How would you describe the tension between authoritarianism and democratisation in the middle-east?
By its very nature, the Middle East is a conflicted and confusing part of the world, lacking a clear and coherent identity but holding major global political power due to both its historical significance and current economic power. Even its name is an anomaly – it is axiomatically impossible for something to be middle but also eastern, and to those in China or India or Japan the region would be better off deemed the ‘Middle West’. The region speaks around sixty languages and is made up of nearly a hundred ethnic groups, and has been under the control of massive empires – from the Achaemenids to the Ottomans – from late years BC. Therefore, it perhaps makes sense that the dominant way in which modern states have attempted to corral their citizens is with authoritarian regimes, which can be defined as ‘any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2019) as attempting to appeal to a large number of different ethnic groups for long-term electoral success would surely prove very difficult. Democratisation, contrarily, can be defined as ‘The introduction of a democratic system or democratic principles’ (Oxford English Dictionary 2019), which itself neatly described by Abraham Lincoln as ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. Democracy not only relates to a system of government, however, but typically a series of liberal values that follow with it such as freedom of speech, freedom to protest and freedom from oppression – essentially, the antithesis of authoritarianism. This essay will attempt to show how the tension between authoritarianism and democratisation within the Middle East can be described as ‘reaching an apex’, with increasing acts of democratisation met with equal acts of authoritarianism as differing groups within the region try to win the war of ideas. This essay will use two examples; firstly that of Iran, who have a semi-democratic system with an elected President and Parliament, but an unelected Supreme Leader and a monitored list of candidates who can stand, and a highly active and well documented youth generation who are becoming more westernised and more open to democratisation then their older counterparts. The second example is of Israel, who have long been seen as a beacon of hope for democracy within the Middle East as their political power is invested in a fully elected Parliament. Israel, however, is becoming increasingly authoritarian towards those in the Palestinian territories that they occupy, and whilst Jews within Palestine can vote in Israeli elections (as Israeli policy tends to dictate everyday actions within Palestine), Arabs cannot. These two examples have been chosen because of their altering tendencies: Iran, an authoritarian state whose people are becoming increasingly democratised, and Israel, a democratic state becoming increasingly authoritarian, are perfect microcosms for the wider tension between authoritarianism and democratisation within the Middle East.
Iran is one of the most interesting conflicts between long-standing authoritarianism and the want for democratisation within the Middle East. Ever since the revolution in 1979, political factions have been warring (in the intellectual sense) over what they want the country to be. The election of Ali Khamenei – by the highly-vetted Assembly of Experts – after the death of original Supreme Leader Khomeini, was decided upon instead of a leadership council made up of three people. Due to Iran’s lack of clearly defined political parties, and instead its rough system of factional politics, Khamenei’s appointment created a system in which ‘the Islamic Republic had no institutional mechanisms for distributing power among its various factions’ (Gheissari & Nasr 2004). This, in turn, meant that ‘The function that should have been performed by internal party elections was thus performed by general elections’ and ‘the regularity of general elections has institutionalized the place of the parliament in the Islamic Republic.’ Therefore, the need to distribute power to satisfy all factions – as well as adhering to Shi’a Islamic principles – without private institutions in place, has meant that electoral politics and parliamentary behaviour are in Iran’s DNA. (Gheissari & Nasr 2004). Herein lies the tension between authoritarianism and democracy; the Iranian people get to vote every four years for their President and their legislative assembly, in elections that have been viewed as largely
untampered with and legitimate, but authoritarianism ensures that ‘Their scope, however, is sharply limited by the Guardian Council, which is considered to be aligned with Mr. Khamenei, blocking all candidates who stray too far from the council’s preferences.’ (Fisher 2017) Candidates only approved by the unelected Guardian Council of the Constitution – half of which are directly appointed by the also unelected Supreme Leader, and the other half of which are chosen by the elected Parliament from a list created by the head of the Judiciary (who is also selected by the unelected Supreme Leader) – can stand for both President and Parliament, resulting in elections ‘that will be too restrictive to risk substantial change but open enough that Iranians, who expect a say, will accept their government as legitimate.’ (Fisher 2017). Fisher surmises it well when he writes that ‘The country’s elections may be just another venue in which factions can compete. But they can still give citizens a voice, albeit one much weaker than in full democracies.’ (Fisher 2017). These elections are just as important to Iranians as elections are to those in fully democratic nations, with journalists describing ‘scenes during city council elections in the city of Tabriz, with candidates distributing business cards on the street, trying to rally supporters in the days before election day’ (Dubin 2017), actions that are typical and legitimate of usual political process. Again, however, acts of democracy like these are countered by elements of authoritarianism even enshrined in the constitution, an example of which ‘can be found in Principle 26, which asserts that ‘the formation of parties, groups and political and professional institutions… is free, provided they do not harm the principles of freedom, sovereignty, national unity, Islamic standards and the foundation of the Islamic republic’.’ (Owen 2004: 84) That principle is so ambiguous in its wording that enforcement of it comes down to individual interpretation, and when power is invested ultimately in the Supreme Leader it can become just another avenue for authoritarian power to be wielded.
Moreover, Iran is undergoing a well-documented generational gap, with its 20 and 30 year olds – including those who will become part of this group over the coming years – becoming increasingly westernised and increasingly more liberal, discontent not with Islam but with the policies of an authoritarian regime that values Islamic values above all else. They are seen as ‘a generation born from a system that fails to represent it, and which feels deeply alienated vis-à-vis the ruling establishment.’ (Morgana 2018) Traditional Islamic custom, such as the hijab, ‘has now become a mere accoutrement to female dress for many women’ whilst ‘Men have started wearing gold jewellery in direct defiance of Islamic tradition.’ Issues such as clothing might not seem like the biggest acts of democratisation, but ‘these personal decisions are subtle means of social protest against government regulation.’ (Beeman 2016) This is a generation that is disenfranchised by the conservatism that has ruled Iran largely since the revolution in 1979 (‘a bill proposing only a moderate act of rural redistribution involving uncultivated land was held up as un-Islamic by the Council of Guardians from 1980 onwards.’) (Owen 2004: 84), that reacted incredibly negatively to the impeding on their democracy that was thought to have occurred in the 2009 Presidential election, and one that sees the US ‘as an ideal state of freedom and prosperity, however much their rulers bombard them with anti-American slogans.’ (Khalaf 2015) What this does not suggest is that they see America as perfect, or that they see the west as exponentially ‘better’ than Iran from a cultural standpoint but that democracy is better than authoritarianism and that choice is better than enforcement. This is where the real tension between authoritarianism and democracy is within the Middle East, and why it can be described as ‘reaching an apex’, because those who will come to rule Iran and shape it twenty or thirty years from now are becoming increasingly disenfranchised with the Islamic Republic and with authoritarian rule. The Khamenei generation surely knows this and knows that, when they die, those who replace them will not be of the same ilk or have the same fealty towards the Islamic Republic as they do. The tension between the two systems is in the Supreme Leader’s want to ensure his realm of thought carries on dominating the Iranian political sphere long after he is gone, but he has to make the younger generations believe this without further disenfranchising them by forcing it upon them, which is what caused their rebellious nature in the first place. It is a clear example of a wider feeling amongst the body politic in the Middle East, for democratisation not simply of the political system itself but of the society at large. What this new Iranian generation wants is not the disposition of the Ayatollah and a new, shiny Federal Republic, it is the ability to feel safe in its economic situation, to make their own decisions on their own lives such as whether they attend university, whether they get married, and a want to live without fear of the regime taking issue with anything and everything they do. This is where the tension between authoritarianism and democratisation lies in the Middle East: between a people who favour democracy for its effects on the economy and the society, and a ruling
class that will do everything they can to keep power clasped firmly within their hands, including seceding rights to people and accepting that the world changes – much like the Islamic Republic has with the hijab becoming a fashion peace, manteaux becoming more colourful, and social networks such as Viber and Telegram not being rigorously policed.
In alterity to the Iranian dilemma stands the Israeli issue (no, not that one). The situation within Israel is highly complex, that is well established. Not only are there mass tensions between Jews and Arabs in the region, with constant warring over Jerusalem and the occupied Palestinian territories, but there are secular tensions within the wider Jewish community itself between the biggestgroups of the Jewish diaspora such as the Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. For a majority of the time since its inception, ‘The debate about democratic exceptionalism in the Middle East has regularly cited Israel as the only truly representative example of democracy polity in the region.’ (Milton-Edwards 2011: 192) This is true to some extent as Israel is the only country in the region that power invested solely in a fully elected Parliament, as well with all members of the state allowed to vote and without significant suspicion of rigging – seen to be proven by shock election victories such as Labour’s in 1999. The problem with Israeli democracy, however, comes from Israel’s imperialist (or survivalist, depending on your perspective) tendencies towards the Palestinian state. Due to the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, within these regions ‘Israel and its army are responsible for everything from road infrastructure, deciding who may live where, who may build where and what, who is allowed to move between different parts of the territory and when, who is allowed in and out of the West Bank, who is allowed to hold a political protest, what the laws are and how they are enforced, and whether they will ever be granted independence.’ (Omer-Man 2019) Arabs within Palestine are not allowed to vote in Israeli elections, despite their lives being governed in the aforementioned ways by whichever party holds power within Israel. Alternatively, ‘In the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, where Israel exercises absolute and direct control on a daily basis, 650,000 Jewish settlers can vote while 2,953,000 Palestinians in the exact same territory cannot.’ (Omer-Man 2019) This, in itself, is almost a direct admission of the Israeli government’s belief in racial superiority, banning one set of people within a territory it controls from voting as their votes would not be in adherence with the safety of the future of Israel. Using criteria such as race to determine whether a person can or cannot vote in their elections simply means that Israel cannot justifiably be deemed a full democracy, and coupled with the government’s actions towards the Palestinian peoples in Palestinian land highlights its increasingly authoritarian nature. What these actions do is create the ability for the theoretical debate to be taken away from Israel being a democracy and instead be framed in a different way. For example, Sammy Smooha says it is best defined as an ‘ethnic democracy’, where democracy does exist but ‘the dominance of a certain ethnic group is institutionalized along with democratic procedures’ whilst ‘minorities are disadvantaged but can avail themselves of democratic means to negotiate better terms of co-existance’ (Smooha 1990: 412). Ascad Ghanem prefers the term ‘ethnic state’, writing on how Israel ‘is not a democracy, if our criterion is the ethnic preference it shows for Jews. It is, instead, a textbook example of an ethnic state, applying sophisticated policies of inclusion and exclusion toward the Arab minority.’ (Ghanem 1998: 443) Even stronger damnation is that of Oren Yiftachel, when he wrote that ‘the Israeli polity is not governed by a democratic regime, but rather an “ethnocracy” which denotes a non-democratic rule for and by a dominant ethnic group, within the state and beyond its borders’ (Cited in Milton-Edwards 2011: 193). ‘Beyond its borders’ is crucial wording in Yiftachel’s theory of ethnocracy as it adjusts the focus of the debate from the actual defined borders of Israel towards the occupied Palestinian territories that Israel has control over, and thus is able to make a more convincing argument about whether one can truly define Israel as a democracy or not. Israel’s increasing shift towards authoritarianism strengthens its grip over democratisation within the region; once the beacon of hope for democracy within the Middle East, Israel’s shift over time heightens the tension between authoritarianism and democratisation within the region. The actual state of Israel is still the most democratic in the region from a social standpoint, with its Jewish communities allowed freedoms in a largely similar way to those of full democracies in the global north. As the historical outlier in the region, therefore, whilst the absolute monarchies and Supreme Leaders of the region are having to make concessions of democracy just to keep their people in favour, Israel has the ability to enact authoritarian policies and use the other states to not only justify it, but learn from. In turn, this also keeps the balance between authoritarianism and democratisation largely the same within the region
as a whole, as a shift towards a more democratic Middle East can be seen to have been countered by its traditionally democratic state. The tension between the two theories of governance appears to be completely in balance, with democracy visibly gaining ground in the old authoritarian regimes but authoritarianism still being the dominant theory, which is being given extra credence by Israel’s increased authoritarianism towards those in the Palestinian territories.
To conclude, the tension between authoritarianism and democratisation within the Middle East can best be described as reaching an apex, with every concession by governments, and every contrary act of cracking down upon democratic values, being crucial to the future direction of the entire region. When Israel, this state seen as the beacon of hope for democracy in the region for so long, is becoming one of the most actively authoritarian governments in the region, it gives the authoritarianism that has dominated the region for so long even more of a grasp over the theoretical debate. Alternatively, when Iran, a state almost synonymous with authoritarianism long before its revolution in 1979, is undergoing a clear societal shift in which its younger generations are demanding greater freedoms and acting more and more like their western counterparts with each passing day, it is clear that democratisation still holds credence within the region and will not just cower to the regimes that are attempting to quell it. It is almost as if this debate is on a balance board, with authoritarianism holding down its end for years upon years whilst democratisation quietly put pressure on to balance it out. But now, each act of democratisation is met with an equal act of authoritarianism in another state. Of course, this is not a claim that Iran will become a fully democratic state within a generation, or that one can call it a democratic state now, just as much as this is not a claim that Israel’s parliamentary democracy is a sham. It is also not a claim that the Middle East, as a region, is democratic – it would be asinine to suggest that when Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman etc… exist. What it is saying, however, is that Israel is as authoritarian as it ever has been and Iran’s society is stuck in a generational war with one side leaning towards democratisation and the other happy with the Islamic Republic. These examples are microcosms of the region as a whole, with a war of ideas raging between people and their governments. One may fear that the Arab Spring was the start of it, and the potential for more civil unrest is likely. If that happens, the winning side will be the one whose ideas will continue to rule the region for many decades more.
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