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Well, are the Arabs ready for Democracy?

On 22 February David Cameron, in an address to the Kuwaiti parliament, hit out at suggestions the Middle East “can’t do democracy”, saying: “For me, that’s a prejudice that borders on racism.”

Even at the time it was blatantly clear that such statements were part of his and French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign to persuade the United Nations to approve military action against the forces of Muammar Gaddafi viciously and bloodily repressing pro-Democracy rebels across Libya.

A little over 6 weeks later, as NATO tries not to apologise for bombing the hell out of the first armoured column the hard-pressed Libyan rebels have been able to assemble in what is now a de facto civil war…as revolutionary Tunisia and revolutionary Egypt wonder what on earth to do next now they’ve gotten rid of their dictators…and Syrian security forces exterminate yet more pro-Democracy protestors on the streets of Deraa, I’d argue it could be construed as racist not to ask the question: “Can the Arabs do Democracy?” After all, thousands of Arabs have died over the past 3 months in the name of Democracy. If we’re not to devalue their lives, we have to ask whether their sacrifice for their cause is justified. We’d certainly ask it if thousands of demonstrators were being killed systematically by the police in cities across Europe!

So, are Arab peoples significantly different in their genetic make-up from the Europeans and North Americans who do do Democracy? Certainly, from the huge amounts of evidence analysed by the likes of Elliott Sober (2000) in the past 20 years, it would appear not. In which case, if there is a difference in the potential for Democracy, it has to lie primarily in cultural factors.

It’s interesting that it’s generally accepted that, while Europe languished in the Dark Ages, the Arabs not only kept Hellenic science alive in Mathematics, Astronomy, Medicine and Philosophy but added to many of the ancient Greeks’ works. It’s even of note that some attribute the first flourishings of European science coming from the Moorish invaders of Spain bringing Arabic science to the continent. From there the European Renaisssance developed and eventually the ‘scientific revolution’ of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Meanwhile, Arabic science – and, with it, Arabic culture – largely fossilised. This digression into the development of science is important because, while the link between cultural and scientific development is extremely ‘rough and ready’, there does indeed seem to be an unexplored correlation. Many commentators – eg: Norman Tebbitt in his August 2005 remarks on the 7/7 bombings – attribute the fossilisation of Arabic science and culture in the late Middle Ages to the increasing stranglehold of Islam on Arabic thought. Others attribute it to the political systems in place. Yet others attribute it to the cumulative effect of a plethora of small things such as the Arabic failure to adopt a patenting system as the Europeans did which made science potentially profitable for its exponents.

Whatever, over an 800-year period – arguably starting with the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215 – the Europeans made a slow and tortuous progress to modern Democracy while the Arabs changed little other than for some of their national borders to be imposed upon them (eg: Iraq, Libya) and to accept some of the benefits of Western science and engineering (medicine, transport infrastructure, etc) during the ‘days of empire’.

In terms of political systems, very little has changed. Some countries like Saudi Arabia still have absolute monarchies while others – eg: Egypt, Tunisia, Libya – had their kings replaced with autocratic dictators who were either military leaders or sponsored by the military.

These are, of course, generalisations – Lebanon, for example, stands out as different in many ways – but the post-colonial history of that country is far from being that of a stable, democratic, unified nation.

In terms of cultural vMEMES, Europe could be generalised in the late Middle Ages as being dominated by RED-thinking despots with a power hierarchy of lords and nobles, with the Roman Catholic Church providing some semblance of BLUE structure and PURPLE clan networks largely suppressed and/or dying out in terms of influence. Now Western Europe (and North America) can be generalised as largely dominated by BLUE political structures (democratic systems) exploited by ORANGE-driven political achievers and business corporates – with some sheen of GREEN influencing moral thinking in social matters, particularly in the Scandinavian countries.

In contrast the Arab nations have largely remained ruled by RED despots, with Islam providing a BLUE veneer of conscience and duty. The PURPLE clan (tribal) networks still flourish in many of the Arabic countries but have been quite suppressed in others – eg: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. The army generals in these countries function in a similar way to the Mediaeval European king’s lords.

So where have these intense campaigns for Democracy in the Middle East and North Africa come from and what does Democracy really mean to the protestors?

Complex ideas for simpler worldviews…?
I’ll never forget, in late 2000, during the HemsMESH project, hearing Spiral Dynamics co-developer Don Beck talk about irresponsible, profit-oriented ORANGE beaming television images of high value/high status items into homes where the thinking was largely in PURPLE and RED. The danger in this, as Beck saw it, was that RED would drive many of those people to do anything to get those items.  As they lacked BLUE disciplines and ORANGE planning and RED has no concept of time other than NOW, some of those people would deal drugs, commit burglaries, extort others and prostitute themselves to get what they saw as necessary for the ‘good life’ – Robert K Merton’s (1938) version of anomie. Those wo resort to criminal acts to get what is desired are Zygmunt Bauman’s (1988) ‘seduced’ criminalised. Those whose thinking was more dominated by PURPLE would most likely feel more alienated than ever from the ‘others’ – those who have the ‘good life’ – effectively Bauman’s ‘repressed’.

Beck was talking about the residents of the South-East Wakefield former mining villages where, until the mines closed, life for a couple of centuries had been little more complicated than going to school to get the basics of reading and writing until you were old enough to go down the pit (males) or get married, have children and look after the household (females). Until the mines closed, their ‘life conditions’ didn’t require thinking more complex than PURPLE and RED. Then, in less than a generation the mines were gone and incomes severely reduced while ORANGE consumerism tempted them endlessly with the ‘good life’ they simply couldn’t have legally without a substantial upgrade in thinking.

Beck’s concerns can be applied in large measure to the peoples in the Arab states whose life conditions, for perhaps centuries, have required little beyond PURPLE and RED. Where more complex thinking has emerged, it has tended be isolated to the universities or repressed or both. It’s no accident that it’s largely been imported workers from the West (management and technology) and places like the Philippines and the Indian subcontinent (more manual labour) who have got the wealth-producing oil out of the ground in those Arab states which have the ‘black gold’.

But especially with the advent of the internet and more especially with the development of social networking (Twitter, Facebook, etc), the Arab peoples have been exposed to complex concepts previously rarely experienced by the average Arab in downtown Benghazi or the backstreets of Deraa. Like the former coalminers of South East Wakefield, many Arabs are being exposed to ideas with which they do not yet have the mental and cultural sophistication to fully understand and assimilate.

The result has been the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ – an angry outpouring of long-suppressed dissatisfaction with the authoritarian regimes which have ruled them largely through the shadowy terrors of a police state. They are driven by a RED contagion that flies in the face of the water cannons, the tear gas, the rubber bullets, the baton charges and all too frequently live ammunition. In spite of the appalling injuries and sometimes death inflicted upon their fellow-protestors right by their side, they come back time and time again, more and more determined to get rid of their autocratic rulers.

Apart from the sheer level of violence inflicted by the state upon the protestors – most obviously in Libya but Syria, Bahrain and the Yemen have also seen levels of violence by the state that are totally unacceptable to most North Americans and Western Europeans – there is a problem in understanding what the protestors want and how they might get it. They certainly know what they don’t want – Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, Ali Abdullah Saleh, etc – as if a collective move-away-from meta-programme was running their heads…. But do they know what they want beyond some ephemeral idea of ‘Democracy’…?

This is where there seems to be a clear lack of charismatic, ‘big-vision’ leadership. There are no Mahatma Gandhis or Nelson Mandelas – not even a Gerry Adams! – to articulate what the new Tunisia or the new Egypt might look like…what model of Democracy they might actually try to implement. So far the Arab Spring revolutions seem to be composed genuinely of the ‘little people’ who had simply had enough of the ‘bad guys’ terrorising and exploiting them and got some ideas of what to do about it from the internet.

So the problem of the lack of leadership also leads to what might be termed a ‘vision vacuum’.

History shows that, where there is chaos and a lack of leadership and vision vacuum, then the vacuum can be filled very easily by those who offer quite an unsavoury vision as long as it is a vision that offers hope and order from the chaos and is accompanied by strong leadership. Just think of what Adolph Hitler offered bankrupt and depressed Germany in the 1930s. Just think of what the Taliban offered ravaged Afghanistan after the failed governments that followed the Russian invasion and withdrawal.

Fortunately – so far, at least! – the Arab Spring seems to be running a move-away-from fundamentalist Islam meta-programme. But how long can the vision vacuums last before people became desperate for strong leadership and someone or something to give them vision?

The West is right to be concerned that al-Qaeda or their ilk could take advantage of the vision vacuums.

How Democracy works
Using 4Q/8L, it’s possible to take a sociopsychological analysis of the way Western Democracy works.

Firstly the structure (Lower Right) is largely BLUE in that the political systems are tightly controlled, very bureaucratic and centred on the principle of one (free adult) person/one (secret) vote. The cultures of the Lower Left are all over the Spiral’s 1st Tier but the vast majority of the population’s thinking is in the PURPLE, RED and BLUE zones. There isn’t that sizeable a proportion of the population thinking in vMEMES beyond BLUE. (In 1983 Anne Colby et al found only marginal evidence – around 5% of their samples – of thinking at Stage 5 – the equivalent of ORANGE – in Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.) Thus, the ORANGE thinking of key individuals (Upper Left) is able to manipulate less complex thinking in the Lower Left to vote in elections (Lower Right) to their advantage. A prime example of this was the way Tony Blair fought to get and retain Rupert Murdoch’s support for Labour because he knew The Sun – Britain’s most widely-read newspaper – was one of the most powerful weapons in his election armoury. Gordon Brown lost Murdoch’s support in 2009 and the following year Labour lost the election.

Western Democracy is far from being the fair, just and egalitarian concept the West likes to portray it as. Marxists have no hesitation in pointing out how it largely preserves elites. But it does facilitate some social mobility, it does factor in some capacity for change and most people in the Western democracies find it more or less acceptable – and certainly they see it as better than any form of totalitarian or authoritarian government!

If we apply 4Q/8L to the Arab states, we find the Lower Right structure is BLUE enough for the government’s police systems to work but they run on RED power and coercion. There is little BLUE in the Lower Left – in fact, it’s largely fear-conscious PURPLE-dominated. All of which enables RED-led individuals in the Upper Left to use the Lower Right to dominate the Lower Left…until very recently. Now we have an explosion of angry RED in the Lower Left.

Just how much the protestors are driven by RED (and, to some extent, PURPLE) is illustrated by the Libyan rebels who appear mostly incompetent as would-be soldiers and are far too disorganised to take on Gaddafi’s forces who have a strong dose of BLUE military discipline among them. The only time the rebels seem to have real success is when Gaddafi’s forces are reeling from United Nations/NATO airstrikes.

The above analyses of both the Western democracies and the authoritarian Arab states are, of course, full of generalisations. In reality, there are many, many variations which make those generalisations flawed. Nontheless, as a generalisation it can be said that Arab culture and state structures have some way to go before they are ready for Western-style Democracy.

Democracy is said to require:-

  • People be informed enough to take an interest in how they are governed. This assumes a degree of education and intelligence amongst the electorate. Plus, they must have the time and resources to take the interest.
  • It also assumes media, free from government interference, communicating information on the key issues for people to develop an informed opinion. Communicating on issues to the electorate forms a powerful check on what governments do, putting them under scrutiny by the electorate. (Which is why so many leading politicians cultivate the media magnates to win their support.)
  • People doing things the government can’t control. Much in the lives of British citizens is beyond the direct control of governments. Families, religious organisations, clubs and societies, for example, facilitate discussion and debate about public concerns…yet in the UK it is difficult for government to influence them very much.
  • Little desire for radical alternatives. In the UK there is not that much difference between the parties. Those supporting losing parties usually don’t need to fear that their lives will be ‘turned upside down’ as a consequence of their favoured party losing.
    Eg: in the wake of the 2010 general election in the UK, while the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government proposed an average cut of 25% in public sector costs, the losing Labour Party conceded that they intended cuts of around 20% – though at a slower pace of implementation.
    Because there is a maximum term a government can serve in a democracy before another election – 5 years in the UK – the losing party have little incentive not to accept defeat. They will get their chance again at the next election.

Clearly there are a large percentage of Arab populations who are poorly educated, with many illiterate. They are not used to having a free media – though much is being made of the ‘free’ rebel radio stations in Benghazi! Plus, there is a minority – hopefully still rather small – who would like to see the revolutionary states dominated by Islamic fundamentalism.

For Democracy to be sustainable, it also has to be embedded as a cultural norm. And there the strong PURPLE tribalism running throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa presents a real problem – as Talcott Parsons (1964) identified when considering obstacles to Modernisation Theory. A central concept in Democracy is that, after all the attempts to influence and buy influence, the voter should make up their own mind. In PURPLE tribal cultures, there is effectively no secret vote. You vote how your tribal elder tells you to vote.

It would be wrong to say Arab cultures and structures couldn’t very quickly become democratic…but the seriously-flawed experiment in Democracy in Iraq should serve as a warning that change is unlikely to occur quickly, smoothly or painlessly.

Even more, the election of Hamas in Gaza in 2006 is a cautionary tale on how Democracy can go badly wrong if the ground is not properly prepared. The campaign was marred by tribal and gang political violence but the election itself was judged fair by the UN.

And let’s never forget Hitler and the Nazis were democratically elected in 1933!

What now?
It’s a pity the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring have tried to drive out all politicians associated with the old regimes and have refused to accept gradual transfers of power and interim arrangements.

Given the brutal, exploitative and deceptive natures of the old regimes, the mistrust of anyone associated with them is understandable. In light of this, the proposals being put forward today by Jacob Zuma’s African Union delegation to the Libyan rebels are clearly inadequate. The government remains in power, their military entrenched around Ajdabiya and Misrata and able to regroup, and NATO airstrikes are halted. In return for which, the rebels are invited to talk to Gaddafi’s government about a transition to Democracy. No wonder Gaddafi endorses the proposals! Given his past record on broken ceasefires and ruthless repression of opponents, the rebels would be crazy to accept.

However, transitional arrangements, if firm, transparent and monitored by, say, the United Nations, could give the Arab states the breathing time they need to put in at least some of the educational and cultural development programmes they need to create the groundwork for Democracy to begin to work.

Don Beck’s (2000) concept of Stratified Democracy posits that the form of government (Lower Right in 4Q/8L) has to be in line with the cultural level of thinking (Lower Left). Thus, Western Democracy (BLUE with an ORANGE leading edge) is a step too far for peoples whose thinking has mushroomed suddenly from cowed PURPLE to furious RED. What is needed is an interim form of government which rules with some semblance of the old, familiar iron fist but is sympathetic to the concept of Democracy and has committed to a clear and transparent process of transition. But that process may take time – bearing in mind that Walt Rostow (1960) reckoned it could take a century to develop a largely tribal African nation into a Western-style consumerist society – and the process will need to be managed and monitored very carefully indeed.

In this sense, the Egyptians may actually be on their way to getting it right. The interim military government seems committed to turning Egypt into a modern democracy; but, rather than rushing at it, they seem determined to take the time to develop a system that is right for Egypt and sustainable in the long term. Of course, the military government also appear to be using some of the old regime’s secret-police-and-torture repression methods and the violence against demonstrators in Tahrir Square this past Friday night (8 April) does not bode well for the future. But the calls of the demonstrators illustrate just how difficult the transition process may prove. The demonstrators were not telling the government what they wanted for the future of their country – a visionary move-towards. Rather they were telling the government more of what they didn’t want – a nihilistic RED move-away from – getting rid of more old regime members of the government and stopping Hosni Mubarak hanging onto the wealth he amassed from exploiting Egypt.

In  thinking about how the Arab states progress towards Democracy, it may  be salutary to consider the former totalitarian communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Many of them. such as Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, have successfully morphed into liberal, capitalist democracies over a 20-year period – though not without much turmoil. They also had, under Communism, much stronger BLUE in the systems and structures of the Lower Right, giving them a more advanced starting position when their totalitarian regimes collapsed.

Nonetheless, many of the challenges the post-totalitarian Eastern European states faced will be similar to those the post-autocracy Arab states will confront in the coming months and years.



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  1. Bart van Friedberg says

    Well, we don’t use the term E Europe any more. It is an obsolete term that comes across a passive-aggressive faux pas. Much better term is Central and E Europe.

    I think that democracy should be given to Arab spring countries ASAP. Every country had to go through certain stages to reach the advanced level. Delaying doing homework is not going to help, even in the name of well-being. Sooner or later any well-being built by dictatorial regimes will collapse.

    Democracy isn’t sweet at start but every sweet fruit has a beginning on a sour tree…

  2. Bart van Friedberg says

    We do not say E Europe any more. The better term is Central and Eastern Europe. Saying E Europe is a bit of a passive-aggressive faux pas nowadays….

  3. arab chat says

    its now apparent to me that arabs are not ready for democracy. seems like its getting worse!

  4. Said Dawlabani says

    Keith, Anyone trying to form a comprehensive analysis on the MENA region and attempts to treat it as one homogeneous culture is in for a big surprise. It is very difficult to offer one scenario of how the revolutions in the region are going to play out as the content of every culture and the degree of repression is quite different from the next. Elza Maalouf and I started a white paper on what an Arab-Style democracy would look like, but quickly discovered that in order to depict an accurate and objective analysis the effort would have to be mapped out in a book rather than just a paper. The summary of our findings was put together in an article published by the Huffington Post

    The brief answer to your question about Western Style Democracy is an absolute NO! The region’s Center of Gravity is PURPLE/RED that has cemented its pathologies by borrowing the very surface of memes from the West and in the process institutionalized abuses towards non-ruling tribes, different religious sects, migrant labor, etc.. Over the years these practices have morphed into closed vMEMES that enabled brutal regimes to stay in power. Let’s not look to fix the Middle East by offering anything that’s Western-designed. In doing so we’re denying the region it’s birthright towards emergence which in successful Western democracies today, was historically built through the shedding of the blood of millions.

    There is so much political correctness among Western observers that an honest opinion almost never sees the light of day. So, here it goes: The RED bulge of 20-somethings in the Middle East today is in the 100’s of millions and they don’t have jobs. Absent the presence of a benevolent HEALTHY RED leader with YELLOW thinking with values similar to Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yue who imprisoned RED for an infraction as small as spitting on sidewalks, Middle Eastern emergence has no chance. The regions needs leaders who can educate the PURPLE masses, direct Healthy RED towards BLUE/ORANGE and imprison or severely punish UNHEALTHY RED or the region will languish in civil war for decades. Until BLUE institutions start to form and life conditions reflect the values of these institutions, for now, this is how I would define Democracy Arab-Style


  5. Keith E Rice says

    Thanks for the Sandmonkey link, Rob. Some interesting perspectives there.


  6. Rob Geurtsen says

    Nice to see a short article on such a hot story that relates to Spiral Dynamics so much, that a lot of people versed in the model, whatever diluted version of the Gravesian Point of View they come from, cannot resist to discuss it.

    The problem with articles like these is that the exploration of a topic using Spiral Dyanmics is inevitably tainted and very much limited by the Level of Existence the author comes from.

    Things get worse when this is denied and paternalistic BS is express with the excuse of vague reference to smart people like Elliott Sober (2000).

    Come on Keith, you can and should do better. Not providing proper arguments is bas forget to mention sources for conslusions is bad, but stating unverifiable sources is contempt of your readers.

    Assuming you are beyond variation of {D,Q} it is the {R} dynamic neurological system dominating your reasoning. {R} projects outwards and changes the external world to get what it wants now. So the setting of goals, directly or indirectly is obvious. Your observations about the demonstrators on Tahrir Aquare is therefore totally beside the truth, because of uninformedness, and opportunistically used as a argument. Look at what you wrote:

    “Of course, the military government also appear to be using some of the old regime’s secret-police-and-torture repression methods and the violence against demonstrators in Tahrir Square this past Friday night (8 April) does not bode well for the future. But the calls of the demonstrators illustrate just how difficult the transition process may prove. The demonstrators were not telling the government what they wanted for the future of their country – a visionary move-towards. Rather they were telling the government more of what they didn’t want – a nihilistic RED move-away from i getting rid of more old regime members of the government and stopping Hosni Mubarak hanging onto the wealth he amassed from exploiting Egypt.”

    Of course the army can be human right violators. Have you any clue about the make up of the army? You think you can lump the largest organization in Egyptian society under one label?
    The demonstrators had clear demands all the time, lifting the state of emergency and getting Mubarak and his lot in court. Keeping up the pressure in a democracy is good. Going to the streets peacefully is even better.
    The wealth of Mubarak, is an ill used argument. You really think that your {R} materialistic needs and goals are similar to Mubarak’s? Other personality pathologies are not in play? Or closedness in a Gravesian/Rokeach way?

    What is good about you article is that it displays the ignorant prejudice and elevation the revolutionaires in Egypt know will not be of any inspiration and relevance to their cause.

    For a re-write of this in itself useful and intersting article go check the rantings of Egyptian Sandmonkey: 7 Popular Myths about the Revolution.