For many the Arab Spring looked like the revolution that so many had waited for. A move from one party states and authoritarian figures to Western-style democracy. However, our hopes have been misguided. Libya is in anarchy, Egypt has fallen into the hands of the military, Iraq and Syria are engulfed in Civil War, and so many other examples. What happened? Why didn’t the Arab World become a blueprint for other regions of the world? To answer all these questions, we need to understand that the Middle East is deeply rooted in patriarchal and authoritarian governorship. The region is not prepared for democracy and it will take a long time to reach that state. The region’s history and culture prevents any sort of “rule by the people” style of government.
People point to Islam as the reason for the lack of ability to apply democracy in the region. While it contributes, it is not for the reason that we think. There is a cultural dilemma that supersedes Islam. Islam has actually attempted to alleviate the problems brought on by the Arab culture. It is not Islam that contradicts democracy, because there are plenty of Muslim countries who are not Arab who have successfully implemented democracy to some degree – Malaysia, Indonesia, and Turkey.
The Arab people in years past had been a nomadic people due to the nature of the region. An area of hot desert with little arable land forced people to band together in small groups of people. This led to the tribes that are ever so prevalent, even in present day Middle East. This has inevitably led many Arabs to prize both family and tribe over the collective nation. The importance of tribes is highlighted by my own experiences. I have many friends who have clashed with their parents because they were thinking of marrying someone from another tribe, but the same country.
The tribal instincts coupled with arbitrary borders created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement would only lead to conflicts between tribes locked together in countries and tribes separated by borders. This tribal instinct to band together based on an identity also translated into the Sunni-Shia split. Arabs became engaged in a battle of who were the true Muslims and this also led to conflict within countries. Islam has at times suppressed tribal instincts and had people think about the betterment of the Ummah, everyone of Islamic faith, rather than just the people in your band. But they could not suppress it for long: after some time it led to the decline of Islamic Empires.
Moving into the modern era and away from the colonized history of these countries, Arab nationalism started to take afoot. People started to prize their kinship after years of foreign domination. Leaders were able to exploit this jingoistic fervor. The rise of leaders in these countries was only because of this newfound nationalism. Though they called themselves presidents, they held onto power like dictators. The authoritarian leaders of the Arab countries were able to suppress tribal instincts and the people were able to forget about their former tribes and work for the betterment of the nation-state.
Democracy allows for tribal instincts to bubble up again and undermine the bigger picture. When divided into political parties, people start to band together under familial ties. When the West frames everything through a Western point of view, they will never realize the best way to solve upheaval in the region. The authoritarian leaders may have undermined some “democratic values”, but they insured stability in the region and with cooperation, defended Western interests. The same people who fought to topple Saddam Hussein have created hymns praising his administration. The same people who brought Muammar Gaddafi down wish for his return for the sake of stability. It is when we meddle in the business of foreign countries where we do not understand the intricacies of the region that we create more problems than before. ISIS swept across Iraq and Syria because of involvement back in 2003. The political vacuum has caused people to radicalize towards a dangerous version of Sunni Islam. The tribal instinct has been unlocked and has been taken advantage of. Bringing democracy to the region had great intentions, but the West must realize that everyone thinks differently. Culture deeply affects the relationships that we build with our family and with the state. The Middle East has always had a hard time adopting democracy and will continue to do so. The Western Powers must learn to work with what works best for the region to ensure stability and peace.