Down, But Not Out

Liberal democracy is on the ropes the world over. But it won’t be forever.

By Osama Al Sharif

We may have missed our chance to see the day when liberal, democratic, pluralistic, and accountable systems of government take root in this part of the world.

This pessimistic forecast applies to most countries in the Middle East and perhaps beyond as well.

The age of Trump has become the euphemism for an intentional inclination towards a hybrid regime of illiberal democracy that manifests itself today in the rise of populism and far right dogma in the Western world.

This regime honors democratic tenets of holding elections but allows attacks on civil liberties, independent media, judicial independence, minority rights, and justifies it in the name of protecting national security and the nation’s identity. It tolerates bigotry, xenophobia and variant forms of racism by proclaiming that it’s defending ethnic, cultural, and religious purity.

Liberal democracy has been on the defensive for decades. In this part of the world, it was never really embraced. Free multi-party elections are the exception and the peaceful handover of power is a short-lived occurrence. Parliaments lack executive oversight and judiciaries are often politicized and neutered. Journalists are prosecuted and jailed.

But there was always hope. The West provided that hope by setting an example and the benchmarks. There was always a duty by these Western countries to pressure regional regimes to reform their political systems and improve their human rights records.

That pressure is no more. The age of Trump is moving to destroy every moral high ground the West has held for many decades. Illiberal democracies are setting a nefarious example: Legislatures are becoming irrelevant, the press is being demonized, and post-facts have become the new reality. America, as the beacon for democracy, freedom, and a system of checks and balances, is tilting dangerously towards a semi-authoritarian system.

This tilt has encouraged regional governments to regulate free speech, abort the right of elected deputies to carry out their oversight duties and bring legal cases against journalists and opponents. Human rights violations are also on the rise. Political reforms are no longer a priority and people are being offered a stark choice between security and chaos.

In such climate it is difficult to fight corruption, champion good governance, transparency, separation of powers, and defend universal human rights. Confronting regional turmoil is presented as a top priority; all other things must wait. And when the West is embroiled in populist backlashes, regional leaders adjust their agendas accordingly.

It’s true the West is going through testing times with the rise of populism and ultra-nationalism that are giving far-right parties and leaders a platform to challenge and perhaps overturn the status quo. But across Europe and the United States, the press and political institutions are fighting to salvage the system and correct its trajectory. In Europe people are becoming aware of the dangers of unbridled populism that had caused wars and mayhem in the 1800s and the first half of the Twentieth Century.

These offsetting forces are non-existent in the Middle East. From Turkey to Iran, to the rest of the Arab world, the press is on the defensive. Political institutions are weak and people are generally driven by emotion rather than reason. While Europe and the United States have the institutional backbone to counter the drive towards an illiberal democracy, we in this part of the world have none.

Ironically, regional leaders and regimes have ruled over their citizens for decades by manipulating populism and ultra-nationalism. Since post-colonial years most regimes went through phases of arousing populist-nationalist fervor that brought nothing but despotism and defeat. Nasserism and Baathism stand out as clear examples of the employment of populism to control the masses. The outcome of both examples of government has left indelible scars that remain visible until today. Iran’s religious-sectarian experiment, Turkey’s attempt to resurrect Ottoman grandeur and the failure of many Arab countries to move beyond a system based on patriarchal patronage will all be derailed for one reason or another. Liberal democracy, as an objective, remains the only viable and sustainable system of government.

In reality, regional leaders have little time to waste. Demographic, social, cultural, economic, and political realities are changing fast in this part of the world. Existing systems of government will no longer be able to deal with these complex challenges.

And while the prognosis remains pessimistic for the near future, illiberal democracy and non-democratic systems are doomed to fail. The information revolution has broken down barriers and while ultra-nationalism and populism have found a platform in many Western societies, the general trend favors a more centrist system of government. The question that begs an answer is: How soon will regional leaders realize that the current pivot towards a more authoritarian system is short-lived?