Democracy is not doing well in the MENA and the WANA regions and political parties are the main casualties, surviving through life-support mechanisms but failing to make inroads in their respective national political contexts. According to the latest BBC news Arabic’s Arab Barometer network survey (2022), a great majority of the respondents in Arab countries prove to be highly disillusioned about democracy: around 70 percent of public opinion claims to be “more interested in effective government than its form”. That is, willing to subscribe to whatever form power takes as long as it solves the most pressing and structural problems, such as economic growth and political stability.
Apparently, democracy is no longer the best political model to strive for. In this sense, the lesson learnt through the Arab Spring is crucial: most citizens of Arab countries – both the first (in 2011, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain) and second (in 2019, Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq) revolutionary waves – had lost all faith in political change and are placing all their hopes on economic improvement.
However, Jamal and Robbins relate this trend not only to the major blow after the defeat of popular protests in 2011, but also to the general dynamics prevailing in international relations. I.e., China offers an authoritarian model able to “lift more than 800 million people out of extreme poverty, (…) just the kind of economic transformation that many across the Middle East are desperate to achieve”. In a Middle East that is rapidly evolving and partially neglected by the US many states could opt for a development model focused on economic growth without policy reforms, quite a far cry from EU’s resounding ENPI “More for more” principle. The European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI) makes financial assistance conditional on policy reforms, such as decentralization, fight against corruption and accountability at all levels, including the local one.
According to the Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” annual 2023 report, which monitors civil and political liberties around the world, only one country in the MENA/WANA region, Iraq, scored better than it did a decade ago, while Türkiye, Egypt and Libya dropped heavily in the charts. The reasons are manifold. Tunisia’s collapse is the most recent, as it dates back only to the 2021 “presidential coup” – when Kais Saied dismissed parliament and concentrated power in his hand. Also in 2021, the West Bank saw a surge of authoritarianism by Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who indefinitely postponed the May 2021 legislative elections and strengthened his own power by tightening control over the judiciary and setting up a new High Judicial Council chaired by himself.
Two years earlier, Algeria’s elections – following the so-called “Revolution of Smiles” (al-Hirak, the movement) – after successfully ousting former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika intent on running for a fifth presidential term, failed to dismantle the regime, registering a very low turnout (38.8 percent) in the latest disputed 2019 presidential elections. The same year, in October 2019, cross-sectarian demonstrations in Lebanon failed to gain momentum when the people was united in their quest for political change, paving the way for the resurgence of the old sectarian system after the August 2020 port’s explosion. Dire circumstances exploited, in the absence of a strong state, by sectarian parties to fill the vacuum by providing basic social needs in exchange for a restoration of sectarian politics.
Going back in time, in 2016 Türkiye suffered a military coup attempt followed by a media crackdown and a wave of mass arrests, with some 150,000 public officers removed from their posts and many journalists and media workers jailed on pre-trial arrest. There are no signs that the recent re-election of President Erdogan would turn the tide on civil liberties. While in Egypt, officially still a multiparty system, political parties have played no role in any presidential elections since 2013 (i.e., in the 2014 and 2018 elections), while formally continuing to hold regular parliamentary elections registering very low participation and a high level of public disenchantment.
Ranking last in terms of political freedom are Syria, Yemen, and Libya, still torn by civil or internecine wars, where no major political space is left for democratic parties to promote an alternative agenda until security and territorial integrity are restored. However, even countries generally deemed as stable democracies, such as Morocco and Israel, are set to decline in Freedom House’s rankings. Israel is currently rocked by huge anti-government demonstrations protesting the “overhaul clause” and shielding the independence of the judiciary from the executive. On the other hand, Morocco’s constitutional parliamentary system has shown all its limits, with its nominal ruling power – the Islamist Justice and Development Movement (PJD) – unable to confront the Makhzen, the monarchy, on the most sensitive issues of its core business (national economic strategy, foreign relations, and the role of Islam within the educational system). The PJD ended up losing 90 percent of its electoral base in 2021 after a decade in power.
Similar to that of Morocco is the case of Jordan: in the Hashemite Kingdom, the 2011-amended Constitution assigns only a “marginal competence” to the Parliamentary Assembly, specifying that political parties would have no influence on security and foreign policy affairs, and that elected government would have no saying in the selection a group of senior official positions such as the Director of Public Security, the Grand Mufti and the Chief Justice. Finally, in those GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, where limited democratic practices are allowed and consultative assemblies are elected, such as Kuwait, there is an ongoing tug-of-war between the royal family and elected politicians, stemming from the standoff following the death of the later ruler Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Sabah in 2020.
This broad overview of the state of political and civil liberties in the MENA/WANA region portrays both Arab and non-Arab countries equally struggling with democratic practices beyond the ballot box. At the core of this crisis in political faith in democracy surely lies the gradual but relentless demise of political parties as reliable organizations capable of acting as intermediaries in politics. For example, capable of channeling popular support and linking common people with the major centers of power, of gathering a solid constituency around a coherent agenda, as much as willing to cooperate effectively with other parties in a multi-party system to build stable coalition governments.
Professor Marina Ottaway summarizes this point writing that “Political parties are weak in the entire Arab world, …but nowhere else have they abdicated a meaningful role as completely as those in Egypt”. Indeed, Egypt is the poorest example, that of a counterrevolution that got the better of everything. The Egyptian political scientist Amr Hamzawy, who ran as an independent in Egypt’s first post-revolutionary elections in 2011, claims that political parties in all the Middle East -with a few exceptions, such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel- are everywhere on the demise, as they historically failed in bridging the rural-urban divide and socio-economic cleavages, traditionally representing only the respective urban middle classes. Political parties perform better in countries, such as Iraq and Lebanon, where they could still reproduce the sectarian lines running in their respective societies, but even in those cases, they only succeed in keeping their constituencies in closed ranks, hardly challenged the status quo. They rather preferred to uphold the existing balance of power based on each group’s demographic size, financial and military capabilities, and the external alliances.
In this regard, the example of Iraq is eye-opening. There, an ethno-sectarian-based system of power-sharing, known as Muhasasa Ta’ifia (sectarian apportionment), is underpinning the post-2003 political order. The sectarian system in force in Iraq secures the division of resources amongst the political parties and their respective groups regardless of the elections’ outcome, de facto emptying the electoral process of any meaning, and the system turns political parties more reliant on each other than accountable to their voters.
In addition, a new dynamic plays out in the Arab world, where modernization is nowadays more driven by the Gulf states than former pan-Arabist and post-colonial Maghreb countries. Gulf cooperation countries (GCC) display a model of state-sponsored, top-down development where political parties – including Islamist movements – have no saying and democracy is no longer a model. To the contrary, GCC reject political liberalization while favoring economic globalization and development, adopting a pragmatic and flexible approach that sees no contradiction in pushing for technological progress without caving in to democracy. GCC even want to prove that their autocratic systems could make better use of their economic power to improve standards of living of their general population, investing on education, health, and urban development more than any democratic system accountable to its own people. In Maghreb countries, where political parties used to be strong between the 1950s and 1970s, but turned marginal nowadays, the GCC state-led development model is always more appealing.
Current parties in the MENA/WANA region experience a deep crisis. Confronted with a young population (60 percent of which is under 25 years old) who did not experience either the “populist single-parties era” (1952-80), or “the post-populist era” (1980-2010) – as defined by Hinnenbusch (2005) – MENA/WANA public opinions tend in their majority to identify the root causes of all their nations’ backwardness with the political fragmentation and institutional helplessness peculiar of multi-party systems, seeing the easiest way out in the preference for strong leaders. With an already bleak economic outlook worsened by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they resent more the food and energy crisis than any other political challenge, being ready to sacrifice anything in exchange for security and development.
It is not surprising then that political parties in the Arab world will not easily do a comeback in the next future and are actually scaling down their activities, mostly giving up running campaigns outside major urban centers and reaching out to ordinary people while dodging their demands. In monarchical oil rentier systems or republican military authoritarian regimes alike, there is usually an already-set agenda agreed upon at the central level where no external inputs are either encouraged or examined. Moreover, these parties – Islamist, liberal and Leftist ones alike – do not benefit of any political credit, as they cannot lay claim to the Arab Springs, ushered by young political activists gathering around social media platforms and not originated within their ranks. While secular parties are often associated to the “old politics”, having proven able to play along with those same dictatorial systems young activists in 2011 wanted to tear down, Islamist parties are blamed for their poor economic and government performances after briefly coming to power in the aftermath of the revolutions. In addition, both currently lack any organizational capacity to mobilize mass voters but, most of all, the energy and moral strength to fight and provide an alternative to the authoritarian regimes they lived in, whose image abroad they even contribute to clean up by taking part in fake democratic initiatives, such as the national dialogue in Egypt (August 2022).
Yet, if political parties do no longer act as a drive belt for people’s instances to be heard in the upper echelons of politics and if the political system is choked and impervious to change, the youth of the region would increasingly lose all sense in signing up for party memberships and, in absence of a legitimate way to channel their frustrations and ideas, they would either bow down before any power’s request or take up arms against the regimes as the single viable protest option left to them.
Cover Photo: Tunisian workers shoot slogans against government in front to UGTT headquarter during the celebration the revolution anniversary on January 14, 2018 in Tunis (credits: Anis Mili/AFP).
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