The history of elections in the modern Middle East has not been a happy one, with most polls over the past two generations having been charades stage-managed by military-based ruling elites trying to claim that their president-for-life enjoys popular legitimacy. Nobody buys the farce. These days, however, change is beginning to happen in the electoral world of our region. The change is slow and piecemeal, but it is starting to happen, and once it gains some momentum and credibility, it will roll across most of the region.
In some countries, like Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon, we have glimpses of elections that are actually free and fair and that genuinely reflect the will of the citizenry, because usually we do not actually know the result before the election takes place. In others, like Syria Monday, the sham continues, with governments holding elections like parents hold birthday parties for their 5-year-old children. The event is festive and participatory, but orchestrated and always under control. In a few others, like Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco, elections inhabit a halfway home between state control and the will of the citizen. The overall political-economic power structure and executive decision-making system remain firmly in the hands of a long-ruling elite that understands the need to liberalize, but hesitates to fully democratize.
We have other non-Arab examples of elections in the region, such as those in Iran, Turkey and Israel, which make the Middle East the dream of a political scientist who wants to study how elections relate to overall power, policy and control in a variety of countries. Probably the key lesson of all these experiences – especially in Iraq since the Anglo-American assault in 2003 – is that elections reflect, validate and follow a democratic breakthrough by the citizenry to assert its values and rights, rather than create the conditions for it.
This week’s parliamentary elections in Algeria are a fascinating case in point. Twenty years ago, genuinely free local and national elections were poised to bring into power Islamists, until the ruling generals who had run the country since independence 30 years earlier hesitated to allow this democratic expression of popular will to take root. The elections were scrapped, the generals shut down the democratic process, and Algeria was plunged into a decade-long civil conflict that resulted in the death of some 200,000 people.
In the last two decades since that initial aborted Islamist electoral victory, all other Arab countries have used techniques to, similarly, dampen the Islamist expression of many of their citizens. This has been in favor of maintaining the ruling elite’s ideologies and policies – with such disastrous effect that much of the Arab world has erupted in an extraordinary series of rolling citizen revolts that continue to reverberate around the region.
When free and fair elections open to all were finally held in several Arab countries in the past year, Islamist parties did better than anyone else. Now, having been in power for half a year or more in some cases, incumbent Islamists are being severely tested by their ability to respond to their citizens’ practical and priority needs, on jobs, income, housing, food, health care and other issues.
Some Islamists, including those in Egypt, are already dropping in stature and credibility in the eyes of the citizenry, including their own followers. Whether disappointed citizens will turn to more hard-line Salafist Islamists or drop their fascination with politicized religion remains to be seen. Accountability is a wonderful governance tool, and it is starting to kick in across our region.
The handful of Islamist parties that will likely win a majority in the Algerian election represent a bizarre mix of opposition groups and centrist elements close to the ruling party, and who even have ministerial portfolios in the government – the generals’ version of the kings’ loyal and complacent opposition that remains within the limits set for it. Their victory will complete the Islamists’ sweep of elections across the Maghreb region (after Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, with Libya soon to follow), and set in motion the much more important next phase of the ongoing transition from autocracy to democracy.
The first election in such a transition always generates skewed results that reflect the citizenry’s trauma of the previous decades of state dominance or even oppression, including large-scale theft and corruption. These elections are never a serious democratic barometer, but more of a psychological and emotional stress-reliever. The second election that follows a few years on – as we will witness in Egypt and Tunisia – should more accurately reflect the citizenry’s ideology, rather than its traumatized emotional state after decades of captivity.
The third election is the one that really matters. So we should watch the current round of elections in the Arab world with interest, but not exaggerate their real significance, because they only partly reflect the actual balance of power among competing sentiments in society.
Rami G. Khouri is a Middle East author, columnist and commentator. This article first appeared in the Daily Star Lebanon on May 9, 2012