Why would Support for Democracy Decline in the Middle East and North Africa?

Democracy’s image has taken a beating in the Middle East and North Africa as insecurity and socioeconomic woes forced publics across the region to prioritize stability over participatory politics, thereby facilitating authoritarian backsliding.
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When people across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) revolted against their governments during the Arab uprisings of the early 2010s, democracy was their end goal. After all, many believed that democracy would bring prosperity and increased living standards to their countries. People demanded democracy with the belief that the political and civil rights associated with this system would bring about humane treatment by their repressive governments and an overall empowerment of the citizenry.

However, democracy does not usually come without democratization, which is itself a thorny process replete with ups and downs, successes and breakdowns. The process of institutionalizing democracy sees existent actors, whether liberals, conservatives, or socialists, encounter each other for the first time in open and free public spaces. Here, they begin to engage with and compete against one another, employing different strategies, tactics, and alliances.

In essence, the cross-learning resultant of this process is something good for democracy. That being said, in lieu of established democratic institutions that regulate this new political sphere, such interactions mostly give rise to chaotic situations. This contrasts with the much needed political stability that could actually deliver the democratic promise of an environment in which people can enjoy and exercise their inalienable rights.

As people see that political life gradually reverts to its familiar patterns and as individuals confront the new harsh realities of the transition process, they start to “question the desirability and quality of the new order”. As a result, public disillusionment moderates popular satisfaction with democracy as a viable system of governance.

In its nutshell, the story above illustrates the case of the post-Arab Uprising process in the MENA: The region was characterized by a tumultuous time period with meager or sometimes negative GDP growth rates supplemented by high unemployment, especially for the youth (See Graph 1 and 2). Despite the emergence of relatively free public spaces, people were faced with harsh economic realities, and the bleak socio-economic conditions were further threatened by increased insecurity. For example, seeing the eruption of civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, both Egyptians and Tunisians began to prioritize stability over democracy and participatory politics. In the end, people across the region ended up associating the post-uprising period with lack of peace and prosperity.

Graph 1

Graph 2

Survey data from Arab Barometer is instrumental in demonstrating the changes in peoples’ perceptions of democracy across the MENA region over time. Throughout the post-uprising period, there was a marked increase in the percentage of people who thought that the citizens of their respective countries were not ready for democracy. For instance, in Tunisia, 54% of respondents did not believe that their fellow citizens were ready for democracy in the direct aftermath of the uprisings in 2011, and in 2016 this number jumped to 72% (See Graphs 3 and 5). Even the brief experiment of democratization that Egypt undertook between 2011 and 2013 indicates that there exists a similar pattern in this country. Here, the percentage of those who thought that their fellow citizens were not ready for democracy increased from 43% in 2011 to 54% in 2013 (See Graphs 3-4).

Graph 3

Graph 4

Graph 5

As transition processes went on in the region, popular support for democratization slipped as many lost their high expectations for democracy. In this way, the post-uprising experience in the MENA region exemplifies that the endorsement of democracy is not unconditional. Popular support for democracy usually emerges as a function of socio-economic performance in transitioning countries, or in other words, when democratization cannot deliver, people gradually start to exchange their initial endorsement of democracy for stability, even if this means a reversion to former authoritarian systems.

This is why in Libya or Iraq or Yemen, one may be likely to see people yearning for the former authoritarian albeit relatively “stable” and “secure” days of Muammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, or Ali Abdullah Saleh, respectively. This situation also explains why figures like Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt and Khalifa Haftar in Libya try to build their rule based on authoritarian support. In the transitioning countries of the MENA region, democratic fatigue coupled with electoral institutions and their weak ability to deal with socio-economic and security challenges usually worked to the benefit of authoritarian figures, and thereby served for authoritarian tendencies. In Egypt, for example, a fear prevailed among Egyptians that their country could become a new Syria or Iraq in the absence of firm leadership.[iii] In the end, the Egyptian military regime came to capitalize on this fear, consolidating its power and silencing opposition[iv] through the enactment of the 2015 anti-terrorism law[v] among other measures.

Similarly, in conflict-ridden Libya, former Army General Haftar rose to prominence after the country’s flimsy democratic institutions collapsed and lost the state’s monopoly on violence to armed non-state actors and militias. In 2014, Haftar and his forces took up arms against the government and the “Libyan National Congress” under the pretext of ensuring popular security and fighting terrorism. He claimed that the country might not be ready for democracy, warning that if UN-endorsed elections did bring about stability, his army would intervene.[vi]

Today, in spite of their contributions to the democratic learning curve, post-uprising experiments have not left a good impression of democracy as an effective political system of governance on the collective consciousness of the MENA region. Excluding the case of Tunisia whose transitional challenges still persist, the post-uprising experience is seen as a time period in which conflicts and wars rather than peace and stability prevailed. This experience also fuels the thought that democratization is a bad idea with dangerous implications, and thereby prepares ground for  authoritarian backsliding. Many factors including but not limited to counter-revolutionary regional interventions, weak state capacities, and a dearth of democratically committed political elites certainly contributed to transitional failures in the region, and in the end it is democracy’s image that has paid the price.

The region’s future lies in democracy, but democratization path to it and its local dynamics should be put into perspective. In regions like MENA, where democratic cultures are weak, democracy’s functional value is important. Thus, it has to prove itself as a political system of governance that can meet the peoples’ expectations. At this point, when transitioning countries struggle, international support is of great importance. Yet, in the case of post-uprising MENA, international actors’ approach to the transitioning countries were usually driven by geostrategic calculations aiming to enable their favorite domestic groups to rise to the power rather than helping nascent democratic institutions work and deliver people’s expectations in order to get consolidated.

[i] Michael Bratton. “The “Alternation Effect” in Africa.” Journal of Democracy 15, no. 4 (2004): 147-158.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Author’s interview with Laila al-Baradei, May 31st, 2016 American University in Cairo, Cairo, Egypt.

[iv] Authors’ interview with Nadia Mostafa, May 31st, 2016, Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt.