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The Aftermath of the Arab Uprisings: Why is the MENA Region Still Resistant to Democracy? – Azizur Rahman Patel

September 19, 2013


The Aftermath of the Arab Uprisings: Why is the MENA Region Still Resistant to Democracy? 

By Azizur Rahman Patel

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 21 (September 2013)

The major question that incessantly arises in debates regarding democratization of the Arab world in particular, and the Muslim world in general, remains mired in the question of “why has liberal democracy failed to become embedded in the political culture of the MENA region.” This is despite the fact that liberal democracy has been successfully entrenched in other previously non-democratic regions of the world. Among the various attempts at explaining this bewildering phenomenon, is the common explanation that Islamic religious and theological constraints are fundamentally responsible for the failure of democracy taking root in the MENA region. On the other hand, most post-modern scholars attribute this apparent repudiation of democracy by Islamic societies, to very material, that is, socio-economic factors wrought upon Muslim society since the advent of the colonialist project. In this article, I wish to explore both sides of this highly contentious, as well as highly complex argument.

In the first section of this paper, I will summarize and paraphrase the hypotheses of Daniel Price as argued in his book, Islamic Political Culture.[1] Price’s fundamental hypothesis is that Islam is not inherently incompatible with democracy; furthermore, that it is not necessarily the source of authoritarian government.

Firstly, he argues that the fundamental Islamic texts and traditions do not contain any “defined and readily usable political program.” At best, “they primarily provide a vague set of guidelines for a society that existed over 1,000 years ago.” Of the 65,000 verses contained in the Qur’an, only about 270 of them discuss matters pertaining to “governance or public policy.” Most of these verses in turn, “deal with economic transactions and criminal punishments.” In terms of the usefulness and the applicability of the Prophet Muhammad’s examples, it becomes problematic to employ them “as concrete prescriptions for matters of governance in the twentieth century, as the dilemmas arising from his small community of believers bear little resemblance to those confronted by the leaders of modern nation-states.”[2]

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Islamic law (Sharī’a) which contemporary Islamists argue, should “serve as the foundation of an Islamic state, was finalized over 800 years ago and has not been significantly altered since.” Furthermore, just ascertaining what is the (Shar’ī) Islamic legal position, “is usually dependent on the interpretations and, subsequently, political purposes, of [an] individual alim (religious judges/scholars [plural: ‘ulamā’]).” Finally, had the Qur’an contained detailed prescriptions on political practice, “contemporary Muslim rulers reigned over nomadic tribes rather than modern nation-states, and had Sharia been updated over the years, a unified Islamic political program would still remain an illusive concept.”[3]

The Case of Egypt

While Price conducted case studies in which he compared eight Muslim states in the region, this article will focus on the political history of Egypt in the modern era of nation states. I will briefly summarize his analysis of the country.

Firstly, the ‘ulamā’ (religious scholars), not wanting to lose favour with Nasser, “continued to act in their traditional roles of regime legitimizers;” for example, the sheikh of Al-Azhar produced a fatwā (juristic opinion), interpreting a Qur’anic verse that justified Arab socialism. Furthermore, a large section of the population did not yet reject religion, and “the vast majority of Egyptians still identified with religion and not the secular nation.”  It became a period of “elites pursuing massive modernization while the masses still maintained faith in tradition and religion.”[4]

However, the humiliating defeat that Egypt suffered at the hands of Israel, in the 1967 war was attributed to the “failures of the Nasser regime.” As a result, larger numbers of Egyptians began turning to religion as a solution to their country’s problems. Despite Nasser’s attempts at representing himself “as a believing Muslim,” and making the pilgrimage to Mecca, Egypt saw the reemergence of a competing Islamic perspective in the form of “the writings of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Sheikh Kishk, who blamed the results of the war on the regime.” Accordingly, since Islamic sentiments were more prevalent in society, members of the Brotherhood could no longer be conveniently imprisoned, and “Political Islam now had to be accommodated.”[5]

Nasser’s successor Sadat went further in what I refer to as “Islamizing” Egypt, by resorting to the use of religious rhetoric during the 1973 war. In addition, he granted amnesty to the imprisoned members of the Islamic Brotherhood, allowed them to reorganize legally, and gave them permission to resume publishing their newspaper, Al-Dawah (The Call). He took steps to facilitate the Islamic Student Associations in terms of financial and electoral support on Egyptian university campuses. These student groups were also “encouraged to hold public prayers in university facilities and to spread their activities to the neighborhoods near the universities.”[6]

Sadat’s “Islamization” programme should be seen in the context of the change in his ideological orientation, which was dubbed by some as the “‘de-Nasserization’ of Egypt.” This new orientation was based on “four major policies: the Open Door, democratization, alliance with the West, and conciliation with Israel.” His democratization efforts, saw the ratification of a permanent constitution which pledged respect for the human rights for all citizens, the allowance of a multiparty system instead of the previous one-party system, the ending of “arbitrary arrest and detention of citizens without due legal process,” and the lifting of “censorship of the press” and other similar reforms.[7]

The relaxation of restrictions on the Brotherhood should be seen in the light of Sadat’s moves towards democratization. However, part and parcel of the democratization package were: the opening up of economic policy (Infitāh). The adoption of the Infitāh policy resulted not only in creating economic imbalances between certain sections of Egyptian society, but also saw the infiltration of what Islamists perceived to be negative cultural influences into Egyptian society in the form of TV shows such as “Dallas” for example. The signing of the peace treaty with Israel became another major bone of contention. These latter policies led the MB to begin opposing Sadat’s policies.[8]

The MB proposed an alternative vision to each of Sadat’s major policies for Egypt. The first was the affirmation of “… its longstanding call for the establishment of an Islamic social order on the basis of the Shari’a.” The second part of their vision was to assert the MB’s goal of raising the consciousness of the Muslim masses through nonviolent means, and by giving “advice to ‘Muslim’ rulers.”[9] Thirdly, the MB expressed skepticism with regard to Sadat’s democratization policy, since they saw the election process in Egypt to be a farce, wherein election results falsified the will of the people.[10]

To sum up the detailed hypotheses Price has deduced with regard to the eight case studies he has conducted (which I have reproduced verbatim hereunder):

H1—Islamic political culture does not affect levels of democracy in predominantly

Muslim countries.

H2—If a country has a politicized sectarian, ethnic, or linguistic cleavage, its

political system will be less democratic.

H3—If a minority religious group exists in a country, then its political system

will be less democratic.

H4—The greater a country’s wealth, the more democratic it will be.

H5—If a country is extremely wealthy, it will not be democratic.

H6—If a country experiences rapid economic change, it will be less democratic.[11]

Price concludes his study with the following observations, that while the regimes of the MENA region frequently “use Islam as a justification for censorship, persecution of religious minorities, and other violations of civil liberties,” his findings “show that they do this because they are despots, not because they are following the dictates of Islam.” Similarly, “… secular authoritarian regimes in Muslim countries have also not been generous in granting civil liberties to citizens. It is likely that the spread of democracy, not the secularization of politics, will sharply reduce these practices.”[12] That “the major dilemmas facing predominantly Muslim nations are rapid economic change, dislocation caused by modernization, and colonial rule or dependency on the West—not political Islam.”[13]

Prices’ assessment is shared by Kai Hafez, who invokes “Islamic liberal reformists” who contest those “Western modernization theorists who view Islam as an obstacle to development.” These reformists are attempting to demonstrate that Islam is compatibility with modernity, by creating a kind of “Islamic Protestant ethic”. The reformists do this by minimizing the legal dimensions of Islam, and thus, thereby refuting the contention that Islam is not compatible with the “Western political consensus on modernity.” Where they differ from their Western counterparts is that they do however leave some scope for religion, and do not wish to expunge it entirely from the system. This is in line with Jürgen Habermas’ thinking, who despite being a foremost theorist on secularism, advocates the position that a secular society ought not to completely rid itself of religion, but it should free itself of the “coercive character” of religion, “through the process of secularization.”[14]

Muslim history through the ages has been complex and varied. All through the checkered mosaic of Islamic intellectual, political and social experiences, there have existed a multifaceted array of persuasions, which John Voll, in his extensive review of Islamic history, identified as four “styles of action” within Muslim society: adaptationists, conservationists, fundamentalists and individualists. Voll does not restrict these styles to the modern period, but applies them to all of Islamic history.[15]

Conservatives in any society or cultural grouping, will invariably gravitate towards rigid and inflexible interpretations of ideal and reality. Likewise, those scholars and social elites who are inclined towards an adaptationist approach towards the challenges faced by society, would naturally be predisposed towards more accommodationist and flexible readings of holy texts. It is in this light that we should attempt to understand the current contestations between secularists and Islamists taking place in the Muslim world.

The Argument regarding Theological Limitations

Again, John Voll presents a brief, but wide-ranging spectrum of intellectual responses to the question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy. He states that “conservative Muslim thinkers argued that Islam and democracy were incompatible,” since the democratic idea of “the sovereignty of the people,” clashed with the fundamental “Islamic concept of the absolute sovereignty of God.” Secondly, since—according to their understanding—Islamic law, the Shari’a, was “defined and promulgated by God,” it “could not be altered by elected parliaments.” Thirdly, they considered the very “concept of parliaments as sources of law” as sacrilegious.[16]

Walid Phares, in his book, The War of Ideas: Jihadism Against Democracy, argues that even before the advent of the main monotheist religions, “… all beliefs were used as incentives to territorial aggrandizement and overseas invasions.” Subsequently, even after the influence of polytheism declined in the face of “… Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Europe and parts of Africa and Asia, the ‘marching orders’ of the monotheist religions continued to rely heavily on the divine.” While the ancient Hebrews, exhorted their people to seize the land of Canaan “in the name of God,” the Christians were motivated by the desire to convey the “godly good news to all peoples.” The Muslim experience was imbued by “a more powerful marching order: to ‘bring all peoples under the word of Allah.'” Hence, in medieval times, “… the divine remained involved in war and peace, regardless of how far and deep the theological, warlike orders from one religion against the other.”[17]

In the ensuing post-enlightenment period, the non-Islamic world at least, began to see the secularization of political thought and political arrangements, the introduction of reforms, and the establishment of the modern nation-state. Consequently, political philosophies and cultures laid down a more worldly basis for the grounds for conflicts, and as a result, the justification for religiously motivated wars was gradually minimized.[18]

However, in the post-colonial Muslim world, the Islamists, together with “jihadi Salafism and Khumeinism” declared their rejection of “the democratic basis of modern international relations for themselves,” and at the same time expressed their desired goal of spreading and imposing “their own totalitarian [shari’a-based] system upon all nations.”[19] They rejected the internationally emerging norm of “separation of state and religion.”[20]

While scholars like Huntington found religious motivations for the conflicts “in Chechnya, Sudan, Kashmir, the Philippines, and so on,” Muslim intellectuals in turn also saw the conflicts as onslaughts by the West upon Muslim countries instead.[21] Historically speaking, Muslim empires of the past, for centuries clashed with other empires, which included Christian, Hindu, and African civilizational entities. Similar to “Hebrew geopolitics in biblical times and the actions of Christian empires during the Middle Ages,” Muslim geopolitics in the modern world was greatly influenced by Islamic theology.[22]

In the mainstream Arab Muslim intelligentsia, the wider Hadaara (civilization) became a center of pride and a serious component of public policy. A sense of belonging to a Muslim civilization became part of almost all political ideologies, from Nasserism to Baathism, even though secular. However, it was the Islamists who took the concept of global Islamic civilization literally; the Islamists in general and the jihadists in particular, since the 1920s, were bent on reconstructing the caliphate as a hub for the umma, the wider house of the civilization of Islam.[23]

Nevertheless, while some humans, are informed by, and hold fast to the “scientific idea” that “humans are material beings who rose to consciousness,” other groups of humans are inspired by the “‘spiritual idea’ that all existence, including human, is of divine origin.” In the final analysis, one finds among those who deliberate over the history of religion, those who see it strictly in terms of economic contestation between classes—Marxism. On the other hand, one also finds those who make sense of the enterprise of religion purely as a spiritual entity. The more nuanced approach is that of those who see a combination of both, material, as well as spiritual underpinnings to the various forms of conflicts and contestations raging throughout history.[24]

To illustrate by way of example, in terms of the Muslim experience, “Allah ordered Mohammed to reveal a new religion and spread it to all peoples.” However, when a sociologist analyzes the same phenomenon, s/he interprets it as a case of nomadic tribes attempting to escape the “extreme, harsh conditions inside the Arabian Peninsula,” and conquering “the northern and more arable lands of Syria, Mesopotamia, and beyond.”[25]

Thus, according to Phares, despite that fact that we find a combination of theological and sociological interpretations of world events, the modern international community—together with “the international academic elite”—has developed the tendency to see contemporary conflicts—between Islamists on the one hand, and the “West,” as well as those secularists who advocate democratic pluralism, in Muslim societies on the other hand—in largely economic terms, notwithstanding “religious imperatives.” Hence, a “consensus among world elites” has developed, that the root causes of terrorism, fundamentalism and jihadism lie in “the postcolonial and socially frustrated segments of the economically disfavored and underdeveloped areas in the Muslim world.”[26]

According to Voll, a third and newly emerging perspective contends that instead of Islam being the major obstacle to democratization in the Muslim world, it is “Modernization” in fact which “may have been a major barrier to democratization.”[27]

Voll concludes his discussion with what I would refer to as a deadlock-breaking insight that the point of departure in fact should be “the recognition that both democracy and Islam are not easily defined in monolithic terms.” Democracy, like Islam, should be understood as an “essentially contested concept.” That “democracy can take many apparently contradictory forms, reflected in terms such as ‘illiberal democracy,’ ‘semi-authoritarian democracy,’ and ‘cyberdemocracy,’ as well as more familiar terms like ‘radical democracy,’ ‘consociational democracy,’ and ‘associative democracy.'”[28]

In the same manner, if we understand Islam also to be a contested concept, then we will find it easier to situate the counter-competing claims as to whether Islam is compatible with democracy or not, as Ebrahim Moosa observes that “there are many ‘islams’ with a small ‘i,’ and many Muslims with differences in terms of their practices and their understandings, since each person or Muslim community appropriates the discursive tradition differently.”[29]


How do we make sense of the recent Arab uprisings, which have given new impetus to the vexing question as to why the countries of the MENA region are not “democratizing successfully.” How has it come to be that while the uprisings were initially inspired by demands for the restoration of liberal values such as freedom of choice, speech, and conscience, together with government accountability in terms of the economies, and the equitable distribution of the countries’ resources, how is it that in the case of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Islamist governments that harbour totalitarian ambitions, came to the fore?

The answer may lie in what Fareed Zakaria refers to as “Illiberal Democracy.”[30] According to him, ‘It appears that many countries are adopting a form of government that mixes a substantial degree of democracy with a good deal of illiberalism [restriction of individual liberties].’ Religion can play a role in defining and imposing this ‘illiberalism.'”[31]

Furthermore, we do find a high degree of validity in Voll’s theory, that, Islam can be interpreted by whomsoever wishes to read into it their particular orientation towards issues regarding freedom, justice, and human rights. It is also true that those who advocate the very antithesis of “Western liberal values,”—as is the case with Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood—it becomes clear that modernization does seem to be the obstacle. Since modern day Islamists are indeed products of modernity, who on the one hand, seek to reinterpret the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions in the light of modern day political arrangements. By way of example, their appropriation of the concept of shūrā (consultation), to justify parliamentary elections comes to mind. On the other hand, they demonstrate an acute sense of apprehension towards the adoption of liberal values. This sort of disjuncture and ambivalence has its roots in competing theological understandings of the Islamic traditions.

Finally, the sociological and functional reasons for the lack of the successful implementation of liberal democratic norms in the MENA region, as delineated by Daniel Price, also contribute towards this phenomenon. It is not an either/or question, but a combination of theological and sociological factors that inhibit the emergence of liberal democracy in the MENA region.


[1] Daniel E. Price, Islamic Political Culture, Democracy, and Human Rights: A Comparative Study. (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1999)

[2] Ibid. p. 24.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. p. 43.

[5] Ibid. p. 44.

[6] Ibid. p. 45.

[7] Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “An Islamic Alternative in Egypt: The Muslim Brotherhood and Sadat.” In Egypt Islam and Democracy. (Cairo & New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2002). p. 37.

[8] Ibid. p. 38.

[9] Ibid. p. 39.

[10] Ibid. p. 41.

[11] Price, op. cit… pp. 142-4.

[12] Ibid. p. 174.

[13] Ibid. p. 179.

[14] Kai Hafez, Radicalism and Political Reform in the Islamic and Western Worlds. Translated by Alex Skinner. (Cambridge, et al.: Cambridge University Press, 2010). p. 30.

[15] Quoted in: Abdulkader Tayob, “The Shifting Politics of Identity”, in Islam and Modernity Key Issues and Debates, eds. Muhammad Khalid Masud, Armando Salvatore and Martin van Bruinessen. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009) pp. 261-284.  p. 264.

[16] John O. Voll, (Georgetown University) “Islam and Democracy: Is Modernization a Barrier?” In Religion Compass 1/1 ((Blackwell Publishing, 2007) pp. 170–178. p. 172.

[17] Walid Phares, The War of Ideas: Jihadism Against Democracy. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). p. 5.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. p. 8.

[20] Ibid. p. 9.

[21] Ibid. p. 10.

[22] Ibid. p. 12.

[23] Ibid. pp. 12-3.

[24] Ibid. pp. 13-4

[25] Ibid. p. 14.

[26] Ibid. pp. 14-5.

[27] Voll: 2007, p. 171.

[28] Ibid. p. 174.

[29] Ebrahim Moosa, Islam and Cultural Issues (Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, 2002), p. 7. Quoted from Voll: 2007, p. 175.

[30] See Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Foreign Affairs 76, No. 6 (November/December

1997): 22–43, and his: The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: WW Norton, 2003). Quoted from Voll: 2007, p. 170.

[31] Voll: 2007, p. 170.

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