Premature Elections Invite Political Instability

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

Although elections and political reforms are needed in the wake of the Arab Spring, premature elections could usher in a period of continued political instability punctuated by violence, or introduce new totalitarian regimes that would assume power under the pretext of maintaining order and stability. Of paramount importance is the formation of transitional governments proportionally representative of all segments of the populations for a minimum of five years. Such a government would be tasked with writing a new constitution and instituting gradual political reforms, while promoting human rights and economic development programs. Otherwise, elections will fail to produce the desired outcome of a free and vibrant new political and social order.

Indeed, no Arab country is ready for comprehensive political reforms without first developing a democratic culture, creating the environment that encourages the formation of political parties, and develops a clear political platform that is freely promoted to the public. Here, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and even Tunisia offer good examples of where internal socio-economic and political conditions highlight the difficulties involved. To that end, the situation in these Arab states strongly suggests that unless the following seven impediments are fully addressed, the Arab Spring will turn out to be the cruelest winter, shattering all hopes promised by the uprisings. 

1. The Rush for Parliamentary Elections
The rush to hold elections invariably favors the existing social and/or political groups that are the most organized, disciplined, and rooted in society. In Egypt and Tunisia, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) dominated the political scene. In Libya, however, although there was a strong possibility that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) would win the Islamic wave was broken and continued political instability will dominate the immature Libyan political landscape. Generally, the inability of secular and independent parties and those who share similar political orientations to coalesce around a single platform has generally boosted the performance of the Islamists, as the former had neither the time nor the means to organize politically and offer alternate political platforms to the Islamists.

2. Proliferation of Parties
Fragmented democratic systems that use proportional representation (PR), which translates votes to legislative power, typically see a notable proliferation of political parties that leads to the inevitable breakup of the electorate. As a consequence of the sweeping transformative effects of the Arab Spring, countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia have been pushed both from within and from outside to hold premature elections, regardless of the prevailing political environments that existed prior to the revolutions. As a result, dozens of political parties were abruptly formed (81 parties contested Tunisia’s elections, more than 40 were active in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, and Libya, having just participated in its first and most-recent elections, has an exorbitant 130). This mushrooming of political parties not only confuses the public but also prevents national consensus on any major foreign or domestic issues or programs.      

3. Inability to Establish Political Cohesiveness
When haste dictates the scale and scope of political campaigns, it is simply not possible for detailed platforms to be developed in time to deal with the litany of social ills that affect most, if not the entire, Middle East region. On top of the numerous political parties that are filling nascent political vacuums formed by the Arab Spring, thousands of independent candidates have thrown their hats in the electoral ring. The outbreak of independent candidates has deepened the level of political fragmentation and enhanced the bewildering nature of post-dictatorship Middle Eastern societies. The rush to elections, for example, has given Libyan candidates less than three weeks to formulate their political platforms, which makes them extremely difficult for the public to fully judge or comprehend. Consequently, candidates will hardly represent any sort of constituency in a manner that will fulfill the political aspirations of the young and the more secular parts of the electorate. 

4. No Culture for Democracy and Reform 
Regardless of the timing of elections, talk of democratic aspirations is wholly premature in societies that have never experienced a culture of democracy and reform. From their establishment in the wake of World War I and II in the early 20th century, all Arab states were led by authoritarian regimes that have inhibited democratic expression and stunted economic development for the majority of their populations. The stunning speed and scale of the Arab Spring has thrown a wrench into the old order but it should not follow that political reforms can or must be established at the same speed. Being that many of these countries have never had any experience with true democracy, holding immediate elections has already harmed the democratic process and set back the aspirations of those who wished to play a role in their country’s political renewal. 

5. Role of the Military
In countries that have an entrenched security apparatus (the “deep state” as it isknown in Egypt), the results of elections will be meaningless unless efforts are made to subordinate to civilian authority several critical government agencies including the military, intelligence services, interior ministries and secret police. Regardless of election results, the military in countries such as Egypt (and perhaps soon in Syria) will retain crucial control over the new political system in order to prevent relinquishing their inordinate power.  The paramount concern for military figures is maintaining final say on national security and major foreign policy issues and in Egypt’s case, to also safeguard its economic empire. 

6. Continued Violent Resistance
Many of the various parties and actors that have emerged in the burgeoning Middle Eastern democracies continue to resort to militant resistance in the face of intransigence on the part of central authorities, military or otherwise. Tahrir Square continues to be filled with friends and foes alike of the MB, in addition to the ruling military authorities. In spite of the recent elections armed militias continue to run rampant in Libya, exercising control over many parts of the national territory. Syria is facing the opposite scenario as the central authority continues to employ brutal means to retain power. Since the removal of Assad has become central to the emergence of a new political order, the carnage in Syria can be expected to spread even further as the regime fights for its life. 

7. Lack of Consensus Around the Nature of Reform
In holding elections immediately after a social revolution, there seems to be no consensus about a new constitution and the democratic reforms that should be enacted. This has turned the electoral processes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya into horse races of national councils, transitional authorities and military commanders. The various types of democratic rule that can be implemented should reject quick elections, as the diverse sectarian societies found in the Middle East need to be reconciled with elementary premises of political and human freedoms. Indeed, thetribal nature of Libya, for example, had engendered a debate between adopting federalism over decentralization, the latter clearly favoring tribal communities and a preferred option in Libya as a federalist system could exacerbate tense pre-existing ethnic and tribal conflicts. 

Regardless of how well-handled these reforms are and however long they may take, political reforms, in and of themselves, are insufficient unless accompanied by sustainable economic development programs, which I will address in a subsequent article. The public does not just want freedom—they want food, jobs, health care, education and a promising future. Genuine democratic reforms will take decades to evolve. Sooner or later, no Arab state will escape meaningful political change.  The rush to elections, however, does not support permanent change and makes a mockery of the democratic ideals that so many have died for.  

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