The past year across the Arab world has revealed the variety of ways in which citizens and governments deal with the challenges they face from their own people for significant political reform, or even a change of regime. Four countries in particular – Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon – capture the different ways that Arab societies have responded to demands for change. None of them has been perfect. The two extremes of political evolution are Syria and Jordan. In Syria, the state and some of the smaller armed opposition groups use extreme violence against civilians, while the majority of opposition supporters demonstrate peacefully for a change of regime. No progress is possible on a dialogue-based reform program because there is no trust between the government and opposition, and international intervention via the United Nations or other means is unable to forge a successful political reform process.
So it seems that Syria is destined to continue on its current path of expanding violence, growing sectarian tensions, and eventual economic collapse. Other regimes have also chosen this option of a hard military response to peaceful demonstrations (Libya, Bahrain, Yemen), with varying consequences.
On a visit to Jordan last week I had the opportunity to speak with friends from all walks of life and gauge the Jordanian response to populist reform demands, which continues to baffle and frustrate most observers. King Abdullah II faces qualitatively new forms of protest and opposition in the country that are potentially more significant than any political challenges he or his father ever faced before. That is because those speaking out against the government and regime are mostly disenchanted or marginalized East Bank Jordanians, traditionally the bulwark of regime strength, including many in poor rural areas who have become deeply estranged from the center in Amman.
More ominously, critics are making accusations in public against the king’s family (for corruption and abusing power) and against the intelligence service (for interfering too much in people’s lives and work) – both red lines that Jordanians never dared cross previously.
The king’s response to such critics, and to the small, orderly weekly demonstrations in Amman, has been erratic and thin. It has included rhetoric about the need for reform, some cosmetic changes here and there, establishing commissions and study groups, and changing governments frequently – without coming to grips with the substantive complaints that many Jordanians have about corruption, unequal political representation, executive branch dominance of the government, and persistent social and economic disparities.
The system has held together and will continue to do so. However, this comes with a cost of political tensions and pressures continuing to accumulate beneath the surface if the king does not respond more substantively to the reasonable demands for reform now emanating from constituencies he cannot ignore.
Egypt’s political evolution continues to be the most fascinating in the Arab world, given the complexities of the country’s slow constitutional and democratic transition in the wake of the immensely emotional overthrow of the Mubarak regime and the bitter fears among many Egyptians that the remnants of the old regime may be working their way back to power through democratic elections.
The presidential elections are now the immediate focus of political action, and many Egyptians are disappointed with the options they now have in the presidential runoff next month between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Mursi and President Hosni Mubarak’s last Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq. It is natural for many citizens to be disappointed with a democratic process that at once reflects the will of the voting majority while not offering a satisfactory outcome that all can embrace. Presumably, as emotions subside and the democratic process gains traction, and those voted into office have the opportunity to show if they can respond to the citizens’ needs and rights, the democratic transition will sink its roots deeper into the Egyptian soil, and by extension, the Arab political psyche.
The Lebanese method of political action is unique in the region, based on a weak central government and diffused power across the spectrum of political and religious groups. Major national change does not happen very often, because it is difficult to achieve consensus in such a polarized and fragmented system.
Instead, the system routinely finds its political balance by absorbing regular bouts of intense political antagonism interspersed with limited outbreaks of violence at local level – in many cases with the involvement of external powers and interests. Some would argue that in deeply tribal and sectarian societies such as those in many Arab countries, this sort of community-based, consensus-seeking system is more appropriate than a one-person, one-vote electoral democracy.
The bad news is that none of these political options has succeeded yet in shaping a stable political system. The good news is that intense activity is under way in many Arab countries to develop political mechanisms that work, ending half a century of frozen national development that all in the region are pleased to leave behind.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.