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The concepts of democracy and democratization have been trampled for several decades and denounced as swindles, but these questions should nevertheless remain important issues to struggle for and not be overlooked in the building of an alternative economy. Firstly, the notion of democracy should not be understood as a fixed concept, but as constantly in flux. Democracy is not a universally accepted concept and its forms differ from one country to another. Some people limit the concept of democracy to political rights and elections, while others go further to include socio-economic, education, national and cultural rights. “Democratic Liberal” systems for example have always resisted giving legal (and constitutional) expression to the inclusion of social rights, such as health care for all, thereby limiting their understanding of democracy to the right to vote and respect for private property.

The difference in the forms of democracy and its understanding are rooted in socio-economic and political conditions and reflect the balance of social forces in a particular society and not according to a particular ethnicity or religion. We oppose Orientalist perspectives that tend to speak of a so called “Arab and / or Muslim exceptionalism” and hold up the region as being beyond the grasp of social scientific frameworks typically employed to understand processes of political and change elsewhere in the world. Andrew Green, former Ambassador to Syria and to Saudi Arabia, for example reflects this view in arguing in an article titled “Why Western democracy can never work in the Middle East” that

“democracy, as we understand it, simply doesn’t work in Middle Eastern countries where family, tribe, sect and personal friendships trump the apparatus of the state”[1]

We reject this essentialist understanding and concur rather with the conclusion of Arab writer, Aziz al-Azmeh, that “the understanding of Islamic (or Arab) political phenomena requires the normal equipment of the social and human sciences, not their denial”.[2]

History shows that democracy is a transforming concept with no precise form, which has always been at stake in struggles. Any broadening of democracy to include social, economic, cultural and national rights has been the result of successful struggles from below including economic and civil rights, voting, unionizing, civil rights, gender equality, etc. Historically, progressive groups have struggled for the widest possible expansion of democracy and continue to do so. In Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ perspectives, socialism and democracy were bound together from the very first struggles they were part of in the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1848, in the Communist Manifesto they wrote: “We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle for democracy”.[3]

However, the improvements and broadening of rights in a democracy is not linear, and can face setbacks as witnessed in many countries throughout the world. Philosophers like Jacques Rancière and Hannah Arendt defined democracy as a process of permanent anti-oligarchic “insurrection” rather than as a stable regime. In this framework, the “democratization of democracy” in the form of the elimination of its internal exclusions is important,[4] including issues regarding labour and social rights, the form of the state and its institutions, and women’s and minority rights, etc… The construction of an alternative economy must take into consideration various elements, including democracy.

The issue of democracy takes a particular important aspect in the region of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) dominated by authoritarian regimes, with none or very limited space of democratic rights preventing working and popular classes to organize on mass level. At the same time, the concept of “democratization” supported by International Monetary Institutions in the framework of “reforms” and “good governance policies” in order to promote neo-liberal policies must be challenged. As we will see, these neo-liberal reforms have on the opposite strengthened the authoritarianism and patrimonial character of the states of the region.

Origins and limits of Liberal Democracy

The term “Democracy” literally means “government (power) by the people.” Generally, the word has been used to describe Western liberal political systems characterized by parliamentary regimes, which developed in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century on the British model. We can however increasingly raise questions about how much democracy—how much rule by the people—actually exist in Liberal Democracies throughout the world with growing restrictions on civil liberties, while the model of elections every few years has increasingly shown its limits with elected representatives holding complete autonomy from their popular basis following their entry in parliament and not implementing policies for which they were voted in. Moreover, this is without mentioning regimes in which elections are organised with limited or no democratic rights such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, or Turkey in the recent years. The liberal democratic system was actually perfectly characterized by Karl Marx when he said that once every four years, they permitted the mass of electors to designate the members of the ruling class who were to govern the country. There is however still a qualitative difference between Liberal Democracies and authoritarian regimes forbidding any kind of democratic rights, including free elections. In the case of the MENA, most states are authoritarian regimes, with few exceptions in which limited democratic rights exist.

Liberal Democratic systems dominated by bourgeois and large landowners interests were discredited in several countries of the MENA region, including Syria, Egypt and Iraq for example, after WW II because they ruled over deeply unequal societies and prevented any policies establishing or strengthening social rights and redistribution of wealth, while trying to limit democratic rights as much as possible, although existing to some extent in some cases. In the countries mentioned, the ruling bourgeois classes were overthrown by military coup d’état led by young middle class officers, often from rural backgrounds, who established political systems providing extended social rights and redistribution of wealth through various measures, but at the expense of democratic rights that were severely repressed. In the early 1970s, Arab regimes such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq abandoned progressively their previous radical social policies and increasingly adopted a rapprochement with the Western countries and the monarchies of the Gulf, as a result of various factors such as the military defeat in 1967 against Israel and the development of economic crises that state capitalist methods of nationalist development were unable to resolve. Moreover, Arab nationalist movements, despite some major achievements in terms of social issues, progressively fallen to its own class contradictions in strengthening primarily capitalism and an emerging capitalist class, who would progressively be integrated or at least inserted into circuits of accumulation developed by the advanced capitalist states over the region as a whole.[5] So most of the countries of the region were increasingly faced with the absence of democracy and social justice.

It is important to note that this reluctance to expand democratic rights of the bourgeoisie or ruling classes in the Middle East was not unique to the region. Earlier social scientists such as Göran Therborn commented that the bourgeoisie, throughout Europe, were generally unwilling to go into the direction or widen the rule by the people, favoring some form of liberal or constitutional oligarchy, or sometimes even to make deals with kings, aristocrats, and generals. They argue that it was the rapid industrialization witnessed in western Europe in the five decades prior to the World War I expanded the size and, with varying time lags, the level of organization of the working class. These evolution resulted in changes in the balance of class power in civil society to the advantage of democratic forces. Their studies confirm “that the working class, represented by socialist parties and trade unions, was the single most important force in the majority of countries in the final push for universal male suffrage and responsible government”.[6] The issue of women rights was similar, their improvements occurred only following important mobilisations.

The struggle for democratic rights

The struggle of the working and popular classes for elements historically linked to liberal democracy is made in order to impose the widest extension of popular control on the ruling classes and often well beyond the limits of existing democratic rights in a society. If we look at the history of the MENA, especially following the uprisings of 2011, we can found similar examples. After the overthrow of the dictators Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt 2011, democratic rights were expanded considerably at the beginning, despite the continuation of some restrictions and attempts to limit them as much as possible especially in Egypt since July 2013, in a wide range of fields from the freedom of the press and information, freedom to organize politically, etc…, while at the same time elections as a result of the mass mobilisations and vacuum of power at the head of these states.

Political rights should not be limited to the right to vote and choose its representatives in elections every few years, but by empowering and guaranteeing the participation and self-organization of the working and popular classes at all levels of society. This includes also wide ranges of rights such as equality, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to protest and assembly, access to education and health, etc… In this perspective the right to unionize and organize collectively for workers in the private and public sector are key issues to control and organize democratically their workplaces and extend their social rights, such as higher salaries, pensions, health insurance or better working conditions. The extension of popular control and democratic rights allow as well workers and popular classes to refuse government policies in opposition to their interests. Workers in their administrations and institutions, whether in the public or private sector, should also be able to control that people are selected on the basis of technical criteria for professional qualification and experience and in their interests and not on the basis of clientelism, favoritism and corruption from above. The right to freely organize collectively is indeed a guarantee to provide the instruments to preserve a democratic atmosphere and framework. The battle for democracy can actually often be pursued far more effectively in workplaces, in communities, in schools, in the streets, in the larger culture through non-electoral struggles, and creative work of various kinds.

More generally, democracy is the power of the people, in which everyone participates equally to the elaborations of laws and decisions regarding collective affairs, including the economy. Democracy should not stop at the factory or office door. The economy is indeed not separated from the realm of the political sphere, and democratic rights should be extended as well to include the “markets”. To extend popular control over the state institutions and the economy is important to provide the capacities of the state to determine the use, ownership and distribution of their economic resources. Democratization of the institutions and political system able citizens to challenge economic choices of their governments and raise issues such as state support and services to the popular classes, the nationalization of industries that were privatized, restrictions on foreign investments, etc…

The expansion of democratic control on state policies is also key in order to increase the country’s independence and sovereignty, notably by challenging the payment of a debt considered odious or illegitimate in many countries of the South, contracted following the implementation of structural adjustment policies ordered by International Monetary Institutions and Western states, impoverishing notably popular classes even more. The reimbursement of the debt often blocks the possibility of alternative economic policies towards more social justice, or at least is used by ruling classes to explain the necessity of austerity measures and more neo-liberal policies. In both Egypt and Tunisia, social movements characterised these debts as odious and illegitimate, which would able them to refuse its reimbursement, because of the lack of consent of the populations of the debtor states, the absence of benefits for the peoples concerned, and the knowledge of these elements by the creditors. Expanding democratic rights as we can see allow also the possibility to the working and popular classes to enhance as well the country’s self-determination and sovereignty from foreign actors.

Social justice and the redistribution of wealth in societies are maintained on the mid-long term through the extension of democratic rights and democracy from below to allow workers and popular classes to organize and claim their democratic and social rights. The extension of political rights must indeed be accompanied by the provision and expansion of economic and social rights to move towards real equality between citizens, at the risk if not, of being an empty shell or dominated by a ruling minority. In this framework, the struggle against every form of oppressions, including discriminations regarding gender, religious and ethnic minorities, sexual orientation etc… is a necessity. Political equality is indeed only possible between individuals socially equal. Democracy is threatened or hardly complete in a society structured by one or several systems of oppressions.

The recent uprisings in the MENA region generally included political and economic demands, which were inseparable and intertwined. The widening of democratic rights, from the right to vote to organize politically and socially passing through the end of all discriminations, makes it definitely easier for the working and popular classes to protest and pressure their ruling classes, while trying to achieve a more equal and inclusive society. In this perspective of democracy from below, the building of an alternative economy and a more egalitarian and just society is intrinsically linked to a wide understanding of democracy.

Neo-Liberal policies and authoritarian upgrading in the MENA

This concept of democracy from below as suggested above is completely opposed to the one promoted by the neoliberal advocates, which have linked “democratization” and the “free market” since the 1990s. We understand neoliberalism as a particular organization of capitalism to ensure the conditions for capitalist reproduction at a global scale and as part of a ruling class offensive, which ran through the recessions in the 1970s and 1980s and resulted in restructuring and generated a new wave of capitalist expansion.[7] The basic goal of neoliberalism, as David Harvey has emphasized, is the development of a new “regime of capital accumulation characterized by a minimal direct intervention of the state in the economy, limited to setting up the legal, political and military functions required to guarantee the proper functioning of markets and their creation in those sectors where markets do not exist”.[8] In the framework of neo liberalism, the State has actually the explicit role of guaranteeing capital accumulation as explained and emphasized by David Harvey:

“The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary”[9]

At a general level, neoliberalism – understood as a set of both economic policies and a restructuring of class power – in the MENA region embraced policies such as privatization, opening up of markets, deregulation of labor and other markets and cuts in social spending. Neoliberal policies in the region also led to new phases of “upgrading authoritarianism” and not at all to a process enhancing an “independent middle class or capitalists” with a civil society supposed to challenge authoritarian regimes and lead to democracy promoted by an academic literature in the 90s. The new “civil society”, supposed to encourage democracy, was often composed of associations and so called NGOs (more Government NGOs) encouraged from above and that constituted new elites linked to business networks close to various regimes, although independent and democratic NGOs existed as well and were repressed if denouncing the violation of human rights or other actions of their governments. This emergence of the GONGOs was and is part of the process of privatizing regulatory functions such as social services. As argued by Bassam Haddad, in the case of Syria, but that can generalized to other countries of the region, “this (neo-liberal) development is far more likely to buttress authoritarian rule than to challenge it given the mutual interests between the state and big business”.[10]

International Monetary Institutions such as the World Bank and IMF have indeed adopted and promoted the slogan of institutional reforms and emphasized notions such as the “rule of law,” “decentralization,” “good governance”, “separation of the legislative and executive,” and so forth, which claimed had the objective of limiting the rent-seeking capabilities of state officials and guarantee greater transparency in economic affairs. The embrace of issues of “governance” and “democracy” was actually explicitly conceived to secure greater legitimacy for neoliberalism, especially following devastating decades of 1980s and 1990s in which the open support and advocacy of structural adjustment caused significant havoc on much of the South. This rhetoric and semantic change in the discourse is however not at all with the aim of departing from the framework of neoliberalism, quite on the opposite. It actually serves at strengthening the neoliberal dynamics, by conforming the institutions to the needs of the private sector and clearing way any capacity of the state to intervene in the market. In the Middle East, where authoritarian regimes have been the norm, these calls for institutional reform can be easily presented as democratic (and, indeed, they are explicitly framed within a rhetoric of democratization). In reality they are profoundly anti-democratic.[11]

Neo liberal policies also had particular consequences on the nature of states in the MENA, strengthening their authoritarianism and their neo-patrimonial and patrimonial nature, very far from any democratisation process. The patrimonial state in the traditional Weberian definition is an absolute autocratic and hereditary power, which can however functions through a collegial environment (parents and friends) and that owns the state: its armed force, dominated by a praetorian guard (a force whose allegiance goes to the rulers, not to the state), economic means and administration. In this type of regime, it’s a type of crony capitalism that developed dominated by a state bourgeoisie, in other words the members and people close to the ruling families often exploiting their dominants position guaranteed by the political power to amass considerable fortunes. In the case of Egypt and Tunisia, political systems were closer to a form of neopatrimonialism: an authoritarian institutionalized republican system with a greater or lesser degree of autonomy of the state in relation to the rulers, who are likely to be replaced. Nepotism was however present as well in these systems, as we witnessed through the Mubarak and Trabelsi families. A neopatrimonial can however transform into a patrimonial state with time and with the transmission of hereditary power or quasi-hereditary, where the ruler chooses his successor.[12] Rentier characteristic of many of the states of the region reinforced these patterns. The dominant form of the state rent in the MENA region was the mining rent, such as oil, gaz and other minerals products. This rent-based growth was also anti-developmental in many ways, while strengthening the patrimonial nature of the state and its autonomy from society.

Therefore most of patrimonial states in the MENA region are generally characterized by a deeply corrupt trilateral “power elite” as explained by Achcar:

“a triangle of power constituted by the interlocking pinnacles of the military apparatus the political institutions and politically determined capitalist class (a state bourgeoisie), all three bent on fiercely defending their access to state power, the main source of their priviledges and profits”[13]


The basis for the building of an alternative economy, based on the needs and interests of the popular classes and respectful of the ecological environment, must include the democratic and social empowerment of the popular classes to manage their own societies.Democracy as presented in the text is when the entire population participates freely, equally and directly to the elaboration of decisions regarding collective affairs and policies, including of the socio-economic sphere.

Regimes have never provided extensive rights to the popular classes without struggles. The mass uprisings in various countries of the MENA in 2011 had shaken this situation, and some authoritarian regimes had to make some concessions to the demands of the protest movements and widen democratic rights and democracy with the organizations of elections in the case of Egypt and Tunisia following the overthrow of the dictators. But again no guarantees existed for their continuation, and we have seen with the repression against protest movements and less popular resistance in the streets, rights, which were won very recently, were already once more challenged and / or suppressed.

Mass mobilisations from below, by the working and popular classes have been the most significant element in the popular uprising against authoritarian regimes since 2011. Experiences of self-organization multiplied throughout the region. Similarly, in the first years of the uprising, the involvement and participation of women was a very important element, breaking many conservative social codes and overcoming traditional barriers. Female activists throughout the region often agreed that the uprisings opened the door for women to challenge restrictive social conventions, whether they were legal, familial, religious or social and put forward campaigns and issues to improve rights pertaining to women. Just as is was the mass participation and involvement of large sections of the society that challenged sectarian tensions in societies at the beginning of the uprisings.

As mentioned by historian Howard Zinn at the beginning of his film “The People Speak”: “Democracy does not come from the top, it comes from the bottom”.[14] In conclusion, struggles over democratic rights and complete democracy are part of the terrain of the class struggle and the building of an alternative economy. The objective is to widen democracy and liberties to the highest magnitude within the political system and to expand democratic forms and the principle of popular control outside it, into the economic sphere and every sectors of society. In conclusion, a democratic project is not only an institutional assemblage of various institutions and mechanisms, but the right to disobey and oppose an unjust government and tend to always further democratizations from below.

Through the struggle for achieving the democratic issue, we open the opportunity to achieve two other main issues: 1) reaching an ideological hegemony on the popular classes and 2) changing the economic structure.

[1]Green, Andrew (2014), “Why Western democracy can never work in the Middle East”, The Telegraph (online). Available at: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/11037173/Why-Western-democracy-can-never-work-in-the-Middle-East.html>, (accessed 20 April 2017)

[2] Azmeh (Al-), A. (2003), “Postmodern Obscurantism and the Muslim Question”, Socialist Register, Vol. 39, pp. 39

[3] Engels, Frederich and Marx, Karl (1848), “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, Marxist.org (online). Available at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf>, (accessed 20 April 2017)

[4]Balibar, Etienne (2008), “Historical Dilemmas of Democracy and Their Contemporary Relevance for Citizenship”, Rethinking Marxism, Volume 20, Issue 4, pp. 522-538

[5]Hanieh, Adam (2013), Lineages of Revolt, Issue of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East, (Chicago, Haymarket) pp. 26-27

[6]Cited in Le Blanc, Paul (2010), “What do socialists say about democracy?”, International Socialist Review, Issue no. 74, (online). Available at: <http://isreview.org/issue/74/what-do-socialists-say-about-democracy>, (accessed 28 April 2017)

[7]Cimorelli, Eddie (2009), “Take neoliberalism seriously”, International Socialism,  (online). Available at: <http://isj.org.uk/take-neoliberalism-seriously/>, (accessed 22 December 2017)

[8] cited in Roccu, Roberto (2012), Gramsci in Cairo: Neoliberal Authoritarianism, Passive Revolution and Failed Hegemony in Egypt under Mubarak, 1991-2010, (PhD), University of London, London School of Economics, p.72

[9]Harvey, David (2005), A Brief History of Neoliberalism, (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 2

[10]Haddad, Bassam (2013), “Business Associations and the New Nexus of Power in Syria” in Aarts P. and Cavatorta F. (eds.) Civil Society in Syria and Iran: Activism in Authoritarian Contexts (Rienner Publishers), 74

[11] Hanieh, Adam (2011), “Egypt’s ‘Orderly Transition’? International Aid and the Rush to Structural Adjustment”, Jadaliyya, (online). Available at: <http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/1711/egypts-‘orderly-transition’-international-aid-and->, (accessed 30 April 2017)

[12] Achcar, Gilbert (2013), Le peuple veut, une exploration radicale du soulèvement arabe, (Paris, Actes Sud), p 91-98

[13]Achcar, Gilbert (2016), Morbid Symptoms, Relapse in the Arab Uprising, (Stanford: Stanford University Press and London: Saqi), p.6-7

[14]Cited in Le Blanc, Paul (2010), “What do socialists say about democracy?”, International Socialist Review, Issue no. 74, (online). Available at: <http://isreview.org/issue/74/what-do-socialists-say-about-democracy>, (accessed 28 April 2017)


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