By Ellen Laipson

It has become conventional wisdom that the Middle East’s popular uprisings of 2011 failed, and that the prospects for true democracy in the region are dim for the foreseeable future.

The return of authoritarian leadership in Egypt is the most dramatic reversal of the Arab Spring, but one can also look to Yemen, where a shaky political transition later plunged the country plunged back into civil war, or of course Syria, where the early days of peaceful protest, brutally repressed by the Assad regime, seem like a distant memory in the ongoing civil war.

There is occasional turbulence in Morocco, too, where a functional multiparty system has not really emerged. Tunisia, the only fledgling democracy still carrying on after the 2011 ouster of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, remains fragile, having been unable to translate more political freedom into much-needed prosperity.

But May is full of intriguing, albeit incremental, steps on the long road to more political openness in the Arab world.

It requires some mental gymnastics to move from a relentlessly dark view of the Middle East and its raging conflicts to something less hopeless. But the Arab Spring looks more like a long-playing drama that has not reached the final act.

The lasting impact of these protest movements is still inside the heads of young Arabs, who have been discovering more diverse ways of expressing themselves through social media and other forms of activism online.

And while there are no formal political outlets in many Arab countries, from Morocco to Iraq, gradual change is occurring in how citizens can find their voice and make demands of the state.

The reform process in Saudi Arabia, under the direction of the ambitious crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is more about social space than political rights. So far, the prince has won favor among young Saudis by permitting once taboo activities, like public movie theaters and women driving cars.

Maybe those relatively modest freedoms will satisfy some of the people some of the time, but most likely, young Saudis, including those studying abroad, will eventually expect more ambitious reforms.

In two other monarchies in Jordan and Morocco, regimes have tried to manage the balance between offering more openness to their restive citizens with maintaining traditions that kings are above any criticism or rebuke.

In both countries, political parties are careful about how far they can go in disagreeing with royal policies. When things get rough, the kings can replace prime ministers, rather than take the blame themselves. But the Jordanian and Moroccan parliaments and the parties within them still absorb some of the demands for citizens to have a voice.

Elections in three Arab countries this month may not be landmarks, but they shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Electoral contests are only one factor in building a truly democratic culture, and Iraq was proof that holding elections too soon after disruptive change does not bring stability or national consensus.

For elections to be free and fair, other institutional practices need to be in place, and to be trusted by voters. In turn, those voters need to have enough information and self-awareness of their new role in choosing government to make the act of voting a meaningful and productive exercise.

Tunisia held its first free municipal elections Sunday, long delayed since the fall of Ben Ali in early 2011. The mood of the electorate was cranky, with many Tunisians showing signs of losing hope about the promise of democracy.

Early reporting indicates that the Islamist Ennahda party is leading in most localities over their rival, the old guard Nida Tounes, by about 5 percent of the vote.

The post-Ben Ali government and parliament have been slow to act on badly needed economic reforms that would reduce reliance on the public sector and create opportunities for the neglected towns of Tunisia’s impoverished interior, where too many young Tunisians have responded to the siren call of Islamist extremism.

Nonetheless, the elections are a sign of slow progress, as is the fact that members of the military and the police were permitted to vote for the first time. Turnout by security personnel was quite low, though; developing that sense of responsibility as citizens will take time.

On Sunday, Lebanon also held parliamentary elections for the first time since 2009—and with a new proportional representation law in place.

While the law retained the concept of power-sharing based on sectarian identity that distributes half of parliament’s 128 seats to Christians and half to Muslims—fundamental to the confessional system in place since Lebanon’s independence—it also opened up choices for voters by permitting them to vote for individuals who may not be at the top of party lists.

It also allowed the many Lebanese who live overseas to vote for the first time. The new parliament is likely to include at least two individuals from civil society organizations, not nominated through the traditional, patronage-driven party system.
Iraqis will follow, going to the polls to elect a new legislature this weekend, on May 12. Iraq’s electoral campaign has been in full swing, with jockeying for new alliances and coalitions. Incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has a good chance of winning another term, but there could be other shifts in the balance of power in Baghdad.

After last year’s controversial independence referendum in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region, many believe the Kurdish bloc in parliament has lost some of its influence in Iraqi politics. When Sunni and Shiite politicians have been at odds, senior Kurdish figures have often been the buffer, or the source of compromise.

None of these elections represents a major milestone in the democratic evolution of Tunisia, Lebanon or Iraq, but each vote is still a step in establishing the roots of democracy. After all, none of their outcomes are preordained.

And how the voters behave—from showing up to marking their ballots—has an element of surprise, which is a good sign. Not all citizens are convinced that their vote will directly improve their lives, but many understand that they have a responsibility to participate, and they take pride in that opportunity.

What’s more, the right to vote is expanding, from police and military officers in Tunisia to the large Lebanese diaspora, and political alignments are not static. New blocs seem to be emerging in Iraq, including some cross-sectarian alliances.

A Jewish Tunisian ran on the Islamist party’s list. These are small signs of change, to be sure, but they are a useful reminder that citizens in Arab countries are doing their part to build more open and inclusive political cultures.

There’s still more work to be done, and elections alone are not enough. Elsewhere around the world, worries about the erosion of democracy abound.

The latest cover of Foreign Affairs asks, “Is Democracy Dying?” It isn’t this month in at least three Arab countries.

Ellen Laipson directs the International Security Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. She led the Stimson Center from 2002 to 2015, and served in government for 25 years. Her WPR column appears every Tuesday.


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