The Arab Spring has paved the way for
countries across the Arab world to embrace democracy but there is still a lot
of work that needs to be done on a social and political level. Creating a truly
democratic society in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Yemen
goes well beyond politics. There is a need for profound changes to the education
system so that younger generations learn about the importance of concepts like
social co-operation, the rule of law and citizenship. There also needs to be an
increasing amount of public debate about these issues.
At a public lecture I gave recently on
the topic of Arab political culture in the wake of the Arab Spring, I raised
the point that the recent political upheaval in the region represented a
watershed, separating an emerging political culture from the historical
political culture based on sultanic rule that has dominated Arab societies for more
than a millennium.
One of the main challenges of
establishing a democracy in many Arab countries is that there is a lack of
tradition of the rule of law, or obeying state-enacted laws. In the traditional
Arab political system, the sultan held executive power but legislative power
resided with scholars who interpreted Islamic law. The sultan did not even have
the power to decide how much tax he would impose – these kinds of issues were
decided by scholars.
Under the last Ottoman Sultan with
true executive power, Abdülhamid II, reforms took place that resulted in the introduction
of parliament and a new system of laws codified by the government. However, the
Sultan banned the elected parliament and took ultimate control over the three branches
That model – of a supremely powerful
ruler with control over legislation – has become the model for all republics
and most governments in the postcolonial period in the Arab world. The
challenge today is to introduce a new culture of people abiding by the rule of law
under a democratic system. While transition is taking place, for democracy to
be maintained the culture will have to shift so that people appreciate
everybody is under the law.
One of the crucial ways this can be
done is through changing school curricula. Currently, children in classrooms in
Arab countries are fed a steady diet of literature that glorifies the individual
achievements of heroes, showing them as standalone figures who do not really need
others. This feeds into the cult of personality that has surrounded many
leaders of non-democratic nations. There is a need to teach children concepts
that show how leaders are part of a wider social and political structure.
*The article appeared in the QF
Telegraph on March 22, 2012 (http://www.qf.org.qa/news-center/qf-publications/qf-telegraph#/5/zoomed) and is based on a public lecture Dr. Louay
Safi gave at Doha on February 22, 2012 under the title “From Sultanic Rule to Democracy.”
Ms. Dawn Gibson, Senior Editor at the QF Telegraph and Foundation Magazine made
significant editorial contribution.
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