The Arab Revolutions from a Palestinian Perspective

Let me start with the following question: Have Arab countries started the transition to democracy or not? This is the question now being asked around the world. To address this question I will begin with a quotation from Professor Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim, who suggested that the Arab region has the plight of a triangle of actors. These three actors are al-toghah, al-gulah and alghuzah. Toghah are the authoritarian regimes, gulah are the extremists and ghuzah are the invaders. The thesis of Ibrahim was that it was the toghah, the authoritarian regimes who created the gulah, the extremists, as another despotic response to the despotism of the authoritarian regimes. Despotism creates another form of despotism. Then together the toghah and the gulah, the authoritarians and the extremists, brought the ghuzah, the invaders to the region, such as what happened in Iraq. In order to have democracy in Iraq, you have to do it through an invasion from outside.

If one tries to look at the role of this triangle in light of the current Arab Spring or Arab Revolution, one can find that the revolution is clearly against the authoritarians, regardless of their political or ideological bent. Therefore it is against regimes like that of Gaddafi, who created an ideology expressed in the kitab al-akhdar, the Green Book. At the same time, it has to do with the despotic systems, whatever their ideological colors, including the monarchies. It is comprehensively against all regimes throughout the region. It is less likely, so far, to speak about the Arab Revolutions as being against the invaders. For instance, nothing has been said in these revolutions against the American presence in Iraq. We have not heard that. When it comes to the third component, the extremists, they have not played an active role in these revolutions. Al-Qaeda has not had a presence in these revolutions. When people take to the streets by the tens of thousands and millions, al-Qaeda can do nothing but stay away from the scene. Therefore, it's clear that these revolutions have been against the despotic regimes and extremists, but not yet against the invaders.

The Attitude of the Revolutions toward Israel

One might ask here: What about the position of these revolutions towards Israel? We may not be at a point yet where we can speak about the influence of the revolution on Arab positions towards Israel, but one can note the following: Israel will now be asked by the people who took to the streets to fulfill its obligations according to its agreements. Israel signed political agreements with authoritarian regimes. Now the people have a say in politics for the first time, which means that Israel has no choice but to fulfill its responsibilities according to the agreements because the people will no longer be silent or turn a blind eye to Israel's inability to fulfill its agreements, including the Camp David Accords with Egypt which requires Israel to move on the peace process with the Palestinians. Israel will now be asked to do that. But at the same time, it is clear that in the demonstrations of June 2011 through the Syrian borders, the message was the following: The fight against Israel will cross borders, but it will also be nonviolent. It will not be Hizbullah's way of fighting a war against Israel. It will first be the Palestinians who will march to the borders with Israel, but the Arabs will join when their regimes allow them to, and Israel will witness nonviolent marches to its borders by Palestinians and Arabs.

The other point I want to mention is that these are revolutions about dignity, but most importantly, they are revolutions for citizenship. This is very important in the region, because the wisdom in the region was always that the people needed a caretaker - Salah al-Din Ayubbi, Gamal Abdel Nasser, etc. - who would be in charge of the people and take care of them. The significant change in these revolutions is that the people went to the streets to say, "We are the citizens, we take our fate in our hands; you regimes are no longer a fate imposed on us, and your authorities should be delegated by us." This is the message; it is a crucial change in the region, and it is the starting point toward the creation of citizenship in the region, maybe for the first time ever. Previously it had always been about being a subject or a compatriot of the regime, divided by all the patrimonial and neo-patrimonial cleavages that we know.

The Two Stages of Liberalization

So this is the significance of what is going on in the Arab world. Will it succeed? Using the terminology of Schmitter, Odenel, and Whitehead about the two stages of liberalization, then moving to democratization, there is no doubt that the process of liberalization has started. We have people taking to the streets asking and crying for their human rights and citizens' rights. But will it move from this liberalization that we witness to democratization? This is the big question. Dankwart Rustaw said that in order to move to democracy, we need four stages. The first is national unity, the second is violent conflict, the third is compromise, and the fourth is a consolidated democracy.

If we apply these stages to the developments in Egypt, we will find that the first stage, national unity, occurred in a different way from that meant by Rustaw, when the people united around the idea of getting rid of Hosni Mubarak as a despotic leader. There was unity between all the components of society in Egypt to get rid of him. Egypt is now in the period of violent conflict, not in terms of a war between the people but tense conflict between the five groups competing to be the main actors. The five groups include: the Military Council and followers of the old regime; the Muslim Brotherhood; the democratic liberal parties and left wing parties, including the liberal Islamic parties; the Salafi groups who have grown as a response to the liberalization of the Muslim Brotherhood and are the greatest danger to the movement to establish a democracy in Egypt; and the revolutionary youth who are divided between left wing, Muslim Brotherhood and independents. These are the powers fighting for control. What will happen if the Military Council and followers of the old regime unite with the Muslim Brotherhood to marginalize the revolutionary youth and the liberal democratic parties as well as the Salafists? If this happens, we will have another Mubarak-ism, but without Mubarak. If the young people, the liberal democratic parties and left wing parties are able to represent themselves, this will bring about a different outcome. Going back to Rustaw, we are now in the period of conflict between these groups. It is not known yet who will win, what compromises will be made and between which groups in the third stage of the transition to democracy, leading later into the fourth state of consolidating it.

In Egypt it doesn't look like the transition to democracy has started yet. We will know if it has started after the elections are held and we find out the final results. The transition may have started in Tunisia, where elections have already been held, but is only at its initial stage in Egypt.

My second point is the four categories of transition to democracy that we might have in the Arab world. The first is the gumlukiya republicarchy) countries. Gumlukiya is an Arabic word combining gumhuriya (republic) and malakia (monarchy). The gumlukiya refers to the republic regimes becoming like monarchies by handing power down through their families. There are two kinds of gumlukiya states, according to Juan Linz: authoritarian states and sultanic states. The authoritarian regimes allow for some aspects of electoral democracy, such as partial elections with some political parties allowed and some banned. This was the case in Egypt and Tunisia. But the sultanic regimes are like those of Gaddafi and the Syrian Ba'ath regime, where there is no democratic process at all. The second category in the Arab world is the semi-reformed monarchies such as Jordan and Morocco. The third group is the despotic monarchies of the rentier states such as Saudi Arabia, which controls its people through bribery and financial control. The fourth category is Iraq, which is in a unique position, with pluralism between different groups but no process for democratization.

The Impacts on Palestine

The process for democratization in Palestine has passed through three stages since Oslo. The first stage was from 1994 to 2000, which expanded freedom from occupation with more areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), but without democratization. During this time Yasser Arafat used elections to increase his authoritarian control. The second stage was from 2000 to 2006. After Arafat's passing, the 2006 elections took place with the Hamas victory, followed by the Hamas-Fateh split and the Hamas takeover of Gaza. This stage saw the eruption of the second intifada, and the international community began asking the PA to focus on democratization, but without getting more freedom from occupation, no progress in the peace process, and no more Israeli army withdrawals. The third stage is from 2006 to the present, starting with the 2006 split between Gaza and the West Bank, and has seen a complete impasse in the peace process. The processes for peace, freedom and democratization have all stopped. There has been no freedom and no democracy. Instead of a democratization process, the Palestinians got two authoritarian authorities in Gaza and the West Bank. As a response to the Arab revolutions, young Palestinians started to confront the situation of no freedom and no democracy. Since March of 2011, 60 new groups of young people have organized themselves through Facebook and Twitter, and began organizing activities which started by calling for a reuniting of the West Bank and Gaza and then led to calling for the right of return for refugees and an end to the occupation. And then the youth movement disappeared. when President Mahmoud Abbas made the bid for statehood at the United Nations, which was supported by the young people.

We've Only Just Begun

To conclude, the revolutions in the Arab world have just started. We need to follow these revolutions closely, taking into consideration that these revolutions were started by the Arab youth who have seen the values of democracy and human rights through globalization. These youth are the newest asset of the Arab world. They have created an expansion of the Habermasian public sphere beyond just being the sphere of civil society action, to become a field for new groups and social movements organized through the digital sphere. This expansion of the public sphere has not been witnessed in Eastern Europe, where it was more about the role of civil society; here it is more about role of the citizens. Civil societies and political parties in the Middle East are very weak, so the revolutions were realized by the citizens themselves. This is the significance of the Arab revolutions in comparison with those in Eastern Europe. Therefore, if the Arab revolutions were led by these people and if they lead to the creation of the notion of citizenship, these youth have no choice but to continue. Some of the youth groups in Egypt are starting to speak about the continuation of the revolution. The revolution has not ended in Egypt; it has just started and might continue to lead to a full transition to democracy in the region.

This article is based upon presentations made at the Challenges of Democracy Conference, October 25-27, 2011.