new concept of global peace tied to the principles of democracy, declaring the right of all peoples of the world to enjoy freedom and justice.

Accompanying this announcement was the discussion of a ‘Greater Middle East’ in which the states of the region were promised democracy and growth. It was for the Arab regimes to understand from these indicators the new change and to understand that the guarantees that were forthcoming during the Cold War for the regimes on the inside, under the principle of ‘sovereignty’, were no longer to be. Change was coming from beyond the unknown, and especially in the Western military camp that had huge budgets to spread ‘democracy’ in the Middle East. They trained individuals from all over the Arab states of the region to use the means of social media and the media to mobilize the masses. The West played upon the weak point of the peoples of the region, who had been deprived of freedom and were longing for democracy, while simultaneously being enraged by corruption.

Everyone thought that the West would push for reform of the regimes or their change towards democracy, especially after its apparently limited enthusiasm for the revolts of the ‘Arab Spring’ and what manifested in institutions of civil society and the media25 as well as the alternative media (i.e., social media),26 the parliaments, the intelligence organizations27 and the political leaders.28

This was among that which precipitated a painful shock to the leadership of the Arab regimes; and especially when they were witnessing the bringing down of important leaderships among them. This led the leaders to repeatedly question the West in astonishment: Why all this? Why the ignoring and neglect of friends and allies (in need)?

The response of those in the West was simply to offer the advice ‘listen to your people’. At that moment, the leaders of the Arab regimes realized that there was conspiracy directed towards the entire Arab ummah (nation). This conspiracy exploited the thirst for the people of the region for democracy to take the place of fragile regimes unable to maintain and preserve the order. So as to incite chaos in a form now famous as ‘creative destruction’29 and for the purpose of fractioning the nation into a collection of minor states no longer bound together by overarching Arab ties, but rather torn apart by ethnic, factional, sectarian and partisan sentiments. It was not possible for the Arab regimes to convince their peoples of these foreign conspiratorial machinations. Due to the fact that most of these had a lengthy history of exaggeration and lying in dubious mobilization campaigns, these regimes had lost their credibility with their peoples; and their peoples were no longer responsive to them, even if this time the regimes were being truthful. There is still lingering dissension between the Arab regimes and the Arabs dreaming of democracy despite the unmasking of the recent conspiracies when everyone realized that there were those exploiting the chaos that ushered in the socalled ‘Arab Spring’ to overthrow dubious and violent groups while, at the same time, providing international justification for the return of foreign military forces into the region, otherwise known in the last century as ‘colonialism’. Despite that, up to the now the ‘Arab Spring’ has failed to realize the dreams of the Arab peoples for a democratic system that respects human rights. It has also brought with it the terror of the demise of the Arab order and fears of fragmentation and division, and has left an indelible imprint on Arab consciousness. Namely, it ‘broke the barrier of fear’ and raised the hopes of those dreaming of democracy as well as their determination to achieve it despite the stolid and harsh confrontation of their demands on the part of the regimes. Simultaneously, the leaderships of the Arab regimes became aware of the delusion and false hope of any ‘international guarantees’ that would keep them in power. Those were temporary and contingent upon the prevailing international situation as in the case of the Cold War. They realized the importance of appeasing their populations and considering their demands. It may be the case that the coming future will hold pleasant surprises for the Arab nation once lessons from the painful present are learnt.