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Failure of democratic transition feeds the cause of extremism.

By Osama Al Sharif, Special to Gulf News,Thinker

Following a short-lived interlude in the wake of the "Arab Spring", when the focus of Middle East research was democratisation, civil liberties and people empowerment, the attention of the leading research centers across the Western world are today firmly focused on the surge of radical organisations, such as Daesh. Following the failure of democratic transition in most of the Arab countries which witnessed popular revolutions starting in late 2010, violent activities performed by radical groups provide today the prism through which most of the Middle East is viewed in Western academia as well as in the media. This marked a return to pre-Arab spring situation in which the Arab world was presented as a bastion of authoritarianism and/or extremism. Democracy and democratisation were considered as alien concepts in this part of the world.

At the heart of the renewed western obsession with terrorism and political violence as a research topic is a culturally essentialist view of the world, and a collection of recycled Orientalist tropes. Among these is the perennial mantra of "Arab Exceptionalism", trotted out to explain away the lack of democracy in the Arab world. Promoted by a number of think tanks and schools of thought, the idea of Arab Exceptionalism is also promoted as a useful vehicle to justify western policies in the region, i.e. reluctance to support democratic transition. It is also a convenient means for the forces of the past within the Arab region itself, for the same reasons. Today, regimes, such as that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, are able to use the spectre of terrorist violence to present themselves as the single source of legitimacy, security and stability in the region - indeed the lone force capable of maintaining social order. Terrorism and the well-rehearsed theme of Arab Exceptionalism are therefore means to ensuring not only the permanence of the likes of Bashar al-Assad regimes but also of the continued protection of Western interests across the Middle East and North Africa.

But, as demonstrated by the revolutions of 2011, the stability, which they promise, is mere illusion. The popular uprisings have underscored the need for democratic transition to good governance and representative rule if true stability is to take hold. Instead, extreme violence has been used to stifle the dream of young Arab generations for better life. This has led to the rise of intra-society sectarian conflicts, which became a proving ground for radical groups. These groups rely on their ability to marshal support from societal sectors which have been deliberately disenfranchised, deprived of all social and political agency.

A single minded focus on terrorism to the neglect of other social realities has also been a moral failure. It minimises the huge sacrifices which Syrians; Iraqis, Yemenis and other Arabs have made to rid themselves of tyranny and attempt to establish a democracy. These are not footnotes in history; massive debates on the best means to recapture the momentum of democratisation continue to animate public discourse in the Arab region.

The limited scope of research on the present state of affairs, specifically intensifying extremist violence and its relation to political despotism is due, at least in part, to the reality that the democratisation of the Arab world remains a remote possibility under the current circumstances. Other factors include Iranian interference across the region, and the descent of many Arab countries into deep ethnic and sectarian divisions as a result. Yet, judging the success or otherwise of the transition to democracy in the Arab world remains premature: the process of democratisation is necessarily complex and drawn out. Even now, however, certain Arab experiences stand out for their success. These include the gradual reform processes underway in Algeria and Morocco. Understanding this process of democratisation, the rules which underpin it as well as the obstacles which hinder it are all pressing research priorities for Arab and western academics at this moment of time. In parallel to this, the nature of authoritarian regimes, their structures and sources of power must also be research priorities for social scientists interested in Arab politics and societies.

The relationship between political violence, terrorism and the presently stalled transition to democracy in the Arab world must always be emphasised hence. Building a constructive rapport with Western academic institutions involved in the study of social and political developments in the Arab region is also important in this regard. The aim will not be to homogenise all attempts at understanding the failed attempt of democratic transition in Arab world and the rise of political violence in Arab societies, but also to understand the relationship between them.

Dr Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer.

- Osama Al Sharif - Dr Joseph A. Kechichian - Shashi Tharoor

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Aug 12, 2016
Words:807
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