What Does Democracy Look Like?

How to spot real change in the Middle East.

History repeating itself?

A seemingly spontaneous outpouring of frustration with the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian regime results in a series of street protests. Angry demonstrators demand freedom of expression and of the press, a truly representative parliament, the release of political prisoners, the withdrawal of security forces and intelligence personnel from universities, and the establishment of laws protecting political freedoms. The Egyptian security forces respond with beatings and arrests.

If you thought this was a description of the current political ferment gripping Egypt, you would be off by 37 years. The demands of Egypt’s Kifaya (Enough) movement and other contemporary protest groups are strikingly similar to those of Egypt’s Student Movement, which took to the streets in 1968 demanding political change. Drawing out the uncanny symmetries between 1968 and 2005 isn’t just a fun pastime for a Middle East specialist with time on his hands during the dog days of summer; it also points to a larger question confronting policymakers, academics, journalists, and other observers of Arab politics: How do we know that what we are observing in the Middle East is actual democratic change?

Even the most cynical observers of the region have a sense that the status quo is crumbling. Since January alone, the Palestinians, Iraqis, and Saudis have held elections; the Egyptian parliament amended Egypt’s constitution to allow for multicandidate presidential elections; the right to vote was extended to women in Kuwait; and, in an extraordinary demonstration of “people power,” the Lebanese forced Syria out of their country. The winter and spring of 2005 in the Middle East was, indeed, exhilarating, but at the same time, haven’t we seen this movie—or at least parts of it—before? Although unprecedented in Saudi Arabia, elections occur with remarkable frequency in the Middle East, women enjoy a variety of rights in Tunisia and Syria, and Arabs have often taken to the streets to demand change even in the most unlikely places—during the 1960s, Saudis protested in the streets of Riyadh against the royal family. Despite these rights and rituals, few would argue that any of these countries are democracies.

Making sense of the ferment in the Middle East is all the more complicated by the messages about change coming from the region. Since the Bush administration made democracy in the Arab world the focus of U.S. Middle East policy, journalists have been pursuing stories with the democracy angle and interviewing previously obscure democracy activists. Ammar Abdulhamid was a little-known Syrian reformer (as well as a former Islamist preacher) long before every journalist passing through Damascus started knocking on his door seeking a quote. In addition to a February 2005 New York Times Magazine profile titled “A Liberal in Damascus,” Ammar has been cited in, among others, the Associated Press, BBC, Financial Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, andSlate (at least three times).

Abdulhamid is also a blogger, who, along with many others in the region with access to a computer and the Internet, has been sharing his thoughts about the state of governance and politics in his society with anyone interested enough to read. The Middle East blogosphere is not only an important vehicle of protest, it has become an invaluable tool to analysts stuck in New York, Washington, and elsewhere who are trying to make sense of developments in faraway places. Yet there is a risk of assigning more importance to these accounts than they intrinsically deserve. In addition to being observers, analysts, and interpreters of events, bloggers are activists. This is not to suggest that the Arab world’s talented bloggers are not to be trusted, merely that looking through the straw hole of the Middle East blogosphere may provide a distorted view of what’s going on in the region.

While some columnists and editorial boards prematurely proclaim the triumph of the Arab spring, there is a tendency to lose sight of the fact that the defenders of Arab regimes have time and again proved themselves to be smart, flexible, and exceptionally brutal when confronting internal challenges. It seems unlikely that the gendarme states of the Middle East will allow themselves to be disarmed without much of a fight.Arab governments tend to engage in a combination of repression and cosmetic liberalization in their efforts to preserve their authoritarian political systems. That’s why the number of protesters in the streets, the staging of elections, or the ability of Arabs to say nasty things about their leaders—without getting arrested—are fairly crude metrics for measuring political change. Observers need to look beyond these types of developments. What really matters are changes to the institutional mechanisms of political control. Thus far, the leaders of the Middle East, despite becoming adept at the discourse of democratization and masters of tactical political openings, have taken very few steps to fundamentally alter the authoritarian status quo.

According to Egyptian officials and regime-affiliated elites, Egypt is an “emerging democracy,” which, at first blush, is not as disingenuous a statement as it seems. After all, in June 2003, the People’s Assembly abolished Egypt’s extraconstitutional State Security Courts, which had routinely been used to repress political opponents of the regime. Yet the practical effect of this “reform” was rather limited. Although the State Security Court was abolished, the special jurisdiction of this court was merely shifted into Egypt’s “regular” courts. The city-state of Qatar has been the focus of breathless analysis concerning its political and economic dynamism. While Qataris have a slew of new political rights as a result of their 2004 constitution, they still cannot hold their leaders accountable. Qatar’s constitution institutionalizes the power of the ruling Al-Thani family. In Jordan, the country that has perhaps the best public relations when it comes to reform, King Abdullah has issued “temporary laws” restricting individual freedoms.

What is happening in Egypt, Qatar, and Jordan is illustrative of the state of affairs throughout the Middle East. Not a pretty picture of democracy on the march, but rather of the all-too-familiar image of regimes using their considerable power to manage, deflect, co-opt, and repress opposition under the guise of reform. Analysts will know that something truly profound is under way in the Middle East when, for example, laws governing political parties actually permit Arabs to organize and national assemblies are no longer docile appendages of the powerful executive branches. The genuine abolition of extraconstitutional security laws—not the replacement of these regulations with equally draconian measures under different names—would also be a positive indication of democratic change. All this, of course, is part and parcel of the larger project of endowing Arab citizens with the tools to hold their leaders accountable. While the genuine outpouring of demand for change in the Middle East is exhilarating to observe, until the mechanisms of political control are razed rather than merely revised, authoritarianism will be a fact of life in the Arab world.