Islam, democracy and legitimacy

What does an Arab Spring of decades past have to tell us about the future of the region?

Aleppo Rally 311 R (photo credit: Reuters)
Aleppo Rally 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters)
Two decades ago, following the previous "Arab Spring" in Algeria which overthrew the 30-year regime of the revolutionary National Liberation Front—led by former Algerian presidents Mohamed Ahmed Ben Bella and Houari Boumedienne—free elections were declared with great fanfare, promising the dawn of a new era of "liberalism" and "democracy.”
The world was told that following a tumultuous history of revolutions and killings, the Algerian people had finally liberated their country from the yoke of foreign manipulation and were now prepared to embark on a new road to civility, moderation and modernity.
The assumption was that the “Spring” would lead to a more transparent and open multi-party system with an independent judiciary, as well as establishing free press and democratic institutions. In effect, the changes would reflect the political system of Algeria’s former ruler, the French. Over more than a century of colonial rule, the country had gained inspiration from its ruler’s motto of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.”
All those who hailed the dawning of a new era of social, political and economic development maintained that free elections would lead to a civil governance in which human rights would be respected, corruption would be muzzled, democracy celebrated and of course internal peace would be secured.
Little did the analysts and professional optimists know that when people are prodded into making a choice, they tend to go for the familiar and the most understood option- ergo, the least threatening one.
Then, as in the current Arab Spring, questions of legitimacy were voiced only by the West, not by the contending political powers themselves. In 2011, the powers-that-be determined that the rulers of Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia had "lost their legitimacy of power,"—as if they ever had any—and therefore must be disposed of. The Arab populace has filled Facebook pages and public squares, and even today it continues to   hail "democracy" as the panacea - without ever having experienced true democracy or even understood the sacrifices required to earn and maintain it.
When elections are held in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, it is the conservative, reactionary, traditional and anti-democratic Muslim organizations, be they the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, the Wahhabis, the Hizb ut-Tahrir or other Taliban-esqe obscurantists, who eventually come out on top. The sad paradox is that even though many of those groups despise democracy and reject it out of hand, the same crowds in the public plazas that hail democracy ending up in the privacy of the ballot booths voting for its enemies.
It seems that while they’re in the public eye, the demonstrators tell the media what it wishes to hear, but when they finally have the opportunity to make a real choice, they invariably revert to the good, old ways of Islam.
In Algeria from 1991-2, and again in the Middle East of 2011-12, there have been monarchical regimes, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia where only scarce populations of natives belong to the Sheikh while the foreign laborers who do the requisite work constitute a increasingly dangerous social and religious powder keg.
The rulers, who are supported by the West, have no legitimacy because nobody chose them and all cling to the magnitude of their religious importance to justify their corrupt rule, much like the curator of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia or the Hashemite house and the curator of al-Aqsa Mosque for the Jordanian King.
It is no wonder then, that in the face of radical change, these endangered rulers stick together and continue to dance sheikh to sheikh.
Another type of regime in today’s Arab world is the military juntas which took power by force decades ago and tried to legitimize their rule through nepotism. This system is still operative in Syria and could have become reality in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Yemen had they not been disrupted by revolution and war.
A third type of rule is being introduced now: The Muslim parties who, unlike the two other types, claim the unchallengeable legitimacy of Islam—anchored by the Qur'an—which proclaims Allah's sovereignty over the people’s.
The result is that with western support, the non-monarchical, illegitimate rulers are being toppled one after the other, and much to the chagrin of the West, yields the way for alternative Islamic governments to come into power.  The illegitimate and corrupt monarchies, meanwhile, still cling to the last vestiges of their dying reigns, and so long as the hypocritical West supports them are likely to do so for Allah knows how long.
20 years ago, the Algerian voters took democracy seriously and went to the polls to vote freely. The little they did know was that they were free to vote, provided they voted for western-style democracy and that their right to vote would be revoked if they dared to vote for Islamic rule.
And what transpired? The free vote allowed the military junta to regain power, and another decade of killing and bloodshed ensued – with the West only to aware of what had happened as a result of the elections that it condoned. 
We are constantly barraged with evidence pointing to Islamist disgust of the West, and its revulsion towards anything relating to democracy or freedom is certainly not a secret.
Yet still, we remain silent as these Islamists form parties that are “democratically” elected into power. 
The West needs to wake up to the fact that just as soon as these parties are securely in power, their Islamic Caliphate-inspired rule begins taking root, by which time the gap between those countries and the West will be utterly unbridgeable.

The writer is a professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern and Chinese history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the steering committee of the Ariel Center for Policy Research.