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September 27, 2012 |  Print  Your Opinion  

What After the Arab Spring?

Vikas Kumar: Arab societies need their own local solutions in creating democratic societies. These solutions can take on a variety of forms. However, some reforms are more likely to bear fruit given the cultural context. Here are some ideas for laying the groundwork for democracy in the Arab world.

Not since the downfall of the Ottoman Empire has the Middle East found genuine opportunities for socio-political changes that it has with the Arab Spring. But so far the region seems to be unable to harness the opportunity. Observers fear that Islamist democracies could be worse than the tin-pot dictators they supplant. In an earlier submission to, I argued that non-Arab Islamic societies, say, in South and South East Asia, cannot serve as role models to democratizing Arab countries that lack demographic diversity. But this implies neither the non-existence, nor the impracticability of local solutions.

In this submission, I discuss the relative merits of potential local solutions (cultural, constitutional, and administrative) and argue that one of them (administrative) enjoys priority.

The first best solution would involve constitutional-political reforms (including separation of state and religion) and grass-root cultural change (greater freedom to women and minorities, curricular reforms in school, etc) in tandem. However, constitutional reform attempting state secularization is unthinkable even in moderate eastern Islamic countries, while cultural changes referred to above purportedly fall under the purview of the Quran and the Sharia.

It can be argued that providing greater rights to immigrant workers could prove to be a short cut to enhancing diversity. Oil rich Arab countries attract a large number of migrant workers from across the world. This adds to their limited native racial, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity. But, the contribution of acquired diversity on developments within the Arab world is limited because migrants do not enjoy sufficient rights. Reform in this regard faces two obstacles. First, it will not clear the Islam-in-danger hurdle because immigrants include Indian Hindus, Sri Lankan Buddhists, and Filipino Catholics. Second, it will face the sons-of-soil backlash, particularly, because the Arab Muslims consider themselves superior to non-Arab Muslims, invariably later converts.

This leaves us with administrative reforms, which alone can potentially overcome the Islam-in-danger hurdle because of their seemingly innocuous nature. For instance, the creation of fiscally autonomous smaller provinces is unlikely to face serious majoritarian religious resistance. Federal reorganization is likely to lead to four desirable outcomes. First, it will create a constituency for local institutional freedoms – a small step toward democracy. Second, it will empower minorities like the Kurds and the Berbers. Third, these reforms will trigger jurisdictional competition allowing people to vote with their feet. Fourth, sufficient autonomy to minority provinces could lead to re-emergence of minority languages as one of the local official languages, which in turn could result in cultural deepening. In short, administrative reforms can support the re-emergence of diversity in the Arab World that in turn will prepare the ground for sustainable democracy in the medium to long run.

Three issues regarding the proposed provincial reforms remain to be addressed. First, lack of opposition to administrative reforms does not automatically guarantee implementation. But, such reforms could nevertheless be implemented relatively easily as they serve the immediate interests of the post-Arab Spring regimes that so far do not have access to unchallenged military and police forces. Second, if some of the provinces are going to be dominated by minorities, then provincial empowerment could trigger majoritarian backlashes. This could be addressed by dividing the minority regions into at least two provinces. Third, smaller partitioning of a state makes the center relatively powerful compared to provinces and there is no reason why the Arab World that has suffered from excess centralization of political power should adopt a path that could take them back to square one. While this objection is justifiable, the proposed reforms are perhaps the only short-term solution to the problem of lack of sustainable local support for democracy within Arab countries.

Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor of Economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

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Tags: | reforms | democracy | Middle East | Arab Spring |

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