Rights and Democracy in the Arab Spring: Is this their Liberal Hour?

Mark Olssen and John Turner

One question that is still to be asked regarding the series of rebellions and protests in the Middle East that have come to be known as the Arab Spring concerns the possible parallels that can be discerned with those great liberal revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

At a first look certain similarities seem obvious. The rebellions of the Arab Spring, manifesting themselves across the Arab world in countries as different as Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Iran, Bahrain and Syria, have been a demand expressed for both liberty and rights more generally. Perhaps, what has been most common across all these countries has been a demand for certain specific freedoms which have been essentially economic and political. On the one hand they have been a call for economic entitlements to a decent living and viable future; on the other, and related to this, a questioning of the role of the state with concern to its legitimacy. Peoples in these Arab nations have, for really the first time in any major vocal way, come to question the state according to its justification for rule as well as for the ancillary privileges it confers on certain elite groups who have historically participated in rule, monopolized access to the power institutions whereby rule is conducted, and seen it as their largely undefined right to be able to continue to rule. For common to all of these Arab states has been a new demand that their states extend rights more generally to the population, and institute democratic mechanisms of accountability, transparency and representation to all, as well as justify their legitimacy in terms of such criteria.

No more obvious example is the case of Egypt which saw the end of the 30 year rule of Hosni Mubarak and his replacement, eventually, with a democratically elected legislative led by the Freedom and Justice Party and President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The same is true, despite the differences in the forms of state formation and civil society of these countries, with Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria. What has taken place and continues still, have been protests concerning the rights of individuals as citizens concerning democratic representation, as well as economic and political entitlement and inclusion more generally; demands that each individual, race and religious grouping, should have a fair and equal right to participation and assured rights of future continuance, based on transparent and generally accepted ideas of legitimacy, which motivate at this historical juncture such demands.

A further parallel between the rebellions of the Arab Spring and the seventeenth century revolutions consists in a reconfiguration of the dualities in the relation between representation and divine power. Just as Locke argued against Robert Filmer and the doctrine of the divine right of kings to open up and extend a space for popular representation and political obligation grounded in the individual, so too, a singular commonality of the Arab Spring has been a protest by the citizenry on behalf of securing a greater accountability of rulers to the demos in a refashioning of the basis of political legitimacy, away from justifications in terms of caste, tribe, family or religion. Such protests were not against religion per se, but rather for a re-spatialisation or re-positioning of the religious in relation to the secular whereby both the manner and rationale for governance will be rendered newly accountable to the people as citizens in what must now be seen as the emergence of a new, albeit early, form of social contract. Influenced and inspired by the messages emanating from new forms of electronic and digital technology which communicate comparative models of global governance experience and rights, Arab peoples have begun the slow demand for secured rights against oppression, or, indeed, as is just as likely, from being simply ignored, as well as new demands of justification by rulers for the rule they maintain and the basis by which they adhere to power.

Affinities with the earlier liberal revolutions and movements of change should be carefully qualified, however. Although these new demands can be represented as an expression of liberal rights and freedoms, they are of a narrower scope than those theorized by Locke and which came to prevail in the West, through the revolutions of 1688, 1776, and 1789. The qualified questioning of the legitimacy of Arab states over rights and democracy constitutes only a limited expansion of the secular to incorporate specific entitlements. It certainly constitutes a demand that states are responsive to the wishes of citizens generally, but in a very qualified way. Such protests also clearly articulate a demand that the state represents the citizenry and justifies the conditions in which it continues rule. Implicit within such demands, further, there is clearly a call for an expansion of the secular and a re-alignment of the legitimate role of religion resulting in the incorporation of a more formal clarification and institutionalization of the rights of each within the society overall. These result in a more limited demand for rights than was historically expressed in the West. Rather than the wide libertarian conception of individual rights, conceived by Locke as a natural right, giving each individual sovereignty over their own bodies and minds, with clear autonomous rights of saying and doing more or less anything they liked, constrained only by a conception of law that was negatively defined in relation to a laissez-faire state, the conception being demanded by the Arab world is more limited, and must be tailored to the more communitarian context that dominates their lives. Religion is one core dimension of this context. Tribal and community relations which are inextricably tied up with economic activity and local political structures, constitute others. This is why in the Arab world the indigenous uprisings have to a large extent been misinterpreted by a Western media who too readily have been willing to confuse what is being articulated with those ideas of liberty that we have in the West. Only by a more nuanced analysis can we differentiate and reconcile the demands for liberty being called for with the equal continued relevance within the Arab world of conceptions of Western decadence, which still hold sway.
By correctly understanding the call for freedoms and state accountability as a limited demand to increase individual rights of citizenship within a limited sphere we can more easily make sense of episodes such as the Dutch cartoons uproar, or more recently, of the shooting of the US Ambassador to Libya, as a response to religious outrage over perceived slurs to Mohammad. Although positive political and economic rights are being demanded, the rebellions must be seen as a qualified re-alignment of the relation of the secular in relation to religion. What are not being granted are rights of open expression in relation to sacred values or texts. In the Arab world, the type of liberty being called for excludes such hurts. As a further corollary of course, the parallel rise of violence concurrent with the demand for rights testifies to the absence of any institutionalized principle or mechanism which has agreed recognition or acceptance for the management or processing of such discontents. That rights should be more precisely defined is perhaps the lesson here that the West should contemplate. Simply defined freedom to act within the law raises the question as to what sort of law and on what basis it should be understood. Needless hurt to other peoples’ religious views in acts of gross insensitivity by proclamations through the public media must surely be seen as akin to gross violations of legitimate privacy, whether via phone hacking or with the assistance of a powerful telephoto lens. In this sense, we could say that the new demands of the Arab world should not be read as a blanket demand for liberty which tolerates either cultural or social insensitivity or hurt and that violence will be a likely result of such reckless irresponsibility. The liberty and rights sought can thus be seen to constitute a necessary realignment of the secular and the religious at a particular historical juncture without eradicating the demands for respect, responsibility, caution, and care.
Within this context we can understand also what perhaps may emerge in respect to democracy. If our analysis is correct, then calls for greater democracy are of a potentially different sort to those models that have been implemented in the West. What is being called for is more limited mechanisms of transparency and legitimacy concerning political representation and state power, and individual rights and freedoms must be interpreted in this light. Freedom in this sense should not be seen as countenancing individual rights to openly trade in insulting or insensitive religious criticisms. In this sense there is a clear distinction between the type of freedom being called for in the Arab protests and the way freedom is understood in the West. Individual rights should not be confused with collective cultural or religious rights. What is clearly needed here is the development in the West of more nuanced rules and theory which can distinguish these different types of freedom. Should freedom of individuals allow open rights for anyone to promote grossly insensitive and abusive discourse against other peoples’ religious or cultural lifestyles? Should such matters be left to individual legal remedy through such institutions as libel actions through the courts and be beyond the intervention of states? For Barack Obama to simply shrug, and say ‘that is not how our legal system works’ as a way of acknowledging the impotence of the state with respect to the release in the US of an abhorrent and insensitive film slurring Islamic beliefs may no longer be sufficient! Or can a meaningful conception of liberty with suitably restricted focus on socioeconomic, cultural and political rights be developed which can also prohibit individuals or groups from insensitive and socially irresponsible and provocative commentary likely to inflame protests and engender global discord? In other words, can we justify individual or sub-group restrictions over such things as criticizing religion, being publicly insensitive to other groups’ religious or cultural codes, or enforcing community architectural norms against libertarian economic ‘ínvaders’ from the West who expect to be able to transgress age-old community norms concerning such treasured values and codes? Seen in this light, it may be that what transpires in the Arab Spring, a protest now spreading throughout the Islamic world, is an attempt to balance the values of liberty with community responsibility in a way altogether different to what we in the West have historically understood that dividing line to be.
There are many other misunderstandings associated with the vagueness and generality of the concept of democracy. It is certainly far from clear that any simple, liberal-capitalist, Western, view of democracy can be straightforwardly exported to other parts of the world. Much clarification is indeed called for. Even in Western political theory, democracy is far from being a straightforward doctrine without ambiguities. There is always a potential problem with a conception of democracy as ‘rule by the people,’ lest, as has frequently happened, the majority in a society should act in illiberal or grossly unjustified ways. It is in addressing this type of problem that the philosopher Ronald Dworkin, in his recent book, Justice for Hedgehogs (2011, pp. 384 – 388), rejects majoritarianism as the basis for democratic decision-making, preferring what he calls a ‘partnership’ model of democracy. On this basis, he is willing to support practices, such as judicial review, which do not have ‘majority support’ or which are not subject to ‘electoral validation.’ The argument against majority decision-making is simply that majorities are not always right. He imagines a majority supporting a policy of ‘sticking pins into babies for fun’ as an obvious example of his objection in principle to majority rule. Expressed more philosophically, he means they sometimes depart from what is for him the essential normative principle upon which democracy is based: “the equal concern and respect that the community together, as the custodian of coercive power, has for each of its members” (p. 390). Yet the ‘partnership model’ that Dworkin prefers to the majoritarian model seems poorly defined at the level of practicalities to ensure such an outcome of equal respect. For Dworkin, “the partnership conception of democracy…holds that self-government means government not by the majority of people exercizing authority over everyone but by the people as a whole acting as partners” (p. 384). As Dworkin expands:
This must inevitably be a partnership that divides over policy, of course, since unanimity is rare in political communities of any size. But it can be a partnership nevertheless if the members accept that in politics they must act with equal respect and concern for all other partners (p. 384)
This explanation obscures what must be seen as a nagging doubt that Dworkin’s ‘partnership’ is one between majorities of ordinary people and established policy elites. This means that the conception of legitimacy, as embodying the principle of equal concern and respect, is what is central to the partnership conception, and that majorities’ decisions are only acceptable if they accord with such specialist groups made up predominantly, for Dworkin, of lawyers and judges. Some people might think that this is a bit like having the wealthy and powerful keep an eye on things! Specifically, says Dworkin, it means respect for the rule of law, and that the law be “consistent with [a] good-faith understanding of what every citizen’s dignity requires” (p. 384). While one would like to agree with Professor Dworkin that some principle or mechanism must be introduced in order to safeguard against possible abuses of majoritarian rule, the extent to which his ‘partnership’ conceals the ever-present possibility of rule by elites, with strange echoes of Plato’s class of guardian rulers, supposedly imbued with democratic values of respect and equality, leaves a great deal to be desired.
Arab communities and non-Western societies generally, would likely be suspicious of Dworkin’s so-called ‘partnership’ model as yet another version of Western hegemony seeking to discipline the Middle East according to Western standards, in what may well be claimed is a new form of imperialism. It would be better, we think, to accept that majoritarian democracy is itself a limited discourse which well may permit abuses, and to seek to forge consensus between West and East at a purely ethical or normative level of adherence to a global public good. While this would require a robust global discussion as to which elements and values were to be included and excluded, it is not judges who should constitute the partners with majorities, but rather globally constituted committees made up of ordinary citizens of the world, operating through already established structures such as the United Nations. Such a global public good based on what best continues life for all, at an abstract enough level to accommodate different cultural groups’ aspirations, comprising such elements as health, parrhèsia, or liberty of thought and action, legal access to institutions of support and guidance, respect for other values and principles, tolerance towards difference, education and training, and so on. The Arab Spring shows a new consensus on these values now emerging in a global world more interconnected than ever before under the impetus of new technologies of communication and publicity. Although the crucial issues and values will be mediated both culturally and historically in very different ways, hopefully they permit enough convergence to enable globally constituted panels to express judgments upon the practical workings of democracy if and when it errs. Rather than a partnership between different status and employment groups from different levels of society, as Dworkin suggests, what rather is required are overlapping networks representing the diversity of the world’s citizens organized variously in a plurality of cross-checking constituencies (ccc) and structures (ccs). What is needed to consolidate the expectations and stirrings of the Arab world then is the participation of refereeing bodies that can be seen to represent a genuine national non-partisanship in the opinions rendered.