David Govrin

Amb. Dr. David Govrin

Associate Fellow
Ambassador of Israel to Egypt
David  Govrin

Research Abstract

"The New Liberal Discourse on Reforms and Democratization in the Mashrek Countries 1990-2005"

This research analyzes the new Liberal discourse on political reforms and democratization in the Arab Mashreq countries, during the years 1990 - 2005.

The collapse of the communist regimes in East Europe (1989-91), the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War (1990-91), constituted the formative events of the new Liberal discourse during this period. The globalization and the media revolution since the last decade of the 20th century, the sharp shift in U.S. foreign policy following the terrorist attacks of 11, September 2001, the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime (March 2003) and the U.S initiatives to advance the democratization in the Arab states of the Middle East - all these events evoked, to a great extent, the discourse on democracy in the Arab World.                                                                                                                 

The examination of the new Liberal discourse during the surveyed period is aimed at answering on the following questions: What is the historic and ideological background of the new Liberals and who are those who belong to them? What is their worldwide outlook and to what extent were they influenced by the regional and International events? What part did the media revolution play in this discourse and its contents? What is the democratic vision of the new Liberals, and what are the main obstacles to democracy in their views? What is the status of the new Liberals and their influence on state affairs, on society, and on the central regime?

The new Arab Liberals consider themselves - as they are called – the successors and followers of the Arab Liberal Muslims of the 19th century, especially the Arab Liberals of the Twenties and Thirties of the 20th century, known in the research literature, as the formative years of Egyptian Liberalism. The new Liberals are inspired by the political and cultural processes that developed at that time within the society. They regard the Egyptian constitution adopted in 1923, as a model for a legal regime in terms of separation of powers and the preservation of personal freedom.

The new Arab Liberals, upon which this research focuses, do not constitute a homogeneous group and are not associated within a political, ideological or social framework. They include among others: heads of research Institutes, editors of periodicals, writers, intellectuals, publicists, academicians, public activists, economists and businessmen. They could be classified in three main categories: Institutional Liberals, semi-Institutional Liberals and Independent Liberals. The Head of Al-Ahram Center for strategic studies, 'Abd Al-Monem Said, born in Egypt, serves an example of an Institutional Liberal identified with the (old) regime.

The Majority of the new Liberals, however, does not represent the regime and are not identified with it in their own countries. They belong to the categories of semi-institutional or Independent Liberals. Among those prominent semi-institutional Liberals are the Egyptians Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, Editor of the periodical Al-Siyasa Al-Duwaliya and Hala Mustafa, Editor of the periodical Al-Dimocratiya, published by the Al-Ahram Center; The Gulf Liberals who belong to this category are: Ahmad Al-Baghdadi, a Kuwaiti academician and philosopher, who was accused and even arrested after having published a critical article about the Prophet  Mohamed; The Saudis: Mohamed Mahfuz, writer and journalist, who often writes on subjects related to civil and political reforms and democratization in Arab states, Khalil Al-Dakhil, Professor of Sociology at the King Said Al-Faisal University, Riyad; 'Abd Al-Hamid Al Anasari, Professor of Islamic Studies at the Qatar University and publicist, also belongs to this category.

The category of the Independent Liberals includes the Egyptians: Sa'ad Al-Din Ibrahim, Professor of Sociology at the American University of Cairo and famous activist on human rights, who headed the Ibn Khaldun Center for the Advancement of the Civil and Democratic Society in Egypt, who was charged and arrested because of his political activities; S'aid Al-Naggar, jurist and economist, who worked for many years in the framework of International Organizations and who established 'The New Civic Forum' for the advancement of Liberalization and democracy in Egypt; Amin Al-Mahdi, engineer, publicist, owner of Publishing House 'Al-Dar Al-'Arabiya Lilnasher', in Cairo; Also the businessman, jurist and intellectual Tarek Heggy, former Senior Director of the International Petrol Shell Company and owner of a company of petrol production, and the intellectual and writer Sayyid Al-Qimni, - engaged in critical writing on Muslim History and  radical Islamists - and formerly a columnist  in the Egyptian weekly magazine Ruz Al-Yusuf. Other prominent Independent Liberals, dealt in this research, are the Syrians: George Tarabishi, born in Aleppo, writer, translator, journalist and cultural critic; and Burahan Ghalyun, born in Homs, lecturer of Political Sociology at the Sorbonne University. Both live in Paris; Shaker Al-Nabulsi, Philosopher and publicist, born in Salt, Jordan, who lives in the USA; Hazem Saghiya, writer and journalist, born in Lebanon, living in London; Sayyar Al-Jamil, historian, born in Iraq, living in Canada and in the United Arab Emirates State.

In addition to these personalities, this research is also referring to many other Arab Liberals, who are actively participating and enriching this discourse.

In the light of an historic perspective, the question of democracy in the Arab states occupied a marginal role under the Arab military regimes during the Fifties and Sixties of the 20th century. These regimes focused mainly on the struggle against the colonial rule, on strengthening their authority and on consolidating their national identity.

The public debate on democracy in the Arab states began at the end of the Seventies and the beginning of the Eighties of the 20th century, following the process of Liberalization and Democratization that occurred outside the Middle East, mainly in Europe (Portugal, Spain), South America and in some Asian countries.

As mentioned above, the public debate accelerated in the beginning of the Nineties as a result of global and regional changes, headed by the collapse of the communist regimes in East Europe and their gradual transition towards democracy. The collapse of these regimes has aroused many echoes in the Middle East, particularly in the light of the fact that the Soviet Union was perceived as an unshakable power who maintained, along with the communist bloc states, close relations with some Arab regimes.

The invasion of Iraq's ruler, Saddam Hussein, to Kuwait, revealed the absence of checks and balances in the decision-making process of the Arab regimes. The invasion emphasized the need to restraint the Arab rulers and the high price that the Arab World is paying, whilst crucial decisions are taken arbitrary by Arab leaders. Following the war, Arab rulers were facing growing demands by intellectuals and public figures for a broader political participation in the decision-making process.

Many and diverse questions were discussed in the framework of the debate on the crisis of Arab democracy: The importance of democracy and its significance; the types, principles and components of democracy and the conditions of its establishment; and finally, its compatibility to the Arab Muslim society. The obstacles facing the application of democracy in the Arab states occupied the main part of the discourse.

The majority of the mentioned difficulties were related to internal factors existing in the Arab society including the character of the regimes, the lack of political maturity of the state to adopt liberal and democratic norms, the power of the state's security apparatus, the non-acceptance of civilians as partners of the regime's order, the Arab political culture and the existing of socio-economic conditions that make it difficult to absorb liberal ideas.

Surprisingly, the majority of the participants in this discourse on the crisis of Arab democracy do not consider outside factors - western imperialism and the Arab-Israeli conflict -central factors that delay the process of democratization in the Arab states, contrary to what could have been expected, in view of the well-known tendency in the public discourse to accuse these factors of being responsible for the failures of the Arab society and state.

In general, the liberal discourse was held in two paradigms of democratic theory; first, the structural-procedural that focuses on the regime's system (independent governmental authorities, decentralization of power, open and free elections, and the existence of checks and balances). Second, the normative-cultural paradigm that concentrates on the society and the individual, relating importance to the existence of democratic norms.

The conclusion that arises from the examination of the discourse is that the majority of its participants believe in the second paradigm, namely, the paradigm that attributes a great importance to the implantation of democratic culture in the society, as a guarantee for the existence and endurance of a democratic system.

The rapid technological development since the Nineties, enabled the use of new means to broaden the public discourse, and opened the Arab space to an unprecedented public and communicative discourse, crossing borders, interactive and effective online. It widened the limits of freedom of speech, and public debate associated between different communities, forming an Arab public that was permanently engaged in adopting new political and democratic reforms. All that assisted to consolidate a conscience for the individual rights and for more public involvement in the political processes.

The satellite television stations and the Arab Internet Websites have basically changed the political discourse in the Arab World and have thus contributed immensely to the building of foundations for pluralistic political culture, encouraging open debates on political and social issues, which before that were considered as "taboo".

In addition to that, the satellite broadcasts and the Internet Websites have broken the governmental monopoly on information: It uncovered - continuously and accumulatively – the Arab regimes to criticism, and eroded their authority and influence on the masses' consciousness. It helped to create new communities of a common agenda and preoccupations, introducing to the Arab political discourse a new dimension of consciousness, transparency, accountability and a new terminology.

The terrorist attacks of 11, September 2001, the adoption of the 'Bush Doctrine' and the sharp shift of the U.S. towards global terrorism, have intensified, to a great degree, the public debate on the necessity to introduce political reforms and democratization in the Arab states. The 'Bush Doctrine' stressed  the importance of the long run goal for the establishment of democracy in the Arab states, on the account of a short run objective of stability in the Middle East, as part of the global struggle against the roots of terror.

The efforts of the American Administration to advance democracy in the Arab states accelerated and found concrete expression in the advancement of different American initiatives (MEPI, December 2002, BMENA, June 2004), which included programs of political, economic and social reforms, by integrating civilian factors and non-governmental organization into this struggle.

The refusal of the Arab governments to cooperate with these initiatives, the criticism against them in the Arab public, the American failure to establish a stable democracy in Iraq and the necessity of Bush's administration to adopt a pragmatic Policy towards the Arab states in view of the strategic, political, security and economic considerations - all these have eventually brought about the American administration to retreat from its original objectives.

Despite the American failure, the drastic change in President Bush's foreign policy arouse a broad public discourse on the necessity to introduce democracy in the region, and forced the Arab leaders to discuss issues which before that they refused, encouraging Arab intellectuals and Liberals to conduct a struggle for a comprehensive change.

The new Liberal discourse is characterized by being held beyond gender, religious, and geographic borders. Despite differences in the conceptions and positions on concrete issues (as for instance, the integration of the Muslim Brotherhood into the political system or the position towards the American invasion into Iraq), a set of common values, including the centrality of the individual, civilian rights, basic freedoms, equality, pluralism, rationalism and the demand for political reforms and for the establishment of a democratic regime - all this constitutes a common and broad ideological denominator among the Arab Liberals.

The strive to establish a Liberal democracy on the basis of a new political culture, is to be found at the very core of the Arab Liberals' conception. For such purpose, they believe that the Arab society should, first of all, get rid of the prevailing populist political culture and from the heritage of the Arab National movements' struggle against western Imperialism, based upon denying the rights of 'the other' and on the conspiracy theories that attribute to foreign factors the main reasons for the backwardness of the Arab society. Instead of the populist culture, the Arab Liberals are of the opinion, that a liberal, political, pluralistic and tolerant culture should be adopted- a culture that respects individual's freedoms, and includes the right of self-criticism and accountability. Without these components, it would be impossible to build a modern and democratic society. They regard the values of the western Liberal democracy as a set of universal values applicable by a gradual and comprehensive process in Arab countries. Hence, it is a long run social-cultural process of absorbing the Liberal values in the Arab society. Hala Mustafa expressed it well: "The democracy which we are aspiring for is not only a legislative, constitutional, institutional and (multi-) party framework, but basically it is a ideological, cultural and social democracy deriving from the values of freedom and returning to the individual his suitable value and status in shaping the future". Thus, the adoption of the electoral democracy before absorbing the liberal values in the Arab society will be futile and may even bring about extreme factors to power and to the establishment of a non-liberal democracy.

Therefore, the new Liberals present a political-cultural conception, founded on the assurance of individual's freedoms and the establishment of a liberal democratic regime. Their Liberal democratic vision is a vision of a civilian, constitutional, secular and modern state that derives its legitimacy from the people, based on legislation and the rule of law, which guarantee the individual's freedoms, the principles of equality and citizenship. According to them, there is no alternative but the introduction of an essential legislative reform that should redefine the limits of the ruler's authorities, the state and its institutions (including the security apparatus). It should also assure the regular change of governments, as well as determine the principle of separation of powers and particularly guard the independence of the juridical authority. Political party activity, free press and the civil society play an important role in the existence of an ideological pluralism. This institutional -legislative process should also include a deep reform in the educational and communicational system ruled by the state. The linkage between cultural values and the character of the political institutions of the state constitutes the most common and broad denominator among the new Arab Liberals.

In the core of the civilian state which the Arab Liberals are striving for, lies the principle of 'Muwatna', namely, citizenship which constitutes one of the main pillars of a democratic modern state and the basis of all political, civil, economic and social rights regardless to ideology, race, gender or religion. The citizenship principle underlines the equal rights and duties of citizens before the law. Their call to apply it enables them to by-pass the issue of separation religion from state, which still stirs reservation among large parts of the Arab society. In this vain, they regard the democratic regime to be ideal since it guarantees equality, recognizes the rights of the minorities, and finally puts an end to their political deprivation and religious discrimination.

An integral part of the new Liberals worldwide perspective is the connection between democracy and regional peace, economic development, civil society and free market economy. They regard peace with Israel to be a part of full set of values including democracy, individual's rights, and modernization. The Arab-Israeli conflict served in their opinion the authoritative regimes as a pretext for postponing the democracy. Therefore, the settlement of the conflict is needed in order to refute the regimes' argument that it is necessity to preserve the status of war.

At the same time, they emphasize the existent direct relation between the democratization of the political system and the liberalization of the economy. According to their view, the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict will turn the states' attention towards construction and development of modern societies and political systems, based on democracy and general liberties. The purpose of the political-structural reforms is, inter alia, to limit the power of the economic elites, to develop a free market and integrate into the globalization trends. Thus, actually, is being translated the economic and liberal principle of non-intervention of the state in the economy known as "Laissez Faire".

Arab Liberals face ideological rivals, challenges, difficulties and complex dilemmas. In this regard, the four dominating factors in the Arab states are the Arab regimes; the religious establishment and the Islamic movements; the Arab society and Arab nationalists.

The Liberal's struggle against the authoritative and semi-authoritative Arab regimes is concentrated on reducing the authority of the state's security apparatus, breaking the monopoly of economic and social elites and expanding freedom of expression. The Arab regimes, on the other hand, view the Liberals as a problematic factor, sometimes even subversive, whose alternative viewpoint is essentially contradicted to the mere foundations of the regime, undermining its legitimacy.

The struggle between the Arab Liberals and the Islamic movements and the religious establishment is being conducted on what is called "the society's map of values": The Islamic stream regards the religion as the exclusive source of authority of the Muslim community, rejecting entirely the historic, logic and moral attitude of the Liberals to the Holy Scripts, and opposing to their attempt to break the monopoly of the religious establishment regarding the commentary of the religious law. The Islamic stream perceives the Arab Liberals to be the 'Fifth Column' of western culture, infidels or as Muslims who went astray, constituting by all that a real danger to the Islamic values, society and family. Therefore, the different Islamic movements, and mainly the radical ones, are acting in different ways, to limit the activities of the Arab Liberals by slandering them, inciting against them, threatening them and in extreme cases even murder them.

Another opponent is the Arab nationalists who look upon the Arab Liberals as western agents and supporters of cooperation with Israel. They oppose U.S. presence and policy in the region; reject political settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict based on compromises; refuse any sort of normalization of relations with Israel, and boycott all political, trade, economic and cultural ties with it.

Another significant challenge facing the Arab Liberals is the Arab society. Despite the process of urbanization, modernization, media revolution, economic liberalization and slight development of civil society, the Arab society as a whole remained a conservative one, where Islam constitutes a major component in the Arab identity and culture. This socio-cultural environment that stresses the importance of kinship and the collective community, either the tribe or the nation, represent a significant challenge for the Liberals, as they try to promote liberal values such as individual's freedom, the separation of religion from state and the consecration of private property.

In addition to the four mentioned opponents, the Liberal stream is confronting internal difficulties and weakness. From the organizational point of view, the Liberal stream is lacking charismatic and popular leadership, civil hinterland, and organized institutions. From the ideological point of view, the Liberal stream finds it difficult to present a well-defined perspective, due to disagreements among its members.

Another vulnerable point of the liberal stream is its association with the West and the fact that western Liberalism is identified in the region with the remnants of western colonialism. The support of western states to the Arab Liberals, either political, financial or moral, was interpreted by large parts of the Arab public, as interference in the internal affairs of their state. The western initiatives to advance political reforms were considered as an additional western attempt to preserve yet another form of colonialism.

Hence, the Arab Liberals are in a defensive position between the hammer of a central state and the anvil of the religious establishment and the Islamic movements. The Liberals need to confront an enormous double challenge: side by side with their strive for political and economic reforms against the authoritative Arab regimes they have to integrate liberal values in the traditional Arab society through a gradual and a long run process.

To conclude, this research emphasizes the valuable ideological contribution of the Arab Liberals to the political discourse in one of the most central issues on the Arab public agenda in the last 30 years, namely, the question of the political reforms and the democratization in the Arab states.

The Liberalism as an ideological conception and its representatives - the new Arab Liberals - has proved the capability of survival and extraordinary vitality, despite the enormous difficulties on their way. The new Arab Liberals contributed to the public discourse on political, social and cultural issues, by evoking criticism, demanding the change of the political status quo and the socio-cultural patterns. They were successful in presenting to the Arab public an alternative, an inter-state agenda, based on the vision of a civil state, secular and democratic, over Arab nationalist or Islamist agenda. Instead of accusing foreign factors - the West and Israel - of the miserable reality and disregarding the existing structural and social problems, the Liberals present a rational alternative based on self-criticism and accountability, in order to confront better the political, economic, social-cultural challenges of the modern Arab state. Therefore, the liberal worldwide perception constitutes to-day the only ideological alternative to that of the Islamic movements.

The demonstrations and the popular uprisings that burst out at the beginning of 2011 in the Middle East, demanding the removal of the Arab rulers along with the introduction of extensive reforms and the establishment of a democratic regime, relied upon a strong ideological basis that was laid down and developed by the new Liberals in the last three decades.

The new liberal discourse that many were inclined to refer to as of marginal significance, has strengthened the notion of democracy and the citizenship among intellectuals and activists of the civil society. The discourse also assisted broad segments of Arab public to internalize the urgent need of political reforms. It won't be possible to understand the background, the volume and the intensity of the Arab public demands for a radical reform of the existent political systems, without taking into consideration the ideological contribution of the Arab Liberals to the public discourse.

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