Afternoon sessions continued at the American University of Beirut on Thursday, January 21, in “The Arab Revolutions Five Years On: The Arduous Road of Democratization and Future Prospects”, a joint collaboration between the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and the Issam Fares Institute.

The first afternoon session was chaired by Maha Yahya, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Moroccan Hafiz Harrous started the session with a presentation on “The Identity Debate and its Effect on the Challenge of Democratic Transition: Egypt and Tunisia”. Noting how the Tunisian experience succeeded in achieving somewhat of a breakthrough towards democratization, while Egypt ended with a military coup, Harrous underlined the importance of national consensus in the success or failure of a transition. Impeding successful transitions, added Harrous, was a break in national cohesion and divisions along ideological lines that created sharp polarizations, especially between the secular and the Islamist sides.

Attention was then drawn to economic policies in Linda Matar’s paper on “Syria: Economic Policies during Times of Conflict”. The Syrian conflict, she said, has reduced the Syrian economy to tatters. Given the massive humanitarian crisis, government priorities over the past five years have been dedicated to ensuring supplies of food, medicine, and other essential commodities to citizens in areas still under the control of the Assad regime, making it hard for the Syrian government to carry on business as usual. In Matar’s view the Syrian crisis is in need of an international understanding before a local one, starting with an international stance against funding for the war and the re-rationalization of access to financial resources, since this would help prevent further inflaming the war.

Wendy Pearlman gave a more human analysis of the Arab uprisings. In her contribution, “Revolution and Rebirth in Syria”, Pearlman stated that the traditional definitions of revolution involve people exchanging a specific political regime for another, but this perspective reduces the value of elements of psychological, cultural, and emotional hegemony. She added, “Many Syrians suffered from the regimes of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad and this made them afraid. The first steps Syrian citizens took was to break the barrier of fear and participate in protests that made the Syrians feel that they could no longer keep silent. Their words were able to transmit ideas and emotions that described this rebirth.” Pearlman quoted the Syrians she personally interviewed, who described their conquest of fear and the participation in protests as a kind of rebirth. She saw that the mass protest in Syria was a revolution, because it marked the refusal of the people to remain submissive citizens as demanded by the authoritarian regime.

The second session on “Media and Communications and the Arab Revolutions” was chaired by ACRPS’s Project Coordinator Walid Noueihed. Opening this session was Omar Bizri, with his paper “Whither Science, Technology and Innovation in the Arab Spring Countries?”. Bizri maintained that underlying the Arab world’s weaknesses is the failure to transfer, utilize, and localize knowledge, especially scientific and technological knowledge. The protests in Syria, he added, began as a result of the severe drought and the accompanying salinization of the soil, which led to the disruption of many agricultural projects and caused migration to the margins of big cities and the collapse of social support networks. This in turn led to greater willingness on the part of young men to take up arms for cash.

The second contribution, “Media Development in Syria: The Janus-Faced Nature of Foreign Aid Assistance”, was made by Billie Jeanne Brownlee, who illustrated how the Syrian media landscape was strongly supported by international development aid during the years prior the outbreak of the 2011 uprising. Sally Hamarneh made a notable contribution with “The Arab Spring Phenomenon of Urban Mass Intercommunication”, where she dealt with the Arab Spring as a reciprocal phenomenon of mass intercommunication reflecting the large numbers of young people taking to the streets. Making an interesting link between public space and virtual intercommunication, she reviewed the role of media in shaping urban environment in modern history.

Next came the keynote lecture of Ghassan Salameh[1] with his presentation on “Orphaned Democracy”. The title referred to the feeling that democracy in Arab countries was orphaned, without a guardian, despite years of Arabs calling for democracy and making it an integral part of their declarations – be they communists, nationalists, or Islamists. The story of democracy, reiterated Salameh, is not a matter of its formal adoption, but a matter of creating democratic institutions. It is not merely a way to gain power, but the insistence on living according to constitutional legitimacy, the rotation of power, and guaranteed liberties. As interpreted in the region, democracy is currently an end not a means, and its proponents are few and marginal.

Salameh went on to give a historical narrative of the presence of democracy in modern Arab history, from the Ottoman reforms until today, via Iran and its constitutional revolution of 1905-1907, Khedive Ismail and the Liberal moment following independence, and the military coups and the single party regimes. For the most part, champions of democracy in these periods, he noted, were figures who slavishly imitated Europe. Supporters of democracy were thus a minority, especially when compared to supporters of nationalism, Islam, or socialism. Likewise, ssupporters of democracy in the age of inherited republics and their new elites, with their factional seizure of the state that became personal patrimony, have fared no better.

The presence of democracy in the region, he continued, might not have been the result of demands for it, but the result of the need for it to solve existing crises, that is democracy without democrats, democracy without supporters – orphaned democracy. What is more, democracy in the Arab world went no further than lip service until the end of 2010 and the onset of the Arab Spring. The question here is whether the Arab Spring was an opportunity for Arab democracy to find its supporters? In his view, the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria shifted from similarity to difference. Perhaps what happened was not just a difficulty in democratization but its bloody suffocation for a number of reasons, ranging from rentier money, the middle class, and the identity of the protesters to the behavior of the elites. Regardless, developments in the region seem to reinforce the importance of democracy in its deep sense, that of an end and not a means. Ending with a note on the needed fundamentals for success, rooting, and respect of democracy, he urged not to mix up the stages in transition, especially when writing the constitution, and when distinguishing between the regime and the state, and to foster the ethics of the transitional leadership as opposite to corruption and tyranny. All of which enshrines democracy as an aim in and for itself.

Concluding the first day of the conference was the address of Tunisian politician, Sheikh Abdelfattah Mourou, a leading figure in the Tunisian Islamist movement, who delivered his lecture entitled “From Toppling Tyranny to Protecting the Democratic Transition: The Case of Tunisia”. Mourou felt uneasy in assessing the Tunisian experience. Five years, he stressed, is not long enough to make an assessment. He stated that the Islamists were the first to be accused of trying to shift the popular mobilization to the Arab world following the revolution in Iran, and as a result their mobilization came to an end. What happened in Algeria in the 1990s made people afraid of Islamists.

Reflecting on Tunisia’s political history, Mourou stated that the Neo Destour Party initially succeeded in being a lever for the independence of the country, but experienced its first shock in 1956 as the party of liberation, and not the party of a state. Habib Bourguiba, according to Mourou, had a history and charisma and prepared the country for progress, “but his party subsequently became a single party after its exclusion of the left, and its influence waned with the emergence of a class of working people and students resulting from the capitalist system.”

The Islamic movement in Tunisia began to take a position of social issues removed from just religious models and became the main force in the universities, whose gates Bourguiba could not shut. Mourou added, “Among the positive aspects to Bourguiba’s rule was that he excluded the military from rule, and this affected the revolution, and that he excluded inheritance of power, even though his son was foreign minister.” He continued, “Whenever Bourguiba was asked about the single party and the lack of pluralism, he would remonstrate that the people were not accustomed to pluralism. Along came Ben Ali who thought that by simply recognizing rights and freedoms he would gain legitimacy. We made a mistake in believing someone not to be believed.” Mourou considers Tunisia’s intellectual class as the reason behind why the revolutionary mobilization avoided violent clashes, and the fact that the people did not undermine the state. He added, “The Islamists began to talk about an issue not raised before in Tunisia—the question of applying the Sharia. The constitution put an end to the debate over the kind of society Tunisians want.” 

Mourou called out, “Creators of minds create minds in the Arab nation”. Development does not come with doctors and engineers, but with those who have ideas and who acknowledge the role of humanities. The Islamists will not change reality with the sciences of Sharia, but the sciences of thought.”

[1] Ghassan Salameh could not personally attend the conference, his lecture was recorded.