Democracy and Populism in the Arab World: Summarizing Valdai Club’s Middle East Conference

Given the growing demographic preeminence of predominantly young lower classes, it appears that democracy can only win in a small urbanized Arab country.The general rule of a systemic democracy is still impossible in a populous and largely backward Arab country. Islamic social democracy seems to be the only area where the search for alternatives and solutions to this problem is conceivable.

Is democracy possible in the Arab world, and if so, will it be an effective means to address the region’s problems? The Valdai Club’s annual Middle East conference held on February 27-28, 2017, focused precisely on these issues. A number of participants suggested introducing a stable system-wide democratic form of government in the region’s republics as an alternative to populism and paternalism, both on the left (the Nasser and Baath traditions) and on the right (the Muslim Brotherhood under President Morsi in Egypt and “traditional” right-wing paternalist authoritarianism). 

The social dimension of democracy in the Arab world was given separate consideration. There are specific reasons why this is so important. Demographically, society in many Arab countries is very “young.” The proportion of teenagers and young people is extremely high and this trend will only grow in the future. Therefore, youth unemployment and social exclusion are pressing problems, and the social dimension of politics in many Arab countries is predominantly youth-oriented. 

Unemployed young people are easy prey for recruiters of various extremist and terrorist organizations, and this only makes the problem worse. To counter this, new political forces based on an effective social democratic agenda seem particularly necessary. But a point to be discussed is their optimal ideological base and platform for activities. 

One option in this sense is reviving the ideas of Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was not surprising that a widely discussed issue at the conference was the necessity of neo-Nasserism in the Arab world. But, given the abovementioned cleavage between democracy and populism, there are enough political forces in the region that reject the very possibility of returning to the Nasser-Baath tradition on the pan-Arab scale (not to mention the fact that outside resistance will be very strong as well). Thus, the left-populist agenda was not perceived as a solution to the problem. At the same time, a number of participants claimed that a secular social democratic party organized on the Western model would also be rejected by a sizeable part of society. Both traditional and new progressive (a la the New Left) models of westernized social democracy are unlikely to strike root in Arab soil. And this is yet another indication that the Western models of democracy are not universal and that the mainstream division into right centrists and left centrists cannot be automatically applied in regions with a different political culture and different spiritual traditions. So, what is the solution? 

An Islamic social democracy, as suggested by a number of participants, might be one option. Quranic principles of mutual assistance within a Muslim community were proposed as the ideological basis of a new, non-secular party. It was argued that a social agenda was organic to Islam and therefore an Islamic social democratic party would be readily accepted by the public, including young people. If implemented on the pan-Arab scale, this project is likely to give rise to a pro-active political force capable of addressing social problems while offering a systemic alternative to the radicals.                                                                          

Skeptics will say that the line between Islamic social democracy of this kind and the extremists will be quite thin, for various extremist groups do have a tradition of promoting social agendas. A case in point is the Muslim Brotherhood, but ISIS appeals for social equality are not to be disregarded either. There is a danger that Islamic social democratic parties will rapidly degenerate into extremist groups under pressure from radical segments in their electorate. So, Islamic social democracy is not the optimal solution either. In terms of advancing social agenda while containing extremists, a paternalist authoritarian regime (e.g., post-Morsi Egypt or “moderate” monarchies like Jordan or Morocco) is much better in this regard. Thus, we’ve come full circle in trying to figure out the best balance of democracy and populism in the Arab world today. That is why this problem is  difficult and multidimensional. 

A related set of problems that was discussed at the conference concerned the social base of democracy in the Arab world. It is clear that democratic regimes owe their stability to broad-based demand for democracy (as opposed to both populism and paternalism) rather than the willingness of a “good ruler” to introduce certain electoral procedures. Participants in the conference claimed that only an urbanized middle class could act as the social base of democracy in the region. Wherever a strong one exists (demographically the “city-country” ratio must favor the city), a self-sustained movement for democracy will arise.

The success of the Arab Spring in Tunisia (the only successful outcome) is due to the high share of urbanized middle class in Tunisian society. But where the urban middle class, despite its active stance and unity, is demographically diluted in the lumpen and rural social groups and constitutes an insignificant proportion of the total population, we cannot hope for a stable democracy to emerge. A case in point is the Arab Spring in Egypt. The urban middle class in Cairo was capable of overthrowing an unpopular regime (both Mubarak’s and Morsi’s), but it proved short of demographic forces to establish – after the withdrawal of the previous regime – a stable, non-extremist democratic system on the Tunisian model. Following the overthrow of Mubarak, a popular vote brought to power Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. With Morsi toppled, the top army command led by Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stepped in, which is more common in the East.

What conclusion should be drawn? It is not very comforting. Given the growing demographic preeminence of predominantly young lower classes, it appears that democracy can only win in a small urbanized Arab country. Tunisia is one of the very few exceptions, if not unique in this sense. The general rule is a systemic democracy is still impossible in a populous and largely backward Arab country. Islamic social democracy seems to be the only area where the search for alternatives and solutions to this problem is conceivable. But the divide between its moderate version and a Muslim Brotherhood regime of the type that existed under Morsi is very weak.

Of no small importance in this regard is what the Iranian participants said about democracy. They also stressed that the civil demand for democracy hinged on the existence of an urban middle class. In Iran, for example, this took the form of the Tehran protests against President Ahmadinejad and the electoral victory of moderate President Rouhani. But “democracy from below” under the Iranian conditions is combined with a theocratic regime on top. The Iranian Islamic republic in its present form is a theocratic paternalist hierarchy at the top and a democracy (with public protest politics) below. This is what makes the Iranian political regime so stable. The Iranian paradigm was proposed at the conference for Arab countries. But here there is an important constraint apart from the fact that the Sunni Arab world is clearly averse to Shiite political models: The lower classes in Iranian society are much less backward than those in the Arab world. The credit goes to the Iranian authorities for pursuing educational and social policies that demonstrate their efficiency in comparison with the heavily populated Arab countries.

Finally, this led to the logical question: What is to be done with the absolute monarchies of the Gulf? Interestingly, the issue was suggested for discussion  by a participant hailing from one of these monarchies. His calls for distinguishing between democracy and populism in secular Arab republics were combined with understandable silence whenever the debate touched on the Gulf. But representatives of the regional republics clearly sneered at his mention of democracy. It must be noted that the theme of political instability in Saudi Arabia also came up in the discussions. Apart from sectarian antagonism with the Shiite minority, the internal instability in Saudi Arabia has been accelerated by the war in Yemen. Earlier we posted a story describing how ISIS is posing an ideological challenge to the Saudi royal regime on

 But even if we imagine a new round of the Arab Spring occurring in the Gulf countries (and leave aside both the Shiite and ISIS factors), there is still the same issue of a modernized urban middle class as the driving force behind democratization. In the small Gulf monarchies with a small number of citizens and a much larger number of migrants employed in both low- skilled jobs and in the middle class (managers, engineers, university professors, etc.), the citizenry are a group of moneyed interests, who receive their share of oil and gas revenues, and their level of modernization is very relative. Therefore, these countries are more likely to face a migrant rebellion than a civic democratic revolution along the lines of the Tunisian model. The only exception here is Bahrain with its important Shiite factor as a driver of change, but it has already suppressed the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia (and, to a certain extent, the UAE) is of interest here, because we can already say that a demographically significant middle class that is not dependent on oil revenue is emerging in these countries. Its progress can generate a demand for systemic democracy.

I have touched on some of the discussions on democracy and paternalism in the Arab world at the latest Valdai conference. The problem is difficult and urgent, and its solution is of extreme importance for achieving internal stability in the Middle East.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.