#188      31 min 30 sec
Exiting autocracy: Democratic prospects and prerequisites in the new Middle East

Cambridge political scientist Professor George Joffé weighs the chances of representative government emerging in the Middle East, post "Arab Spring". With host Jacky Angus.

"The difference between full and liberalised autocracies begins to give us an insight into the way in which revolutionary processes might then develop." -- Prof George Joffe




Prof. George Joffé
Professor George Joffé

Professor George Joffé is a Research Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge University; Visiting Professor of Geography at Kings College, London University. George is also Deputy Director and a Professorial Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute; and Director of RUSI Qatar.

George specialises in the Middle East and North Africa and is currently engaged in a project studying connections between migrant communities and trans/national violence in Europe.

Selected publications, as editor:

 

Credits

Host: Jacky Angus
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineers: Kelvin Param and Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 


JACKY ANGUS 
Hello, I'm Jacky Angus.  Thanks for joining us.  My guest today is Professor George Joffe from the University of Cambridge.  He's currently visiting Australia for a conference on the recent Arab Uprisings in 2011 and 2012, a conference funded jointly by Freedom House and the University of Melbourne, Australia.  As a specialist of international relations with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa, Professor Joffe has a particular interest in understanding the relationship between revolution and social evolution; that is, the prospect for real social and political change.  His paper at the conference addresses the question in everyone's mind at present and into the future -Will democracy flourish in the Middle East?  Can one be optimistic?  Or is informed realism the real key to understanding.  Welcome to Australia and Up Close, Professor Joffe.

GEORGE JOFFE
Thank you.  Do call me George.

JACKY ANGUS
George, as a student of political science when I was young, I was taught that revolutions, like human civilisation itself, generally follow a pattern.  That is, civilisation is ultimately a process not unlike a human biological development.  Clear stages can be discerned - youth, maturation, decline, decay and dissolution.  Of course the pace of this process varies and includes attempts to recover and maintain impetus at each stage.  But basically the direction of civilisation and its social revolutions is one that's universal and largely predictable.  I gather you think this paradigm isn’t helpful at all when it comes to interpreting what's happening in the Middle East today.

GEORGE JOFFE
I think that's probably true.  It's not that you can't talk in terms of stages of evolution and civilisation, as you certainly can.  There is a certain pattern that does assert itself.  But in reality, if you're looking at events within a defined timeframe, it's probably more helpful to try to understand the actual events themselves and their inter-relationships, and the drivers that produce the outcomes that you observe.  In those circumstances rather grandiose ideas of the evolution - cyclic evolution in fact of civilisation - I'm not sure is really very helpful.If you think in terms of Spengler, the idea that civilisations have their spring, summer, autumn and winter, it doesn’t tell you very much what's happening in 2011 inside the Arab world.  Whereas what really is important is to understand the actual events that drove the changes; why in fact people were prepared to accept them as drivers towards revolutionary change.

JACKY ANGUS 
So that means if you're looking at outcomes of revolution you have to differentiate between each culture or each political order?
GEORGE JOFFE 
No, I think you have to differentiate between circumstance and environment.  It's not so much a question of culture.  I think the argument that there's a culture-specific element over the way in which revolutions occur is again not very helpful.  People are basically the same.  They respond to the same sorts of stimuli.  If you deprive people of certain things, in the end they begin to suffer from deprivation and they become conscious of their deprivation and begin to try to change it.  So in a sense what you're looking at is primarily the objective environment in which groups of people, societies in short, begin to mature and develop; and the way in which they react to the political structure that encompasses them and controls the patterns of behaviour that they can enjoy.

JACKY ANGUS 
What about the argument that certain groups of people at a certain stage - as you've implied, a certain stage of development - are not really able to handle democracy?  There's that particularist argument or certain countries, i.e. the Middle East - they're not really ready for democracy yet.  Is that something that suggests that human political striving is not a universal phenomenon but is in fact geared to culture?

GEORGE JOFFE
Yes, but I think it's a very objectionable doctrine, quite frankly.  There are two things about it that I find objectionable.  Number one, behind it is a fundamental idea of teleology of progression; that's to say, people constantly improve; life gets constantly better - when actually it doesn’t.  That vision of history was talked of by Howard Butterworth as the weakest vision of history.  It's one that simply doesn’t hold true.  That's the first problem.The second problem is that it assumes that some groups of people, for reasons of culture or other factors, aren’t capable of the same kinds of universal aspirations that people actually have.  I'm not talking about aspirations towards secular democracy, towards principles of human rights - all the grandiose ideas that tend to populate the modern world.  I'm talking about the fact that individuals have a sense of their location inside society and a sense of what is just and what is not.  They, therefore, tend as a group to react towards that.  So it's a much more basic sense of what they're entitled to as human beings.Ideas that say some groups of people aren’t ready for that ignore the fact that those sorts of sentiments are in a way very elemental and they're universal.  It seems to me that when you look, say, at the Middle East, to suggest that people in the Middle East aren’t capable, interested in or understand, say, democracy, is to denigrate them, because they are.  In their own particular way - they may express it in ways different than those that we normally use - they have exactly the same drivers as we do.

JACKY ANGUS 
What about the argument or the view, rather, that people's concepts and notions of freedom, of political order and so on are perhaps not entirely driven by their culture but more specifically are shaped by a notion, say, of Muslim governance and notions of what is just and right within the Muslim context?  So that means that they might have a certain slant on democracy, which is not the position in the West, but more than that, they don’t see it as developing perhaps bottom-up but rather top-down; it's a question of guided democracy.

GEORGE JOFFE 
If you're saying that these big principles, say, democracy, participation in the process of governance, are culturally determined, of course I've got to agree.  They're bound to be.  But that doesn’t mean to say that the objectives and the principles aren’t actually the same.  What do we want out of democracy?  We want to feel that we're in some way in charge of our own destinies; that we have something to say about what should be done to us as part of a collectivity.  That seems to me to be elemental.  Associated with it is the idea that we should be treated fairly and that we should treat others fairly too, which is embodied in the concept of the rule of law, in a sense.Now It may be expressed in slightly different terms because of different cultural backgrounds, but those fundamental principles exist inside the Middle East too and inside Islamic societies as well.  There's nothing that says that the Western vision of what democracy should be is an absolute or a universal.  It is simply one version of a general principle, and, therefore, people in the Arab world have exactly the same aspirations.One of the driving principles in Islam is the idea of social justice.  And social justice basically means the ability of the individual to feel secure in him or herself in the environment in which they live, inside the social context in which they live.  And that does require that they should feel that they're in charge in some way of that environment, and that they're also aware of the principles that govern the behaviour of themselves and other people in that collectivity.  That applies equally well inside a Western democratic system too.

JACKY ANGUS 
But George, isn’t Muslim governance quite different in its priorities to democracy as we understand it in the West?

GEORGE JOFFE
I think the common view of political Islam, that it's a statement of Muslim principle, doctrinal principle in a political context, defining only an ideal political order, is misguided.  To a very large extent it's a statement about the failure of other ideologies and ideological systems to define an equitable system of governance inside the Muslim world.  And Islam itself, in fact just like Christianity many years ago, has within it principles of governance that resonate to the cultures of the people concerned.  So it's not really surprising that Islam should have been mobilised for the sake of articulating a political alternative.But what we need to do is to look at the effects much more than the ideology.  The interesting point is that over the last ten years or so, political Islam has been extrapolated, has become multifarious activity with a vast range of different interpretations; and it's become increasingly political.  That's to say, it's dealing with real issues, real events, real circumstance.  In those terms the issue of doctrine begins to fall away, so that if you actually look at what is said by the Muslim Brotherhood today compared with its view 10, 15, 20 years ago, it's a very different animal.  Today it's concerned about the actual process of governance.  It's not concerned so much about the ideal principles.  It knows it's got to deal with practical issues.  It knows it's got to satisfy voters, and if it doesn’t, it won't be voted back.  And that, I think, is a very encouraging development.  It reminds me of what happened in the European context with the development of Christian democracy.  It began too in the 19th century as a statement about a moral order inside the political process.  It ended up becoming a series of political movements articulating specifically political objectives in a specifically political context.  And that I think is what is going to happen with Islam.  That must be encouraging, because it means once again the Islamic world finds itself in consonance, as it were, with other parts of the world over the political process.

JACKY ANGUS 
But if you've got a group of people who have gone into parliament in the name of Islam, even - they may well be differentiated between, say, the Salafis and the more liberal Muslim Brotherhood, isn’t it likely that they'll have to be so pragmatic in the end as to form some sort of coalition against the secularists, so that in the end it does come down to a rather black and white situation?

GEORGE JOFFE
It might be that some of them make a coalition with secularists against the others.  Indeed in the case of the Salafi movements, which by the way in theory should be opposed to all kind of political action - that's indeed what Salafism is really about - it seems to me the Muslim Brotherhood will begin to move against them.  Already in Tunisia you will hear members of Ennahdha, the main Islamist party there saying, we have got to educate these people, meaning the Salafists, into understanding what the political process is about; not saying, we must join them against the secularists.  So I don’t think that's a danger.Don't forget too that some of the leading members of both the Muslim Brotherhood's party in Egypt, the Freedom and Justice Party, and in Tunisia, are not Muslim at all.  That I think is very significant.

JACKY ANGUS
I'm Jacky Angus and my guest on Up Close today is Professor George Joffe from Cambridge University.  We're discussing how best to understand what's happening in the Middle East.George, if we look back to the idea of differentiating outcomes - we started this discussion - is it fair to say that there is a sort of split within perhaps specific societies - I won't say right across the Middle East because it's too general - but in a particular society, between - let's take Egypt - the old Nasserist view of what is just and right and proper, and the Facebook generation that appears to have been the initial drivers of the revolution in Egypt?

GEORGE JOFFE 
Clearly there are differences.  People evolve over time.  They must do.  There is a historical context to this.  The context of Nasserist Egypt is very different from the context today.  It after all developed in the aftermath of the colonial period.  It embodied a new principle of political organisation, Arab nationalism.  It saw itself as a centre of the Arab world and the non-aligned movement, and believed it had a responsibility there to confront both East and West.  It was forced by circumstance, namely the Cold War, to make a choice in that respect.  And that conditioned its behaviour thereafter.  Today we're looking at a very different world.  Not only is there the internet, but actually people in the Middle East have integrated into a much more global economy, and in a sense too into a more global society.  The facility of travel, for example, being of those elements.  But again one needs to be careful, because the Facebook generation so-called is a very small proportion of the total population of a country like Egypt.  Internet penetration in Egypt, for example, is between 10 and 15 per cent.  That means that not many people have got access to the internet or indeed to Facebook, Twitter, whatever it may be.  I'm not even certain that actually the Facebook generation really did drive the revolution in Egypt at all.

JACKY ANGUS
What about the enormous penetration of mobile phones in Egypt?  Wasn't that very critical?  It may well be that a lot of the new proletariat were kind of pulled in via the mobile phone if not via the internet.  Surely in Egypt there is a kind of a groundswell that goes up beyond the Facebook generation.  It's not just the young people out there.  Or was that purely momentary?  Has it all subsided so there are only now young people in Tahrir Square?

GEORGE JOFFE
That's a very interesting point, because the evidence seems to be that in the revolution itself there was a general move within the population of rejection of the Mubarak regime, and a general sense of demonstrating that sense of distaste; and that over time in the last year that has to some extent died down; and that people today are much more concerned about the practicalities of daily life, and, therefore, the idea of sustained revolutionary change is no longer so interesting. But again one needs, I think, to be very careful about that.  That's a general tendency.  Wherever you go revolutions are elementary things.  They consume people's attention and energies, but they can't endure.  People do have daily lives to get on with.  They have to survive.  And that in itself I think limits their ability to engage in prolonged and repetitive political action. If we actually look at the way in which, in Egypt, that revolution took place, yes, it's true there were mobile phones through which that was articulated, but that wasn’t the first time.  I know, for example, 15, 20 years ago in Austria during the demonstrations against the then Austrian President because of his Nazi past, demonstrations were organised by mobile phones.  They were just coming in then.  So the mobile phone in itself wasn’t particularly new.What I think was really crucial was not so much the mobile phone; it was television, particularly Al Jazeera.  Al Jazeera is universally accessible.  It's something you can understand whether or not you can read or write, whether or not you've got a mobile phone.  And it was constantly on, so it was there as a constant repetition of events in the centre being broadcast to all parts of Egypt itself.  That I think mobilised people much more than anything else.

JACKY ANGUS 
Given that Al Jazeera is alive and well now and throughout the Middle East and in fact throughout the world now with Al Jazeera in English, can one say that despite that source of mobilisation that some of these uprisings will not be successful; that these revolutions are unlikely really to trigger social change at any large scale?

GEORGE JOFFE
I think that's maybe a little hard.  The real question is whether we're now about to move into a new paradigm shift inside the Middle East, so that we have to begin to reconsider the Middle East in completely new terms.  Whether in fact elements of the past will reassert themselves.  I think unfortunately that's really going to be the case.  My reason for saying that is that you cannot actually separate revolution out from the specific environment in which it develops.  In the case of the Middle East it's quite clear that individual circumstances and individual countries affected the outcomes that are now emerging in just the same way as universal principles condition the environment for revolution to occur. And I think to understand that you need to look at two separate components.  First of all you need to consider the economic environment in which this began.  In very simple terms that economic environment was first of all one of general economic development failure throughout the region; largely a consequence of Western policy over a very long period of time imposed from outside.  Secondly it was a consequence of changes inside the global economy attendant on the financial and economic crisis in the West; but also on rises in energy and food prices.  Those caused riots.  That was the event, if you like, that jumpstarted the revolutionary process.  And then beyond that there was another driver which was purely political. And that was the fact that people in the Middle East had over generations become disgusted by the process of governance.  They felt that to a very large extent the regimes that ruled them lacked any sense of a common purpose, of a common responsibility, and treated the populations over whom they ruled with a degree of contempt and arrogance that made them intolerable.It's strange to note that the two words that came through all the time - was a question of demands for dignity and demands for respect.  That was the most important thing that galvanised the actual demonstrators.  So in a way that I think was equally important.And there too there's another factor that I think is significant, and that is that some countries had undergone political change that allowed for the beginnings of a civil society.  That civil society provided the basis through which social movements could develop.  It was social movements that provided the organisation that allowed the demonstrations to take the size they did.

JACKY ANGUS 
George, let's now differentiate, if we may, between these various revolutions.  We've looked briefly at Egypt.  How do you see revolutions, for example, in Tunisia shaping up compared with Libya?

GEORGE JOFFE
I personally think that the one genuine revolution that has really occurred is the one in Tunisia.  There you've seen a whole political structure swept away.  It's been replaced by a popular determination to construct a participatory political system; that all those major political parties participating in that enjoy consensus over preserving that system, and that, therefore, Tunisia can anticipate, despite the economic problems it's going to face - and they're very large indeed - that it could move towards effective democratic governance in the relatively near future.When you look elsewhere, and particularly at Libya next door, that can't be the case.  It can't be the case because of the nature of the Gaddafi regime that was destroyed in 2011.  It can't be the case because of the lack of political experience inside the country itself today.  It probably can't be the case because of the lack of organised state-centred security.  Security is in the hands at the moment of a series of militias.  That may or may not change; we simply don't know.  And while that's the case, the idea of rule of law, of the guarantee that the state will treat people equally and with the same degree of disinterest and objectivity simply can't apply.  So in Libya we face the danger of a state emerging that is either fragmented or becomes slowly a kind of failed state.  So that at some point in the future the revolutionary process will have to take place again to reassert the role of the state.  The danger then is that that state will do so in terms of centralised repression.  We'll have then gone full circle back to the nature of the regime that originally was destroyed.

JACKY ANGUS 
I'm Jacky Angus, and my guest on Up Close today is Professor George Joffe from Cambridge University.  We're discussing how best to understand what's happening in the Middle East.  George, the idea that autocracy or a repressive state can in fact lead the way to liberalism does sound a bit bizarre, but there are circumstances in which this seems to have occurred.  Can you tell us about some of the theories around this idea?

GEORGE JOFFE
Yes, well, the starting point I think is to realise that autocracies are not all the same.  There are degrees and degrees of autocracy and totalitarianism. And the question then is, what are the differences and why do they exist?  Again I think we have to set this within a quite specific historical order.  The fact is that in the 1970s and 1980s Western states began to demand of Middle Eastern states that they should modify their behaviour; they should begin to accept certain general principles of participatory governance and respect for individual human rights.  The regimes concerned knew they had to yield, so they did to a degree.  They agreed to allow very restricted civil society sectors to emerge.  They then realised that those sectors actually provided a guarantee for themselves, because by demonstrating they were prepared to liberalise a little, the pressure on liberalisation began to decline; so that the process of liberalisation very strictly controlled by the centre became in itself a mechanism of guaranteeing the continuance of the regime concerned. Those kinds of autocracies were christened by Daniel Bromberg in the States as liberalised autocracies.  He contrasted them with the other type of autocracy, typically Libya or Syria, where there was no question of allowing any kind of civil society to emerge.  And civil society is important in this context because it's usually the mechanism by which the power of the state is mediated and controlled.  So in a way, the difference between full and liberalised autocracies begins to give us an insight into the way in which revolutionary processes might then develop.

JACKY ANGUS
But if you start liberalising a society or even suggest that you might one day do so - as seems to be happening in Saudi, or there are hints, dark hints about that - then you do in fact often trigger a response amongst competing factors; you know, the stakeholders - I'm thinking of the tribes and so on.  How would you see that situation of semi-liberalisation, for example, in Bahrain or somewhere like that?  What I'm really saying is, when you start liberalising, all sorts of other things, you know, get happening.

GEORGE JOFFE
All sorts of other things can happen.  They don’t have to.  If you do it very carefully, if you do it with great care, if you make sure you control the process, that doesn’t necessarily follow.JACKY ANGUSBut can you control the process?

GEORGE JOFFE
That's an interesting question.  I think if you're an autocrat you probably think you can and, therefore, you do.  In the short term at least you're probably successful.  That was certainly the case in Egypt for a very long time.  It was the case in Tunisia as well.  It's certainly been the case in Algeria, for example, in the wake of the Algerian civil war.  In Morocco too I think I'd argue that had been the case.  So over a predictable time horizon - and don’t forget it's very difficult to predict over more than five to ten years - it seems to be a model that does work.Now in the longer term other factors may enter in to make your control of the situation very difficult to sustain.  That's indeed what happened in 2011.  But that isn’t necessarily an intrinsic part of the process; or you may not believe it to be so.  So the model itself maybe is not so inappropriate.  Again governments and states have manifold ways of ensuring their control, because that's what they're really there to do, is to exercise control to impose legitimate violence on society for the sake of ordering society appropriately.  Governments, whether they're democratic or autocratic, tend to be quite successful at doing that.

JACKY ANGUS
But even in the case of liberalisation and the fact that it makes, perhaps, the life of the elite a little bit easier, it seems to me that that in fact is not of itself pluralising or allowing the development of democracy.  There's a kind of halting period.  I'm wondering about Fukuyama's argument about the importance of reform coming through autocracy or coming through a stable situation where the parameters are very clear for liberalism then to develop.  I mean it's a sort of oscillation, isn’t it?  It's a complex kind of a theory.

GEORGE JOFFE
You need to think in fact how liberalism did begin way back during the Enlightenment, for example, in Europe.  It began as a question of a competition between classes; between a centralised ruling class and a middle class of growing economic importance demanding certain rights and certain privileges because of its economic importance, and obtaining them, and then codifying that in a vision of how society should be ordered - the idea of the rule of law as the essential component of democracy; more important perhaps even than the process of the vote.The moment you arrive at that stage you're beginning to construct a model of the state in which the idea of liberalism, the idea of participation, becomes an intrinsic part of the guarantee of the stability of the state.  So one can distinguish, I think, between autocratic states - and all states begin in autocracy - which are stable, where rulers have the insight to understand the need to liberalise slowly; and autocratic states that are not inherently stable, that are in effect hollow states, where the ability of the state to articulate power is usually in a very crude and repressive form, because without that the state loses control.  So it has to do with control, much more than it has to do with some kind of intellectual principle of the idea of liberalism itself.

JACKY ANGUS 
What about the trade-off and the social contract?  I'll make things easier if you vote for me.  That obviously doesn’t pertain in an autocracy where there's one vote once.  But it does pertain in the Western model that you suggested.  Is there some sort of middle ground for those states in the Middle East that are moving or attempting to move towards a democratic system?  They still have to deal with popular sovereignty, they have to deal with the real vote if elections are going to be fair and more than once.  They have to then have some sort of social contract with the populace.

GEORGE JOFFE
You always have to have a social contract.  If you don’t have a social contract in the end you can't maintain yourself.  So a social contract is essential.  The question is how you articulate it.  Do you articulate it because you distribute, to the population, wealth?  That's what happens in the Gulf, for example.  You buy political support.  Or do you do it by encouraging people to participate in the governmental process, thereby guaranteeing that they will ensure that you're seen to be a legitimate ruler because they participated in some way in the outcomes of governance?  That would be the liberalising process, I think, in operation.  Or do you simply just repress and say, you will do as you're told, and if you don’t, then you don't have a part to play inside society at all?  That's a question of choice and a question of circumstance.And even, you know, in democratic systems, the idea that in some way they're fair is rather deceptive, I think.  I remember Hayek once pointed out that democracies were little better than dictatorships.  They had only the advantage that they could be changed once every five years, and then by agreement.  I think that's quite an important insight, because democracies actually rule by the majority.  That means the minority itself can very easily become its victim.  So I think before we begin to make clear distinctions between autocracies and democracies we need to be aware of the way in which one can shed into the other.  The real thing that distinguishes them is that individuals in democracies by and large can rest assured that there is a law, a system of law, that guarantees their rights, in which the state cannot and will not interfere.  In autocracies it is the state that defines the law.  That means that nobody can be certain that their rights are preserved.

JACKY ANGUS 
Can I end up by asking whether you're optimistic in general about what's happening in the Middle East and what has recently happened and what may happen the near future, including some of the more difficult ones like Libya and Syria?

GEORGE JOFFE
I think I am actually optimistic.  I don’t want to suggest that I actually support the weakest division with which I began.  But nonetheless, I think I am probably optimistic in the sense that this is a very long, slow process.  I certainly don’t believe that people in the Middle East aren’t capable of democratic governance and democratic expression.  I am certain that they are.  But it does seem to me that the structures that have controlled them for many generations have now begun to modify themselves, and that's very encouraging.  There are going to be great difficulties on the way.  It's going to be a very long process; a matter of years not of months.  But in the end I think they will be recognisable democracies.  We're not yet at the situation of being able to say that really what's happened in the Middle East is not 1989, but in fact 1848.  There's still hope that change can continue.

JACKY ANGUS 
On that optimistic note thank you very much, George Joffe.

GEORGE JOFFE
You're very welcome.

JACKY ANGUS 
I've been speaking with Professor George Joffe from Cambridge University and we've been discussing developments in the Middle East.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more information on this episode can be found at our website, at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  Our producers for this episode were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I'm Jacky Angus.  Until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close.  We're also on Twitter and Facebook.  For more info visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2012, the University of Melbourne.


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