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Democratizing the Arab World?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, Cairo, Egypt

Date & Time

Nov. 13, 2003
10:00am – 11:30am ET


Read the full transcript of Ibrahim's presentation.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an internationally renowned sociologist and advocate of democracy and human rights, was released from prison in Egypt in March 2003. He and 27 of his colleagues had been sentenced to harsh prison terms for allegedly defaming the country's image, among other charges. In this meeting at the Wilson Center, Ibrahim described the four legacies that have shaped today’s Middle East as well as the three reasons why he believes democracy will one day take root in this troubled region.

The first legacy--the “Colonial Legacy”-- began in the 19th century when Napolean’s Navy conquered Egypt. Soon thereafter the other colonial powers, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and Germany, came in and dominated the region for the next 100 years. It was Great Britain though who was to have the greatest influence with three agreements: 1. the Balfour Declaration in 1917 which promised the Zionist Movement a homeland in Palestine; 2. the Sykes-Picot agreement which created 5 new countries--Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq under British control and Syria and Lebanon under French control; and 3. an agreement between Britain and the pan-Arabists, that promised Arab independence if the Arab nations were successful in overthrowing Ottoman rule. The first two agreements were honored, but the last was ignored, Ibrahim said.

The second legacy, what Ibrahim calls the “Arab Liberal Age,” came about as a result of the nationalist movements that fought for and won independence in most of the Middle East between 1920 and 1945. Ironically, most of the nationalist leaders had been educated in the West and once they won independence in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, they tended to emulate the colonial power’s style of democratic government. It was during this period that some of the liberal traditions---social justice, land reform, and universal education---took root in the Middle East.

This period, unfortunately, did not last long. The nationalist leaders had raised expectations far beyond what they could deliver, Ibrahim said, which resulted in unrest and a general loss of credibility for the liberals. The next legacy, “the Populist Legacy” was marked by the creation of the state of Israel, the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, and the subsequent 1952 coup d’etat by Nassar in Egypt. As Ibrahim explained, the returning Arab armies blamed their humiliating defeat on the liberal leaders. The young officers who replaced the liberal leaders, ruled by the “Populist Bargain”---they would advance their nations quickly by ruling decisively. In exchange for the tough style of rule, their citizens were promised Arab unity, the restoration of Palestine and economic revival.

Another defeat by Israel ---The Six Day War in 1967--- would usher in a fourth legacy: “the Legacy of Islam.” Islam became the battle cry and carried on until September 11, 2001.

Ibrahim went on to describe the 3 reasons why he has hope that the Middle East will one day usher in another legacy of democracy: 1. Democracy is a world trend and, while far from perfect in practice, has taken root in a number of Arab nations. 2. The expansion of the middle class during the populist legacy had led to middle class values in much of the Middle East, including the value of meritocracy and thus, in Ibrahim’s mind, “the middle class is a repository for democracy.” 3. The Middle East is increasingly surrounded by democratic nations---Turkey, India, Indonesia. A democratic region can help each nation toward democracy.

Ibrahim concluded his remarks with optimism, “The hope for democracy in the Middle East is real. I believe that we as democrats hold the promise of the future. We believe that democracy is essential for our own well-being and is essential for sustaining peace in the Middle East.”


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