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Arab Democracy is a work in progress PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Louay M. Safi   
Apr 02, 2012 at 03:48 AM

Louay Safi

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 of government.

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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