Democratization in the Arab World: Extraordinary or Dangerous?

Setting fire to his helplessness and humiliation, a 26-year-old shop keeper engulfed himself in flames, thereby initiating unprecedented popular rebellion in Tunisia that ended the country's 23 year political oppression under Ben Ali. Weeks later, a 25-year-old unemployed Egyptian, among others, also set himself alight, bringing the world's attention to the helplessness and humiliation endured by millions of Arab youth throughout the region facing joblessness and lack of space for political expression and educational opportunity. What happens when impoverished police states such as Egypt and Yemen lose their security stronghold causing a political and domestic security vacuum? While the popular uprising in Egypt is extraordinary, it is also cause for alarm. Men are rallying outside their neighborhoods to protect their property and families from militias looting stores and homes in the absence of a police presence.

One cannot help but think back to just decades ago when the world witnessed how the spark of opposition in one communist country in Europe led to the domino fall of several communist satellite states. The start to 2011 has shown us that the Middle East North Africa region, MENA, is vulnerable to the same domino effect. It has also shown Western societies that the people of Arab Muslim societies have aspirations aligned to economic liberalization, educational reform, and greater political representation. In effect, the actions of the besieged civil society of Egypt have not only put their dictator to question, but they have also put the greater international community's ideals to question, regarding the process of democratization and the role of human rights and economic reform.

In Egypt we see how economic inequalities and unemployment amongst the educated youth has fueled the mass uprising taking place today. According to Carles Boix, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton, "gradual distribution of wealth determines the success of a democratization process, not religion, or, culture." Successful democracy, Boix importantly reminds us, is attainable when equality is high or assets are mobile. Egypt has neither, making it vulnerable to violence and chaos which can divide a once united civil society. For 30 years there has been relative stability regarding domestic security, and for first time in many people's lives, the Egyptian security apparatus is crumbling before their eyes leaving a security vacuum susceptible to out right anarchy and violence.

In her visit to Qatar earlier this month, U.S Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, gently forewarned ministers and leaders from Arab States that the need to deliver on economic reform and to initiate greater political reforms would be in their own interests. Such rhetoric is all the U.S can publicly say at this point, until ownership of reform and democratization is taken by Arab States and the people of the Arab world. "In too many places, in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand. The new and dynamic Middle East that I have seen needs firmer ground if it is to take root and grow everywhere," she said. Around the same time, in response to successful civilian led rebellion to the erosion of dictatorial power in Tunisia, President Hosni Mubarak attempted to shield his reputation by saying on national TV earlier this month, "The Arab youth are our most valuable possession from wealth and resources, they represent more than 25 percent of our populations, and through their ideas and dreams we make the future of our nation and make its marks and build its foundations."

As is usually the case in Arab politics, President Mubarak, finds himself failing to actually live up to his rhetoric, and the international community is quietly and privately analyzing which side will be the winning bet. The Egyptian people, however, have spoken and they are unquestionably expressing that Mubarak's 30 year rule has stullified their dreams and their future. 40% of Egyptians live under $2.00 a day. A growing population of educated youth are suffering in a labor market failing to meeting their demands. 90% of females and 50% of males are unable to find jobs two years after graduating. These economic factors, coupled with state corruption and a bunkered political elite, has resulted in the today's eclectic mix of Egyptians coming together to demand human rights and free speech and economic opportunity.

At this moment, the inspiring mass mobilization and calls by Egyptians for reform and liberalization risk being marginalized by all out chaos, violence, and anarchy. This trend of anti-state protests may, rightly so, spread across the Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, how democracy evolves in impoverished and politically depressed Arab societies needs to be analyzed. Successful democratization should first create the space for institutions that uphold principles of liberalism i.e independent judiciary, free press, open and pluralistic civil society. This theory is often described as sequentialism, and has been formulated and introduced by political scholars like Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder. In their essay, The Sequencing Fallacy, they promote the need for incrementally developing the long term capacity for successful democratization before opening society to elections and drastic regime change.

High illiteracy, poverty, ethnic divisions, and weak rule of law inhibit political development in Arab countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen. Thus, these countries are at high risk for violent democratization, Carles Boix wrote years ago. Therefore, open contestation should come after institutional reform has been initiated. If not, Mansfield and Snyder warn that political rivalry can lead to ethnic conflict, violence,or, strengthened ethnic national movements, as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Mansfield and Snyder note that states with weak institutions within incomplete democracy transition are "four times more likely to get involved in international wars and more likely to experience civil wars than are pure autocracies."

Leaders of oppressive regimes facing popular opposition, such as Mubarak's regime, should realize that their oppressive state will always remain accountable to its people, whether the ruling political elite like it or not. Citizens of the Arab world involved in protests for greater democracy should also be cognizant of how the pre-existing conditions of state building institutions are paramount for successful democratization and reform. The gradual building of such institutions solidifies order, promotes the respect of differences of opinion and provides an efficient system from which security and law and order are never marginalized by louder, narrow views or ethnic rivalries or one-sided power gains. If we take into account the economic and sequentialist approach of Boix and Mansifield and Snyder among others, then Mubarak and the ruling regime should publicly agree to the population's demands for regime change and the government should sign into order the gradual dismantling of power of its regime while simultaneously ensuring a peaceful transition within a certain time frame. Within said timeframe, resources and manpower will be allocated to strengthen state building institutions by accommodating for greater economic reform and by building a strong independent judiciary. Such measures are needed to usher in, peacefully, a new era of political evolution for Egypt.

Of course, this is contingent upon Mubarak putting his country before himself and realizing the sensitive security situation of his fellow citizens. At the same time, the protesters must be patient and not resort to looting and destroying each other's property and infrastructure if they seek a peaceful transition for their kids, grand kids, and beyond. The people of Egypt must take ownership of this opportunity and be ever cautious of inciting violence and looting other's property because such anarchy will only embolden Mubarak's regime to stay in power on the grounds of maintaining order. At this critical moment for Egyptians, passions must not marginalize reason and faith. Reason is needed to redefine the political system and implement successful reforms. Faith is needed in the power of political reform and democratization. Faith is also needed in one another to abide by the law and step towards the new future with the spirit of endurance, equality and security in tact.

Baring all this in mind, the first step towards successful reform and democracy in the Arab world; and a step towards a more successful U.S relationship with the future Arab world is the gradual dismantling of oppressive regimes, such as Mubarak's.