A forum devoted to current political, economic trends, and news of the Maghreb region.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Transitions and Breakdowns in the Arab Spring.

At a time where seismic changes are taking place in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), few have noticed, or perhaps are reluctant to note the counterrevolution trends in the Arab spring. Already Egypt is struggling under the might of an unenlightened military regime, supposed to act in the best interest of the revolution. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has stymied dissent and subjected dissenters to its extrajudicial and military trials.

In Tunisia, perhaps the closest to a steady post-revolutionary transition, registration for the Constituent Assembly closed last Wednesday, September 7th with a dizzying 1750 electoral lists. The Islamists of Ennahda and the Community Party of Tunisia (PCOT) are the most noticeably organized in terms of party lists. Ennahda is fielding candidates in all of Tunisia's 23 governorates, while PCOT has 14 lists and the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) submitted a meager 8 lists. The Constituent Assembly elections set for October 23rd will be the first such contest in post-Ben 'Ali era and could be key analytical tool to examine the future of Tunisian democracy. In Libya, still jubilant after toppling the 42 rule of Colonel (fugitive) Gaddafi, the task of state-building looms in the horizon amidst unclear lines of leadership of the National Transitional Council (NTC).

While no one can predict accurately the results of such elections, we do know for sure that post revolutionary aftermaths can be messy, fuzzy periods of uncertainty, where new socio-economic and political structures are formed. Elite predispositions are key after the breakdown of authoritarian rule. The fate of states and societies lies with the actions of the few political elite organizations and groups. From Latin American experience, we know regime transitions are abnormal periods of ‘undetermined’ political changes in which there are not enough structural or behavioral parameters to guide and predict the outcome. Transitologists O’Donnell and Schmitter, for instance, posit a ‘contingent’ model of change. This model assumes that in the political game during transition periods, one actor’s initiative prompts another actor’s response and that political events follow from one to another. From a contingent point of view, political outcomes stem from interaction and bargaining. The key to any democratic transition, then, is the ability of participants to arrive at negotiated agreements that grant everyone a piece of the transitional pie.

Absent from this political crafting is the will of the people in its exercise of accountability. Societal accountability is to be fostered within that dimension. Societal accountability is a non-electoral, yet vertical mechanism of control of political authorities that rests on the actions of a multiple array of citizens’ associations and movements and on the media. These actions monitor the action of public officials, expose governmental wrongdoing, and can activate the operation of horizontal agencies. Absence of societal accountability leads to myopic democratic transitions susceptible to breakdown.

Democratic breakdown is not merely the result of ineffective leadership response to crisis, but goes more deeply to the response of various parties and groups to political and social change (i.e. in Latin America). As long as so called transition has a set of rules of the game that protect the purveyors of the regime's interests, democracy or some facade form of it is tolerated. Argentina's military, for instance, allowed democracy after 1955, as long as the "wrong" party of the Peronistas did not win. We could potentially see SCAF in Egypt taking on that role of the watchdog of a sham democratic transition, overseeing and controlling the outcome of electoral contests. however, history dictates that such military role is short-lived and never amounts to full-fledged consolidation of democratic governance.

For long, the MENA region languished under the yoke of Sultanistic authoritarian regimes (to borrow Juan Linz's terminology). These carry institutional baggage and memory of personalism and arbitrary rule, which hinder any movement towards the rule of law, an efficacious state bureaucracy and a vibrant free civil society. All necessary ingredients for any consolidation of democratic rule. Egypt, Libya and Tunisia all suffered from decades of repression where civil society was battered by the state apparatus and dissent was suffocated. However, the existence of relatively organized opposition during the Mubarak era in Egypt, could prove important in rebuilding the current era if SCAF steps away from political rule. Military rule can only be acceptable if it subsides under the democratic civilian authority.

Tunisia had little in terms of civil society. Ben 'Ali virtually purged the political scene of all dissident and oppositional voices. Institutional purgatory was even extreme in Gaddafi's Libya, where state institutions are inchoate and no political parties existed in a quasi-totalitarian system. This approach to governance in both north African states inevitably affects the current political experiment in Tunisia and Libya. After all, the authoritarian dictatorships of Latin America and Southern Europe left a more positive legacy for the legal system and left a heritage for state building that was less negative than that of post-totalitarian regimes, where none of the ingredients of an effective economic or civil society existed.

Similarly, the continued existence of figures from the old guard threatens the transition to democracy. Whether it is the octogenarian interim prime minister Beji Caid Sebsi in Tunisia or Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi's SCAF in Egypt, the future of transition to democracy in either country remains improbable and uncertain. Libya so far suffers from a crisis of leadership despite attempts of Mustapha Abdul Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril to provide much needed guidance to conflicting tribes and militia groups. What the three newly emancipated countries share in common is that their future democratic transition and consolidation will greatly depend on choices, and decisions made in this tightly controlled inner circles of power.