Two different political trajectories were evident in Egypt and Syria last week, offering timely comments on the condition of governance and politics in two of the most important Arab countries. Egypt inaugurated its newly elected parliament in which Islamists of various colours took 73% of the vote, while Syria woke up to an Arab League decision to seek the removal of President Assad, and the formation of a national unity government to oversee new elections for parliament and the presidency.
The sharp contrasts between events in Egypt and Syria provide fitting bookends to the last two generations of political life in the Arab world — as incompetent, exhausted and discredited political orders are in the process of being changed, largely at the instigation of their own people. These two cases can also be compared with a third — Iraq — where an equally unacceptable autocratic government led by the Ba’ath party was overthrown by an Anglo-American-led military invasion in 2003, leaving the country today in a sad and fractured condition of stress and violence.
Historians will long debate the four critical factors we see at play in these countries: the power and limits of domestic civil disobedience, the role of foreign armies, the impact of Arab League action, and the nature and consequences of Islamist politics that seem to inevitably dominate in liberated and democratic Arab countries. It is fair to say, I believe, that two verdicts among these four issues are clear: foreign invasions to re-order Arab countries are not a good idea because they create lasting chaos more than orderly change (Iraq); and domestic mass dissent to overthrow an incompetent and brutal regime and replace it with a more legitimate elected leadership is the preferred route to regime change (Tunisia and Egypt).
In between these two extremes are the cases of Libya and Syria, where the Arab League and foreign pressures have both played a role in the drive to unseat the incumbent regimes. More interesting than Nato’s military involvement in Libya, in my view, is the role of the Arab League in pressing for protective military action, which crucially paved the way for the UN security council to authorise Nato action. The league is making even more robust moves in the case of Syria, including its monitoring mission and calls for the president to step down and pave the way for regime change by democratic vote.
The Arab League’s dynamism in Syria is welcome but it’s also perplexing. I am not sure why most Arab countries vote for such sharp intervention in a member state when they know well that this precedent could be used against them one day. It’s strange to see calls for national unity governments and democratic elections by Arab countries that are mostly non-democratic and non-representative of their people.
Nevertheless, the Arab League’s actions are important in several areas. The fact that Arab countries are taking more responsibility for developments in their region should reduce the incidents of foreign armies coming in to re-order us, and provide political legitimacy for other actors — including individual Arab and foreign States, opposition movements in Syria, the UN Security Council and other multinational bodies — to play a role in ending the bloodshed in Syria and helping that country find its way to a humane and effective governance system.
The practical logistics of how Arab and international parties can play a role in protecting Syrian civilians while promoting a democratic transition remain hotly debated, but should be clarified in the coming weeks if Syrian opposition groups take the lead in asking for such intervention to protect civilians and speed up the democratic transition.
The fourth dramatic trend we witness these days — the dominance of political systems by elected Islamists — remains a purely domestic issue that Arab countries have to experience and judge. The incumbent Islamists are now subjected to the two great forces that make democracy so attractive to so many people across the world: legitimacy and accountability. More and more Arab countries are now experiencing that which they have always demanded: the ability to manage their own affairs without external interference.
The main lesson we can draw for now seems to me that self-determination and democratic transitions achieved through legitimate popular revolt are likely to lead to stable governance systems, while upheavals and change generated by invading foreign armies or engineered coups will only lead to continued instability, because they lack the critical elements of legitimacy and accountability. We should keep our eyes on those two factors as deliberations continue on Arab and international intervention in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, and other Arab lands to follow in due course.