A Struggle Towards Democracy, How Are Things Likely to Evolve in the Arab Region?

Plenary session 1 - Q&A session

Two years after what has become known as the Arab Spring, increasingly, there is a need for a structural framework to attempt to make sense of regional developments. There are still unanswered questions, inconclusive interpretations and a tentative grasp of development and contagion. It is now clear that there will be no swift resolutions and the regions are still struggling to deal with the ramifications of the upheavals. One of those has been on the rise of political Islam to power.

The Economic Research Forum’s (ERF) 19th Annual Conference debates issues around the current economic development under the rise of Islamic parties. The Islamist parties which have came to power in different countries raise different questions around their historical context, capacity to rule and the future likelihood of smooth sailing through a transition period.

So, Why Did the Regional Uprisings Happen?
Neither political nor economic theories have, on their own, provided satisfactorily logical explanations. There is no one signal factor for the Arab Spring, but rather a combustible mix of economic, social and political factors, according to Samer Shehata, Georgetown University. Former regimes had supplied state subsidies but these subsidies often failed to reach those who needed them most. On the political front, political rights were undermined, leading to increased repression. While the existing literature can explain the origins of regional autocracies and how they functioned, it cannot satisfactorily explain why they collapsed. Corruption, cronyism, inequality of opportunities, desire for equality, democracy, inequality of opportunities in the labor market, modernization, increased education are however, some explanations, argues Ishac Diwan, Harvard University and ERF Fellow.

Plenary session 1 - Q&A session

Religion and Power
Fundamental reformist movements are not specific to Islam. It is not a unique phenomenon, similar movements can be found in history and produced by several religions, including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. What is specific to the rise of Islamists is that there is no ecclesiastic authority and structure in Islam with the exception of the Shiaa in Iran. Hence the enormous diversity in how Islam is interpreted and implemented. However, “Islamists tend to rise when there are no centralized Islamic establishments” argues by Jean Philippe Plateau (University if Namur and University of Oxford). Some are a product of state-engineered movements, and other arise from civil society forces, depending on their motivation whether to consolidate power, bring nations closer, struggle against authoritarian political systems or fight external invaders. Religion becomes an ideological identification tool for Islamists to collect power. This is a stage where leaders can polarize the public around certain love/hate ideas- Islamists versus secularists– creating more conceptual struggles within a society. Nevertheless, various factions have to learn to accommodate the other. The political landscape has inevitably changed after the Islamists have come to the fore. Looking forward, who is the next catalyst for change?

Now What?
The more pressing question however becomes whether the change in socio-political perception of politics and religion will bring about and desired happiness or harmony to society. Is the presence Islamists in power a deterrence to a transition to democracy? Do they have the capacity to solve current persistent issues or problems? And at what cost? What defines a reasonable cost? More importantly, if these Islamist movements are not welcomed, then the public needs to be attentive to prevent the causes from which they emerge. Having been oppressed for decades, Islamists forces are keen on remaining in power.

Harmony is only likely to be restored when the ruling regime is effective in both maintaining order and stability and satisfying the basic needs of the population. In the case of Egypt, the main reason why the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) came to power is that they are politically organized, they think as an organization and not individuals. Nor is there a satisfactory alternative for the MB in terms of social networks at the grassroot level. Having said that, political unity is necessary for continued political success, which goes hand in hand with economic development and prosperity. Economy cannot prosper in politically volatile environments where governance becomes increasingly fraught.

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