The conventional reading of authoritarianism and contentious politics in the Arabic speaking World has often implied that democratic liberals are entirely absent in the region, or that if they do exist, they are either entirely ineffectual or self-interestedly complicit in the authoritarian structures under which they live. It is a dark and accusatory narrative in which everyone becomes a tragic part of the mosaic of repression and dictatorship. But as I will argue below, the reality is less tragic and more nuanced.
The fact is that:
What these bullets highlight then is that the liberal democratic movement is bubbling along beneath the surface, and indeed had a brief chance to show itself in all its glory during the Arab uprisings of 2010–2012. The region witnessed then the full-fledged emergence of liberal democratic ideas (such as the demand for individual freedoms, and for constitutionalism as well as cultural and political pluralism), and the re-emergence of democratic liberals as a force on the political scene that challenged the region’s autocrats and their apologists head on. And the movement was so vigorous and determined that the dictators in countries such as Syria, Egypt and the Gulf had to use all the forms of structural violence at their disposal to halt it.
Liberal Efforts Since the 19th Century
The liberals’ efforts to enact political changes is not new. In fact, the liberal democratic movement has been trying to change the political environment in the region since the late 19th and early 20th century. This was a moment of decolonization and of socio-political openings, and so the efforts of these classical liberals focused upon the institution of the State as the most effective tool to induce liberal transformations. As a result, they adopted an elite-focused “top down,” and state-centric approach, within an environment that was hoping for decolonization and political independence. They thus did not consider the public masses to be central to the struggle for representative government and the rule of law, and seemed to believe that only once the political framework and laws had been completely transformed in a liberal democratic direction could there be a transformation of the socioeconomic situation within the region, including a move away from elite-initiated policies and toward greater popular engagement. While doing so, they deliberated about locally grown, liberal, non-Western solutions to perceived problems and in so doing they conceived their democratic theories of governance and addressed questions of despotism, civil freedoms and rights. To these classical liberals, constitutionalism, patriotism, political justice, and progress were not mere ideals. Rather, they served to unite citizens of different socioeconomic classes together and form the basis of a powerful movement against the foreign occupiers (mainly Britain and France) and against autocratic rule in general.
In Egypt, liberal nationalists included some of the most prominent intellectuals in the country, such as Ali Abdel Raziq, Saad Zaghlul, Qasim Amin, and Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid, among many others. Further, the support of the workers and the peasants throughout the country against the British and the Egyptian Monarchy in the early 1900s emboldened and strengthened the movement. As a result, liberalism’s vibrancy was felt throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s and animated Egypt’s schools, coffee and tea houses, and social clubs. They also reverberated across the pages of the most prominent political journals, such as al-Risala, al-Hilal, al-Ahram, and Ruz al-Yusuf, and in the writing of some of the most widely read and esteemed thinkers in the Arab World, such as Taha Hussein, Ahmad Amin, and Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad.
In Syria, liberal ideas and principles also prevailed within the different public discourses. Thinkers such as Abdulrahman Kawakibi and Butrus al-Bustani were among hundreds of Syrian/Lebanese thinkers who called for an end to despotism and who held that freedom, education, and political participation and justice were the basis for civilizational growth and prosperity. These pioneers founded literary periodicals and political newspapers such as al-Jinan and Al-Arus, and established a vibrant Arab press in which they expressed and disseminated their ideas throughout the region. Shaykh Rashid Rida, the president of the Syrian General Congress in 1920, wrote, “Freedom in all its aspects ruled – including freedom of association, speech, and publishing – which were envied in other parts of Syria and Egypt … People sensed their own honor and dignity.”
The fact that Rashid Rida was a theologian and an Islamic scholar demonstrates how liberalism was not just an imported intellectual and political system of thought, rather it was adapted but also created and reinvented within the region, developing in situ over time in order to address the region’s specific and changing contexts and to tackle its complex problems. This was done with both methodological fluidity and creativity, involving ideas that drew on local and religious traditions as well as rationalist and humanistic norms of justice.
Democratic liberalism was not just a theoretical and an intellectual trend. The political environment showcased multipartyism and party competition, periodic elections, democratic norms, popular participation, and free speech as well as freedom of association at least until the early 1950s in Egypt and the early 1960s in Syria. And constitutions exhibited the liberal ambitions of the era. Indeed, the 1920 Syrian constitution was the quintessence of the nascent liberal environment. The Constitutional Committee charged with writing the Constitution settled on a representative monarchical system and a parliamentary form of government, a bill of rights, equality before the law, freedom of speech and opinion, and freedom of religion and association. Article 9 of the Constitution stated, “The King is respected, but not responsible.” The Committee’s concern was to serve the needs of all Syrians. The 1923 Egyptian constitution was also indubitably liberal. The idea was to curb the powers of the King as well as of the British officials. The Constitution thus guaranteed freedom of expression and assembly and the equality of all before the law regardless of race, language and religion. An Egyptian Parliament with legislative powers alongside the King was established, and it included a Senate as well as a chamber of deputies. The structure and political formula were meant to minimize the role of the King, broaden the powers of Parliament, increase the proportion of the people who could vote in order to move toward universal suffrage and greater popular sovereignty, and advance citizens’ civil rights.
Liberal democratic values thus dominated, and meant that issues and problems were debated and negotiated in parliaments and were reflected and reproduced in citizens’ rights as well as in the overall civic order. Liberal values also impacted the emerging cultural and artistic spheres and were in turn shaped, negotiated, and propagated by artists, film directors, and script writers among others. The early to the mid-20th century was thus a period of self-definition and assertions of conceptualizations of “fair” and democratic governance, as democratic liberals were able to influence governments and political and social contexts. And yet this would turn out to be a passing phase, in the sense that it failed to establish lasting liberal democratic institutions.
Indeed, the 1960s to the 1990s saw the authoritarian movements emerge victorious, using force and the military to take over the State and to reverse most of the achievements of the preceding democratic liberal phase. And so, while the classical liberals had some access to State institutions and the opportunity to direct socio-political change from above, the modern liberals (operating from the 1960s to the present) were not as lucky. Nonetheless, they continued to advocate for rights and freedoms in the midst of authoritarianism, and despite being smothered by the authoritarian political structure, continued to be active on the ground. But in order to do so, the liberals had to change their ways. They thus developed a less elitist and paternalistic approach in which the focus turned to bridging the gap between them and the public masses, including empowering citizens rather than simply fighting on their behalf. They also had to work in smaller, more atomized and scattered independent groups, as part of a horizontal rather than an organized, hierarchical structure in order to evade the regimes’ scrutiny. Their focus turned to mobilizing reform through non-governmental institutions and through social activism, to cultural transformation and art, and to changing the self instead of blaming imperialism and the constant intervention of foreign powers for their domestic shortcomings. This meant fighting for women and human rights, religious moderation and tolerance, an independent judiciary, and egalitarian laws. The idea was that change was to be enacted from below, mainly by enhancing the awareness and power of the citizens. The democratic liberals also reconnected with their leftist national progressive counterparts. It was thus a significant period in laying the foundations for a more liberal democratic culture at the grassroots level.
The 2000s and 2010s in turn saw a revitalization of the liberal democrats, alongside significant attempts to have a more direct impact on political affairs and political culture. Liberal critiques continued to be directed inward, meaning at the self; and this approach led to renewed ideas and conversations, especially on the Internet and on Satellite television, about what a muwaten [citizen] and their community should look like and involve. Activists and thinkers created public forums and organizations, and online hubs, that used legal loopholes to defy the prohibitions of the State and to galvanize the public masses. In so doing, they were able to take to the streets in their thousands, to disturb the seeming stillness of the authoritarian apparatus, and to engage in open and public debates about the need for separation of powers and pluralism, stressing issues of political freedoms and individuals’ right to self-rule and dignity. Even leftist thinkers who had lost faith in the contentions of the radical era turned to a “liberal-ish” agenda that emphasized liberal rights and freedoms and criticized state monopolies over power and the economy.
The result is that the period starting in 2010 witnessed a full-fledged revolution, and what I consider to be the restitution of democratic liberalism as a viable model for political change in the Middle East region. The movement was certainly not a leaderless movement of alienated youth and loose associations of activists who lacked ideological drive and who were merely driven by their profound malaise, as many observers claimed (and still claim), but rather were the result of years of methodical liberal and pro-democracy activism and protests against the autocratic State and the autocratic order and culture. In this new era of Arab liberalism, the post-colonial discourse and its emphasis on questions of economic egalitarianism, class conflict, rapid industrialization, and imperialism, was no longer the main focus even though all of these questions remained concerns of many. Millions confronted their States despite the threat of the regimes’ violent and ruthless security apparatuses, and in so doing showed that the yearning to be “free” in the political sense is alive, vibrant, and hiding in plain sight within youth groups, NGOs, television shows, theatre, art, schools and universities, political forums and online discussions, and literature.
The proponents of democratic liberalism showed so much vibrancy and determination to create political rupture that the States had to resort to violence and foreign interventions by Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia, to name a few, to stop their momentum. These interventions ultimately tipped the scale in favor of the despots. For instance, the Gulf countries, which had preferred to see the fall of the Syrian regime because of its pro-Iran predilections, feared the rise of a democratic and liberal Syria and the propagation of liberal ideals within the region. They thus took a path that weakened the regime and its Iranian patron, while making sure the liberal democratic movement would not win the race. In Egypt, the success of the army in bringing back the autocratic order was also the result of Saudi and Emirati interventions as well as Russian backing, and a tacit American and European approval at the international level. Indeed, although leaders of powers such as the EU and the United States claim that democracy promotion is an implicit goal of their foreign policy, they also have interests that are often more compelling to them such as regional stability, strategic relations, trade, and more importantly, a steady energy supply to feed the international market. It is against the background of this realist logic that a military chief like Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and a president such as Bashar Asad were “allowed” to violently suppress the pro-democracy revolutionary movements against them, and to reinstate brutal dictatorships in both countries.
It appears at the time of writing that only when there are significant changes in the geopolitical reality of the regional and world orders can the Middle East’s liberal democrats be allowed to achieve their goals in their own States. And meanwhile, the region’s liberal democrats, imprisoned, exiled, and thus forced back underground and seemingly disappearing from view, will almost certainly continue their battle for a rights-based, constitutional order until the time is ripe for them to emerge again from underneath the prevailing authoritarian shadow.