Democratic sustainability

Mohammed Moussa

As an interpretive approach, democratic sustainability can offer insight on democratic sensibilities, habits, values, and institutions contextualized within the MENA setting.

March 22, 2023

Democracy moves on two fronts. First, this greatly contested term can refer to a direction or an endpoint. Second, the strategies, tactics and acts falling under the umbrella of democracy as action and a mode of being. How can democracy be studied in the diverse spaces of the Middle East and North Africa with reference to this dual meaning? In this region, the focus on the multiple iterations of democracy can reveal the unevenness of political experiences without attributing the outworn cliché of Arab or Muslim exceptionalism. The interpretation of democracy as a process can lead us to the approaches of ‘democratic sustainability’ and democratisation. Perhaps, on a tentative note, we can capture, however partially, democratic sensibilities, habits, values and institutions. Treating the study of democracy interpretively helps  inculcate  practices of reflexivity on the part of ‘observers’ about the role of their own context in shaping how they view the topic of interest. They become self-consciously co-producers in knowledge. Absent such reflexivity, competing paradigms have created an epistemic distance between political scientists and potential or actual regime transitions . A democratic sustainability approach can help remedy such shortcomings.

Sustaining Democratic Change

Research on democratisation has admittedly experienced challenges from explanations centred upon authoritarian resilience or resistance in the last couple of decades. Nonetheless, debates within the field of democratisation, put forward an empirical view of politics which gained some validity even among detractors. An evidential base bolstered the analysis of linear sequencing: opening, breakthrough, consolidation. Contrasts between authoritarianism,  democracy, and ‘hybrid’ regimes impose a checklist of attributes. It glosses over the role of values in shaping how facts are constituted and selectively appropriated. Even  the most rigorous measurements of democracy are incomplete. . For any political process is ultimately driven by subjective actors who, to varying degrees, indulge in their own self-reflectivity rather than being participants in an objective event or process.

Democratic Sustainability: A Long-term Useful Ally

Here democratic sustainability may prove to be a useful ally in studying the apparent successes and failures of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). A focus on democratising attitudes and behaviour among actors and institutions can complement the growing awareness that democratisation is neither linear nor singular in character. The larger setting of the journey of democracy, as opposed to snapshots of its supposed stages, is a more useful conceptualisation of the political struggles involving all kinds of actors. The deployment of democratic sustainability signals a more people-centred focus,  in addition to  dynamic factors emphasised in the processual dimensions of democratisation. Studies on the full ecology of politics in MENA can ill afford to ignore the gamut of actors, norms, practices, experiences and institutions that contribute to a changing region. Concurrent factors mark political struggles, whether for democracy or other causes, in individual countries and across the region. There is no winding back the clock of democratic transformation. , to the past and recreating exactly  a pre-colonial culture, the populist parti unique or the liberal age of the Arab world. The pre- ‘Arab Spring’ brands of authoritarianism are finished. The current ideological mix—populism, nationalism, Islamism, neoliberalism—all face the big test not only of how to democratize, but also how to sustain democratic norms and practices.

Towards Democratic Sustainability in the Middle East and North Africa

More recently, against a century of staggered Arab independence, the ‘Arab uprisings’ were a forceful reminder that the exceptionalism of the Middle East and North Africa is more of a myth than reality. Popular mobilizations utilizing advanced means of communication, alongside  old-fashioned satellite television and word-of-mouth, pave the way for rethinking politics away from structures. Democratic sustainability lends attention to micro-politics embedded in  complex regional relations.

A historical lens can show how the active participation of leftists and Islamists, especially in electoral contests, can be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s.  The know-how of mass protests accumulated from anti-war demonstrations during the 2000s, against the American invasion of Iraq, and pro-Palestine activism. Among the high points of the Arab uprisings, indicative of an opening of democratic sustainability, were the overthrow of Ben Ali (Tunisia) and Mubarak (Egypt) in early 2011. The democratic momentum soon swung, however, towards authoritarian rule based on the image of the strongman and populist rhetoric. Yet, democratization, can be shifted from government institutions and the formal sphere, towards democratic learning. Democratic sustainability involves the exchange of norms, ideas and popular human agency.

Mohammed Moussa is currently an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University. He is author of a monograph on the political thought of Muhammad Al-Ghazali, as well as various journal articles.