Lessons on Democracy from the Middle East


Tahrir Square, Egypt, 2011.

The Middle East is probably not the first region that springs to mind when one seeks to learn about democracy and democratisation. Yet, that was exactly what a delegation of DAP MPs did last year when they visited Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey.

We were not quite sure what to expect. Initially, the expedition was meant to be a study trip to Muslim-majority countries to learn about the diverse ways in which these societies cope with contemporary political, economic and social challenges, with particular regard to the role of Islam in these aspects.

The trips to Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey turned out to be rather fruitful as we had the opportunity to engage with key political leaders, such as former Turkish President Dr Abdullah Gül, President of the Tunisian Ennahdah Party Rached Ghannouchi, exiled Secretary-General of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt Mahmoud Hussein, former Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Dr Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, as well as various MPs and political apparatchiks.

At the same time, we also held discussions with various non-governmental organisations, such as think tanks and civil society groups that deal with a myriad of issues ranging from macro-economic analysis to the current Syrian refugee crisis. In Tunisia, we had the great fortune of meeting with the Deputy Secretary-General of the Tunisian General Labour Union, a week after the organisation jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Post-Arab Spring

There could not, of course, have been a more dramatic and intriguing time for us to visit the region. The Middle East post-Arab Spring is what one might imagine – beset by lingering conflict, economic insecurity, an exacerbation of sectarian cleavages and a society coming to grips with the postrevolution order of power, with various state and non-state interests vying for political and ideological legitimacy.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Meeting with Dr Fathi Malkawi, director of the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Amman. His organisation focuses on developing methodologies of thinking and understanding Islamic scripture.

Yet, at the same time, it is also what one might not imagine. Amid the obvious strife, there was a palpable sense of optimism. From an outsider’s point of view, one might think that there was less to look forward to, compared to the host of uncertainties enveloping their lives. However, from our various interactions, there was no denying the presence of a sense of hope among the population. Despite the obvious struggles that they face daily, it was also clear that they appreciated the fact that they now have a hand in shaping the future of their lives, for better or worse.

The situation was not the same across the board, of course. Each country’s experience is manifestly different from the others. Jordan, for example, has been spared from both revolution and open conflict. Yet, there was no denying the presence of a mounting undercurrent for socio-political progress and openness.

Like Jordan, Turkey too was not directly affected by the Arab Spring. Its own democratic transition began more than a decade ago with the victory of Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan’s AK Party. Since then, the Turkish polity has matured by leaps and bounds, though some may now argue that the regime of late appears to be on a path of regression. Be that as it may, political discourse in the country has, for the most part, graduated from the parochial milieu of identity politics to larger socio-political and economic agendas. As pointed out to us, even the farright Nationalist Movement Party and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party both carried proposals to amend the minimum wage quantum in their election manifestos.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Turkey was the most advanced, modern and stable of all the four countries we visited. Not only was the nation displaying economic confidence, Turkey also had a clear sense of purpose. The fact that they were willing to absorb more than a million Syrian refugees at a cost of over five billion euros also reveals a readiness to regain the mantle of leadership in the Islamic world.

Two Revolutions, Two Divergent Outcomes

The other two countries we visited were more complex. Egypt, as we all know, went through the famous January 25 Revolution of 2011, which saw the coming together of a motley mix of Islamists, liberals, nationalists and feminists, all of whom participated in mass protests, acts of civil disobedience and even riots against the Mubarak regime’s oppressive authoritarianism and endemic corruption, as well as skyrocketing levels of unemployment, food inflation and income inequality.

What sprang forth from the revolution, however, was not the fairytale ending everyone had hoped for. Following the demise of the secular Mubarak regime, national elections saw the Ikhwanul Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood) sweeping into power, a natural outcome considering they were the most organised political movement on the ground.

With a democratically elected president and legislature, the stage was set for reforms.

A new Constitution was passed which contained better institutional safeguards and provisions against torture and detention without trial. At the same time, it also saw the widening of the role of Islam through the elevated prominence of syariah law, newly empowered religious institutions as well as the imposition of a state-defined version of Islam.

These fundamental changes to the character of the Egyptian Constitution did not sit well with many, especially considering that the Islamist movement’s electoral victory had been due more to widespread anti-military sentiments than its ideological platform per se. Soon after the new president Mohamed Morsi passed a controversial decree granting himself full powers, purportedly to protect the legislature from the judiciary, opposition from secularists, the military and general public dissatisfaction led to mass protests in June 2013. A month later, Morsi was deposed.

A new Constitution has since been promulgated, with most of the Islamic clauses of the 2012 Constitution repealed. Religious institutions were toned down, the state definition of Islamic principles was removed and the Shura Council (Upper House) was dissolved altogether. Today, Egypt is ruled by Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, a remnant general of the Mubarak regime, and its future continues to be in limbo.

On the other hand, the Tunisian experience, which provided the genesis of the Arab Spring in December 2010 when petty hawker Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation went on to light up an entire region, has proven to be quite different.

The scenario had been similar: an iron-fisted dictator oppressing his people and living in excess while the country was mired in high unemployment and socioeconomic disparity. What unfolded was also the same – civil resistance leading to change of regime and eventually democratic elections that saw the victory of an Islamist movement, the Ennahdah, through a coalition government. This is where the similarities end.

As tensions emerged and an impasse ensued during the drafting of the new Constitution, a national dialogue was facilitated by civil society, specifically through the work of four organisations now collectively known as the Quartet.

Recognising the need for a general consensus, the Ennahdah took the bold decision to withdraw from power in order to allow a technocratic government to lead in the drafting of the country’s new fundamental law. As Ghannouchi later said, “We could have continued without them. But we would have produced a Constitution for the Ennahdah party, not the Tunisian people as a whole.”

What resulted was a magnificent political compromise. Adopted in 2014, the new Constitution has been described as one that reflects a “civil state with an Islamic identity”. Although Islam is clearly upheld as the official religion of the state, its role in the public sphere was more perfunctory. Instead, the document was essentially one based on the universal (and Islamic) values of human rights, inclusiveness and civil liberties such as freedom of conscience. And so it was that the foundations for a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia were etched.

Despite having similar conditions at the outset of the Arab Spring, five years later we find Egypt stuck in a stalemate while Tunisia has won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Politics of Inclusiveness

That Islamism, or political Islam, has become a salient force in Muslim-majority societies is a given. However, the divergent examples of Egypt and Tunisia have proven that Islamism – as with any other political ideology – can come in a variety of forms and values.

In Egypt, Mubarak’s divisive authoritarianism was countered by a similarly non-inclusive approach by the Muslim Brotherhood, which went the other extreme by attempting to impose values without a consensus. In titfor- tat style, the Sisi regime has now returned the favour by persecuting leaders of the Brotherhood, including former President Morsi who now faces a death sentence.

Unfortunately, the vindictiveness continues to be mutual, as exiled Muslim Brotherhood Secretary-General Mahmoud Hussein indicated to us when he suggested that there would be no reprieve for leaders of the current regime, if ever the Brotherhood were to return to power. “When there are parties excluded from the negotiation table, there will never be a consensus,” lamented Dr Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, the social democrat who served a short stint as Deputy Prime Minister of Egypt following the fall of the Morsi presidency.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

The delegates with former Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Dr Ziad Bahaa-Eldin.

In Tunisia, the Ennahdah, whether by circumstance or design, has chosen to assert a more progressive agenda on the basis of broadly defined Islamic values rather than narrow exclusivism. Unlike certain parties who appear to be more content in chasing the afterlife even before they have finished living, the Ennahdah prefers instead to discuss social progress and economic growth, without losing its Islamic identity. Most importantly, the principle of inclusiveness is always stressed – a fact that is apparent when one finds that the Islamist party even has women MPs who do not veil themselves with the hijab.

When asked about how the Ennahdah as an Islamist movement could reconcile with what was for all intents and purposes a secular Constitution that provides no direct role for syariah laws, Ghannouchi stoically informed us that “Tunisia is not out of syariah. We are in syariah. Syariah is not a set of laws, but a set of values – justice, equality, mercy, national unity and a respect for humanity.”

And therein lies the lesson for us all. In Malaysia, political Islam has been, for the most part, inward-looking. Whether perpetuated by the ruling regime or by its rival Islamists, the prevailing narrative appears to revolve around the strengthening of religious institutions, glorification of the clerical class and its constant use as a political marker that divides between Muslims and non-Muslims.

In truth, a great Muslim polity is not one that chooses form over substance. It is not the one with the biggest mosques or the one who with the most powerful religious bureaucracies. Instead, it is the one that propagates the values of Islam as rahmatul-lil-alameen – a universal blessing for all mankind.

In this respect, alleviating poverty, providing access to quality education and healthcare, as well as protecting civil liberties and enforcing good governance, are all not only in line with Islamic values, but the true characteristics of an Islamic polity. In other words, syariah must be understood and applied not by its exclusive rules but by its inclusive values.

“After all,” warned Ghannouchi, “one should not force one’s worldview onto others. If you do, the result will be civil war or despotism.”


Zairil Khir Johari is MP for Bukit Bendera, Penang, and executive director of Penang Institute.

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