Muslim and Democratic? From Tunisia to Afghanistan, There’s No Such Thing

Salim Brake
Salim Brake
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Tunisian President Kais Saied, earlier this month.
Salim Brake
Salim Brake

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after 20 years – and the Taliban takeover – highlight the disagreement between those who believe that Islam can be combined with democracy and those who believe it cannot. Some even point to the (failed) example of Israel, which ostensibly combines Judaism and democracy, as both Islam and Judaism are similarly religions of law.

The naysayers vehemently argue that Islam cannot coexist with democracy not only because of fundamental issues like the source of authority (civil versus religious), but also on account of a religious tradition going back to the Great Fitna, in the middle of the seventh century. The Great Fitna, also called the First Fitna – the conflict over the rightful heir to Mohammed in the wake of the murder of the caliph Uthman – established a desire to avoid disputes over leadership, even at the price of a one-man rule.

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After the end of colonialism in the Middle East, new Arab states arose, all of them failed regimes to at least some degree. Some were monarchies and others authoritarian regimes, headed mainly by military officers who seized control of the government, such as in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya, among other countries. In most cases, these regimes did not develop into modern states. They remain dependent on external powers, Western or otherwise. They are built on fear and terror of the state’s intelligence agencies and secret police, and most of them are corrupt.

The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, where the Jasmine Revolution forced out the corrupt, dictatorial regime and established a regime based on a reasonable degree of separation of powers, with a reasonably fair judiciary and a parliament elected through a problematic election method, which resulted in ineffective and partially distorted representation.

In other Arab states that underwent revolutions, the situation was much worse. In Syria, the bloody civil war has not yet ended, and about 5 million Syrians became refugees. In Libya, a tribal war still rages, with no end in sight. In the Gulf states, the intelligence services and external forces (including Israel) prop up the corrupt regimes. And in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won an election (as they did in Algeria in 1991) before Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi led a coup in 2013. Today, he leads a dictatorial regime that has the blessing of many Western states, chief among them Israel and the United States.

Tunisia is the only state in which a glimmer of hope remains for the establishment of a relatively democratic regime. It has a president, an elected parliament and a cabinet that serves by virtue of the parliament’s trust – although there is a great fondness for a regime that would give the president greater authority. It also has a fairly progressive constitution that, in many ways, resembles those of Western countries which enshrine the protection of individual rights, the authority of the government and the status of religion, with a reasonable balance and without infringing on fundamental civil rights.

Last month President Kais Saied seized power, dismissed the government and suspended parliament. He said that Article 80 of the country’s constitution allowed the move, but examining the provision shows that he simply carried out a coup: According to that article, the parliament must continue to function even in such a situation. In reality, the opposite happened – Saied ordered tanks to surround the parliament, whose doors were chained shut. He lifted parliamentary immunity. The president is currently the sole authority in the state.

Saied enjoys broad public support. He is seen as educated (he is a constitutional expert) and as a just leader, untainted by allegations of corruption. It is upon this perception that he has based his clearly unconstitutional actions.

As in the case of Egypt before it, the international responses to this coup have ranged from limp condemnation through calls to restore democracy to complete indifference. Unsurprisingly, three states support Saied: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These countries will support any dictatorship that arises and consistently oppose any spark of democratization in the Arab world, which could threaten to wash them away as well.

Saied pledged to restore democracy within one month. More than three weeks have passed and there is no indication that the situation will return to how it once was. It seems more likely that Tunisia will deteriorate into an autocracy or even a dictatorship, as it was before the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. That development raised hope for democracy in the Muslim world – a hope based on romanticism and an idealization of the region, not on reason.

Is the hope of the Arab Spring, which has long since ceased to be spring, finished? Will Tunisia finally join the dubious club of states with violent regimes dependent on fear, populism and surveillance? Saied is trying to take populist measures to disguise his true intentions of establishing one-man rule. He despises political parties and refuses to meet with their representatives. He does not believe in representative government, which exists in all Western democracies. Instead, he calls for elections in which individuals – without parties – register as candidates, which is how the country’s local elections operate. This would guarantee a fragmented parliament, a populist regime and an end to parties, which the people of Tunisia hate and accuse of corruption and being cut off from the people – much like in Lebanon.

More disturbing is Saied’s desire to destroy civil society organizations, which are seen as strong and deeply rooted in Tunisia. It must be stressed that there is no true democracy without a strong, independent and functioning civil society.

We will soon learn if this is a fleeting black cloud over the Tunisian sky. It seems more likely to me, though, that it is the beginning of the end of a regime that, if it did not present the example of a state that is democratically and properly run, was a reasonable model of the first country in which the public clamored for liberty, democracy and control of its own destiny.

The events in Tunisia show not only that it is difficult for Muslim societies to adapt to and maintain democratic frameworks over time, but also that this may not be possible. This is not determinism from the school of the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, but rather a sober and realistic reading of the situation in countries with a long-standing institutional tradition, such as Egypt and Tunisia.

A final note about the West’s attitude toward democratization in the Arab world: When the 2011 riots broke out in Tunisia, a senior French cabinet minister declared that France could help the country mainly by providing stun grenades, smoke grenades and riot-control methods. She was expressing France’s understanding of its duty to peoples fighting for democracy, according to which democracy is for superior nations, not inferior ones such as those comprising Arabs and Black people.

France has an ugly history of exploitation, control, oppression and killing of Arabs in North Africa and the Middle East. Countries like the United States, on the other hand, trumpet their commitment to promoting global democracy. Will their policies fail again, as they failed in Egypt, causing bitter disappointment to nations groaning under the weight of violent, failed dictatorships? The next few days will tell.

Salim Brake teaches political science at the Open University of Israel.

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