May 21, 2024
Democracy in the (Arab) World

Democracy in the (Arab) World

“The problematics of democracy in the Arab World”[1] is an essay by Syrian intellectual and thinker George Tarabishi, published by Dar al saqi in the collection “Hartaqat”, pp 9-18, and translated with permission from Dar al saqi, by William Tamplin. This translation is published with permission from Dar al saqi and William Tamplin on RAYA agency’s website under the Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 DEED

The picture features protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo, April 1, 2011. Photo: Lilian Wagdy

In December 2020, William Tamplin, a translator and admirer of Tarabishi’s work reached out, asking for permission to translate his essay “The problematics of democracy in the Arab world”. The publication of this essay on RAYA agency’s website is the result of his passion and dedication.

While the essay below tackles in depth the challenges of democracy in Arab countries, it is also timely in a much wider sense. It can be seen as sending out a warning regarding the ways in which democracy may be threatened in other parts of the world as well. In Tarabishi’s words:

“A society that wants democracy in its politics but does not want a democracy in thought, and certainly does not want a democracy in religion, and naturally does not want a democracy in sexual relations—that society both deems democracy simple and simultaneously attempts to reduce it.”

Democracy in the Arab world, by Georges Tarabishi, translated by William Tamplin

In the Arab cultural sphere – and let’s set aside the Arab political sphere – one of the most insistent issues these days is the problem of democracy.[2] The affirmation of democracy’s problematic character is borne out by the fact that the banner of democracy is being raised in the Arab world today as if it were a new redemptive ideology. The Arabs – or, Arab intellectuals, anyway – are betting on democracy today just as, not long ago, they bet on socialism and, not long before that, they bet on Arab Unity. Given the challenge of Arab backwardness and the humiliation stemming from the “narcissistic wound,”[3] which has bled, unbandaged and unhealed, ever since the Arabs’ discovery of Western progress; given the deepening chasm separating Arab societies from those that spurred the rise of modernity and welcomed it; and given the failure of Arab nationalist and revolutionary-leftist ideologies—given all this, democracy has been transformed in the Arab imagination into an alternative watchword, an “Open, Sesame!” that will unlock the intricate cave of modernity and bring about a wondrous leap forward – without effort, inconvenience, or time! – from the reality of our backwardness to the ideal of progress.

Miracles are necessarily hidden within every redemptive ideology. Contrary to the logic of the miracle, however, here I will lay out the following six issues, or problematics, surrounding the issue of democracy in the Arab world.

First – The Problematic of the Key and the Crown

Is democracy the magical master key that will open every locked door? Or is democracy instead the crown which rewards the organic development of the society in question and which is used as a standard to gauge the level of that society’s development?

In other words, is democracy a precondition? Or is it also a result—a product of the development of a given society?

The following is an axiom: In any organic historical process, the condition cannot be separated from the result, or the result from the condition. Democracy is such a process. However, the redemptive-ideological point of view, which makes democracy into a master key, voids the dialectical relationship between the condition and the result. Instead, it makes the former – democracy – into an absolute precondition. From the perspective of redemptive ideology, democracy functions as an absolute. Democracy is the prior condition for every result that succeeds it. Without it, there is nothing; in it, there is everything. It is a panacea. And the idea that a sick body politic might not tolerate democracy, even as an antidote, is never entertained. Even if we were to suppose that democracy were an all-purpose antidote, we should recognize that democracy comes with its own set of woes. In the birthplace of democracy, and at certain moments in the history of Western Europe, the exercise of democracy could be described as hellish, not heavenly. Here we could cite American democracy in the McCarthy Era, French democracy in the era of the Fourth Republic, and Italian democracy when the Christian Democrats held a monopoly on power. Today we need only turn our gaze to what is happening in Russia to understand that democracy could serve as a carrier of new diseases when applied mechanically and lowered onto the stage of the society in question in the manner of an external machine from above, in which the gods used to descend to the stage of Greek theater: a deus ex machina.

Second – The Problematic of the Fruit and the Seed

Is democracy a fruit ripe for the picking? Or is it also a seed needing to be planted?

This problematic exists independent of the first one and develops it in the direction of an economy of labor and production: The mere statement that “democracy is a seed before it is a fruit” means that, in order to grow and ripen, democracy requires effort, labor, work on the individual’s self, and improvement in the soil of society. The amount of effort required may be double when the seed of democracy is cultivated through acculturation.[4] When the seed of democracy is cultivated outside its original soil – and when the effort needed to care for it is not redoubled – then only the more rapidly will that soil become barren, uncultivated wasteland or toxic herbage.

It’s not difficult to see the crime committed by a redemptive ideology when it makes democracy into both a fruit ripe for the picking and an object gazed longingly at by the wretched of the Arab earth, as if democracy were manna from heaven. In this case, the mistake committed lies in believing in the economy of the miracle. It lies in supposing that democracy not only doesn’t require effort but, indeed, exempts one from it. The mistake lies in presuming that, one day, Arab societies will suddenly wake up with democracy, in democracy, to find themselves unburdened from a despicable, chaotic disunity, from backwardness; extricated from the deepening abyss of the civilizational lag; and transported to the vanguard of advanced societies. I don’t dispute the fact that democracy is one of the conditions of lift-off, as it were. Yet it is a necessary condition without being a sufficient one. Indeed, the condition of democracy is itself conditional. And that’s what leads us to the third of democracy’s problematics.

Third – The Problematic of the Key to the Key

Before democracy can serve as a key to all the other doors, it first needs another key to unlock it. And perhaps the door of democracy will only open after all the other doors have themselves been opened. Or, at least, it will open synchronously with the other doors. This affirmation of the conditionality of democracy doesn’t negate its effective role as one of the conditions of lift-off. But it does negate its deployment as a magical master key that will effect the miracle of a surprise leap forward from our reality of backwardness to the ideal of progress. Without delving into every aspect of the conditionality of democracy, let’s stop to consider just one of them which seems to be more absent than the rest of them in our Arab consciousness. By that, I mean the condition of the societal bearer (Träger)[5] of democracy.

Despite the Greek roots of its name and some of mechanisms of its practice, democracy – and here I mean strictly representative democracy – is an invention of modernity. Democracy is an invention of the social class that produced modernity: the bourgeoisie. Without claiming to encompass all of historical experience, I can say with relative certainty that democracy, if not necessarily present wherever a bourgeoisie exists, is absent wherever a bourgeoisie is absent. Here we stand before a law. If it’s not a law in the natural sense, then it’s a law in the historical sense. By surveying the historical examples of the experiences of Soviet socialism and Third-Worldism, I must conclude that all efforts to build democracy alongside the removal of the bourgeoisie have ended in failure. Marxism has been primarily responsible for stripping the bourgeoisie of its historical importance. So then, let’s draw on the vocabulary of Marxism to state that the bourgeoisie is the natural bearer of democracy; in its absence, democracy ceases to exist. It is on this plane, this level, that we must investigate the conundrum of democracy in the Arab world. The buds of democracy bloomed a bit following Arab national independence movements, when the bourgeoisie was (bud-like in its turn) still historically operative. However, the chain of national revolutions and leftist and nationalist military coups that swept most Arab countries dug the grave of both democracy and the bourgeoisie in one fell swoop. Even after the coupist regimes’ inadequacy was revealed, even after their total inability to close the civilizational gap was proved – the latter being the promise on which those regimes’ legitimacy rested – antibourgeois ideology still prevails among circles of the new Arab democrats. Ironically, these democrats have rediscovered the merits of democracy only after their bitter disappointment with the revolutions and revolutionary ideologies that set fire to the phases of history[6]—most especially, the bourgeois-democratic phase. I don’t mean to disregard all the legitimate ideological criticism and derision that hangs over the Arab bourgeoisie has been used to justify its expulsion from the stage of history. I may not even dispute the soundness of characterizing that bourgeoisie as languid, contracted, servile, sprung from the loins of Arab feudalism, and not adequately separated from the Arab feudal class, in accordance with the supposed paradigm of the European bourgeoisie. Despite all that, I must affirm that, without such a bourgeoisie, even with all its defects and peccadilloes, the phoenix of democracy cannot rise again from its ashes in those Arab societies where democracy’s historical stage was set aflame. As long as the bourgeoisie’s ideological importance as a societal bearer of democracy is not restored, and as long as the bourgeoisie’s proverbial horse is not again placed before the cart of democracy, then the wheels of that cart will continue spinning around an axis that doesn’t exist. As long as that’s the case, the conundrum of democracy will continue reproducing itself endlessly in the Arab societies in question.

But we can go further than that. Arab societies are paying dearly for their removal of the bourgeoisie. They’re paying dearly for stripping the bourgeoisie of its ideological importance, not only in the form of top-down authoritarian regimes inclined to perpetuating themselves in “hereditary republics” but also in the form of bottom-up popular movements, which either promise or threaten totalitarianisms of a new kind, immeasurably more radical in their break with democracy and the values of modernity. In the absence of the bourgeois alternative, popular opposition to current Arab dictatorships must take the form of an inevitable rise in the tide of Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, given the material conditions of the Arab World, which has charted its own course for more than three decades now, such popular opposition means the ideological and cultural deployment of petrodollars for the benefit of Islamic fundamentalism.

Fourth – The Problematic of the Policeman and the Detective

The conundrum of democracy in the Arab world is often portrayed as the inevitable outcome of the divide between the state and the people—of the state’s monopoly on determining the destiny of the people without the people having any corresponding power over controlling the workings of the state. This analysis contains a populist bent. And in light of this analysis, the Arabs’ democracy conundrum is, practically speaking, a mechanical result of the tyranny of the state’s presence, along with the absence – or removal – of self-governance in civil society in most Arab countries.

I won’t debate here the weakness of Arab civil society, its limpness, the limited margin of autonomy of the organizations that speak for it, and those organizations’ likewise limited effectiveness. But I do posit that the conundrum of democracy in the Arab world is attributable not to the power of the state’s presence but, on the contrary – and however much a paradox this may seem – to people’s deeming the state weak and dispensable. In depicting the reality of Arab dictatorships, I tend to reverse the equation—to speak not about the state’s hostility toward civil society but rather about entrenched societal power’s hostility toward the state, and entrenched power’s obstructing the state from performing its role as an organized and rational agent of human society. The duo currently stifling democracy in the majority of Arab societies is that of power and the state, which, so Max Weber assumed, were united, precisely as in Christian matrimony, in “one body.” The primary function of the state, according to the German sociologist, is to constitute the power that monopolizes the exercise of legitimate violence in society. However, the reality is that, in Arabic dictatorial regimes, power breaks the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. Entrenched social power permits itself to exercise violence not only against civil society but also, if necessary, against the state itself. That all occurs, of course, only after such power has stripped violence itself of its legitimate fig leaf.

We could liken this duality of the state and power, in Arab dictatorial regimes, to that of the policeman and the detective. We could represent the Arabs’ democracy conundrum as follows: the policeman is stripped of his service weapon before the detective; the police stations have low ceilings compared to the vaulted arches of the intelligence services; the above-board use of legitimate violence is impeded or hindered in the interest of illegitimate, underground violence. Contrary to certain contemporary analysts’ democratic and populist arguments, I therefore posit that the only way out of the Arabs’ democracy conundrum lies in restoring the importance and consideration due to the state itself, to the rule of law, and to the principle of legitimate violence. Therefore, it’s not sufficient to claim along with those – and how many they are! – who hold that democracy can’t exist with the presence of the detective. We must also add our voice to those – and how few they are in this era—the era of the victory of populist arguments in the Arab cultural sphere! – who hold that democracy also cannot exist without the presence of the policeman. Given the absence of state power, Arab civil society itself – if it exists in the first place – will retreat into the forest.

Fifth – The Problematic of the Wolf and the Sheep

A wave of Arab democratic thought has arisen in the last few decades. This wave is often connected to a populist bent. Populism can be summarized in one phrase: “The state against the nation.” The state is a wolf and the nation is a sheep; the state is Cain and the nation is Abel. Without being either Hegelians or supporters of statolatry, the logic of condemning the state and exonerating the “nation” or the “people” or “civil society” carries within its folds, contrary to its democratic pretensions, the germ of a new totalitarianism. An old example is the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror. A more recent example is the Iranian Revolution during the mullahs’ rule. Of course, the opposite could also be true. For, in more cases than can be counted, the state has been revealed to be a dragon, a power ravenous for power, for continuously amassing yet more power. Yet while democratic theory has come up with some wholesome cures for the cancer of authoritarianism (at the forefront of which are the separation of powers, the rule of law, and human rights), populist democratic thought, the most prevalent type of democratic thinking in the Arab cultural sphere, places all its bets on the people, or on civil society. It demonizes the state and idealizes the nation. According to that line of thinking, the only kind of relationship that can exist between the two is that of executioner and victim.

However, the reality is that Arab civil society – and in the Arab case, it may be more appropriate to call it “familial society” – doesn’t seem to me to be nearly as innocent as the Jacobins were.

I’m not concerned here with diagnosing the diseases of Arab familial society, except from the perspective of their negative impact on enabling a hale-and-hearty democratic life for society. Therefore, let’s confine our discussion to two of those diseases: sectarian factionalism and religious lobbying.

Sectarian factionalism leads to a dangerous defect in applying the principle of democratic representation. And it leads to an even more dangerous defect in the operation of the dialectic of the majority and the minority. If, by definition, democracy is the rule of the greatest number, then the numeral majority is, from the sectarian-factional point of view, a vertical majority, not a horizontal one. It is an essential majority, not a contingent one; a static majority, not a dynamic one. The domain of conflict between the majority and the minority is not to be found in surface-level political organizations such as a parliaments, but in society itself, in its profoundest depths. The majority is not a party- or bloc-based majority that joins together and dissolves within parliament; on the contrary, it is a perpetual societal majority characterized as Muslim or Christian; Sunni or Shiite; Arab, Berber, or Kurdish. Such a complacent, hypostatic understanding of the concept of majority and minority inevitably leads, in electoral practice (the absolutely most important mechanism of democratic life) to unanimous bloc voting, in which the voters support their candidate based on his or her religion, sect, or ethnic group against the candidate who does not share the voters’ religion, sect, or ethnic group. In line with that, we do not find in the Egyptian parliament the presence of a single Copt, just as we do not find in some of the Gulf states’ parliaments – if they exist in the first place – the presence of a single Shiite.[7]

The second disease of Arab familial society – a third of whose males and half of whose females are still illiterate – is represented in the portentous growth of religious lobbies financed by petrodollars. We won’t linger here on the function those lobbies entrust to themselves: reimposing religiosity on the superficial aspects of public and private life. That may be their democratic right as long as they do not resort – and this is an absolute condition – to the use of violence. But we will see that these lobbies enter into direct and violent collision with the principle of principles in the order of democratic values. By that, we mean the freedom of thought and belief. The weapon of takfir – excommunication from Islam – which these lobbies wield, represents, in Arab framework, the highest form of abstract, immaterial violence when not also associated with concrete, material measures that vary from imprisonment and flogging to execution by stoning. If consider the pressure these lobbies exert from below and the pressure Arab regimes’ surveillance and censorship apparatuses exert from above, then we are speaking not only about a siege but about the arrest and detention of the most signal principle of democracy: the freedom of thought and belief. The two forces act like the jaws on a pair of pliers: one jaw being political, governmental surveillance, and the other being religious, popular surveillance. That is, if governmental surveillance does not entrust to itself the surveillance and control of religious dogma under the pressure of the lobbies themselves, or – in the best case – the function of stopping the religious lobbies from going too far. Whatever the case, the banning and confiscation of books from libraries and bookstores (or even before their arrival there through the confiscation of mail), bringing lawsuits against writers and publishers, dragging them to prison, propagating fatwas and verdicts of separation from their spouses (as was the case with Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd) or death threats (as was the case with Sayyid al-Qamani) or even hanging (as was the case with Mahmud Muhammad Taha)—that all has become a familiar sight on the Arab scene. Yet the paradox takes on a ridiculous aspect when it reaches the point that, when those powerful religious lobbies notice any laxity on the part of the executive authorities, it is from parliament – the putative stronghold of democracy – that orders and decrees are issued to ban condemned writings and to prosecute both their authors and the state censors for permitting them to circulate.

Sixth – The Problematic of the Two Boxes

I arrive at a final problematic: The problematic of the ballot box and the box-shaped human skull. In the final analysis, democracy is a culture. It is a coherent order of values. In a society that has not modernized materially or intellectually and that has not completed its educational revolution – and here I must remind you that the number of illiterate Arabs exceeds 100 million! – the first site for democracy to appear is not the ballot box alone but also, and perhaps firstly, people’s heads. Democracy cannot be a schizophrenic system. It cannot be a system of governance without also being a system that structures society. It does not guide relations between the rulers and the ruled without also guiding relations among the ruled themselves. Despite the fact that democracy is, by definition, a system that orders the state, it is in essence a system that orders civil society. Therefore, democracy, in the strictly political sense of the word, does not exist. Democracy is fundamentally a societal phenomenon, and society is, first and foremost, a whole tapestry of mentalities and beliefs. If democratic freedom is to arrive (eventually) at the ballot box, then the first kind of box democracy must emanate from (and in which it must ferment) is the human skull. If the skull and the ballot box are not in accord, the latter will be nothing but a recourse to the tyranny of the numerical majority. If voting is the most important mechanism of democracy, then the electoral machine cannot operate without motor oil to lubricate it. And the motor oil of democracy’s electoral mechanism is its culture.

May we Arabs have the courage to admit the following: if indeed the extant Arab regimes put up roadblocks before the mechanism of democracy, then current Arab societies erect roadblocks before democratic culture. Arab regimes will not tolerate a free election, but Arab societies will not tolerate a free opinion. A society that wants democracy in its politics but does not want a democracy in thought, and certainly does not want a democracy in religion, and naturally does not want a democracy in sexual relations—that society both deems democracy simple and simultaneously attempts to reduce it. And, as the Arabic proverb goes, deeming something easy – as in reductionism – can be deadly!

George Tarabishi was a Syrian philosopher and translator born in 1939 to a Christian family in Aleppo. He attended the University of Damascus, taking a BA in Arabic and an MA in Education before working briefly for Radio Damascus in the 1960s. He moved to Lebanon, and, after the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, to Paris. He lived, worked and wrote in Paris until his death in 2016.

Throughout his career, Tarabishi translated the works of Marx, Lenin, Hegel, Freud and Sartre into Arabic. He also wrote extensively on Arabic fiction, producing a book on God in the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, a feminist critique of the works of female Egyptian novelist Nawal el-Saadawi, and a study of the works of Alberto Moravia, Samira Azzam, Abdel Rahman Munif, and Tawfiq al-Hakim, among others. His understanding of modern Western literary theory was profound, and his application of it to Arabic literature was rigorous. In response to Moroccan philosopher Muhammad Abed el-Jaberi’s four-volume series Critique of Arab Reason, Tarabishi wrote The Problematics of Arab Reason: A Critique of the Critique of Arab Reason (1998), in which he diagnoses the troubling tendency in modern Arab thought to idealize the putatively pristine state of things that existed before contact with the modern West.

Tarabishi’s commitment to thinking critically about democracy in the Arab world was profound. In 1998, Tarabishi engaged in a dialogue on the subject mediated by Sami al-Khasawneh at the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation in Amman, Jordan that was published in the Shoman Foundation’s Monthly Dialogue Series (Silsilat hiwar al-shahr). The same year, his book On Democratic Culture was published by Dar al-Tali‘ah in Beirut. Eight years later, the ideas he explored in those two publications reappeared in the first volume of Heresies: On Democracy, Secularism, Modernity and Arab Reluctance (Hartaqat, vol. 1, 2006), which brought together essays such as “Why It’s Impossible to do Philosophy in Arabic” and “The Arab Soul and the Narcissistic Wound.” “Democracy in the Arab World” diagnoses as a cultural problem the inability of democracy to take root and flourish in the Arab world.

The text of the above essay is now taught at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government by Prof. Tarek Masoud, who reports that “for years, my students had associated the idea that democracy has cultural prerequisites that may not be present in the Arab world with a kind of crude Orientalism. To read an Arab intellectual of Tarabishi’s caliber make the argument really opened their minds and enabled us to have some much deeper conversations.”

William Tamplin is a communications officer in the US Marine Corps and a literary translator from Arabic. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University and was a Fulbright scholar to Jordan. He is the translator of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s novel Cry in a Long Night (London: Darf, 2022) and the translator and editor of Poet of Jordan: The Political Poetry of Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

[1] Translator’s footnote: Tarabishi’s original title is literally translated as: “The Problematics of Democracy in the Arab World” (Ishkaliyyat al-dimuqratiyyah fi al-‘alam al-‘arabi).

[2] Translator’s footnote: Tarabishi’s otherwise lucid essay opens with a very complex, clunky and abstruse paragraph on the distinction between a problem and a problematic. I have chosen to remove it from the main text. Here is that paragraph in its entirety:

First I have to make a semantic clarification. Speaking about the problematics of democracy in the Arab world is not the same as speaking about democracy’s problems. By definition, a problem is any issue that can be treated after study and inquiry, and in a scientific or demonstrative manner. In contrast, a problematic is any issue (or group of issues) that gives rises to responses beset by difficulties and prone to various and even contradictory answers. All of the above holds true if the problematic does not demand, in the first place, the suspension of judgment by awaiting the availability of better conditions for answering, whether that be from the perspective of 1) the clarity of vision required to view the content of the problematic, 2) the progress of the means of knowledge, or 3) the development of historical practice. Historical practice is given to simplifying what once appeared complicated, or solving practically what once appeared unsusceptible to being solved theoretically. In short, a problematic, contrary to a problem, does not seek an answer. (How many certain answers exist in the first place?) Indeed, a problematic is concerned with 1) formulating the question, and guiding the question to the domain of consciousness, and 2) provoking the search for an answer, or answers, to that question.

[3] Translator’s footnote: The “narcissistic wound” (al-jarh al-narjisi) is a concept Tarabishi develops further in his essays in Heresies. In short, the concept refers to the hurt and damaged self-regard Arabs began feeling upon their traumatic encounter with the modernized, advanced West around the turn of the nineteenth century.

[4] Author’s footnote: The unity of the derivational root “acculturation,” which establishes the synonymous relationship between the two verbs “cultivate” (istizra‘) and “acculturate” (muthaqafah), is not lost on me here.

[5] Translator’s footnote: This is a term from Marxist philosophy that can also be rendered as “carrier” or “bringer.”

[6] Translator’s footnote: i.e. Marx’s phases of history.

[7] Translator’s footnote: In 2023 this is no longer true. However, unanimous bloc-voting is still in effect in the Arab world.