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Do Arabs need a New Awakening to win True Democracy?

Gerald Butt
annotated by
Keith E Rice

Gerald Butt wrote ‘Do Arabs need a New Awakening to win True Democracy?’ as the BBC’s Middle East correspondent. It was published on the BBC News web site on 16 August 2012.

Reading it, I was mightily impressed that Gerald’s understanding of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ effectively provided a Spiral Dynamics analysis of the phenomenon – though without the jargon and the concepts. Accordingly, I contacted both Gerald and the BBC who gave me permission to republish his piece here, annotated with a Spiral Dynamics/Integrated SocioPsychology commentary. (The text of my commentary is in red.)

Gerald’s piece is timeless in its analysis of conflict between different value systems and the sheer lack of other value systems – vMEMES – hindering the progress of peoples – in this case, the Arabs – in achieving Democracy as we in the Modern West understand the term.

 I am deeply indebted to Gerald and the BBC for their permissions.


 Arabs in several countries around the Middle East are relishing the prospect of a new era built on political reform and democratic rule.

This craving for democracy was motivated by a desire to throw off the shackles of the past and finally achieve independence in every sense of the word.

As Gerald, to all intents and purposes, reveals later in the piece, it has to be queried just how much many of those thronging Tahrir Square in Cairo or skittering about in the Libyan desert on the back of machine-gun mounted rebel pick-ups really understood the spirit of Democracy beyond the trite motif of one man/one vote. (Then again, clearly not all Westerners truly understand the concept either!)

This is hardly surprising. For decades, Arabs’ self-esteem had been smothered by the totalitarian rule that followed colonial occupation. Colonialism itself had been preceded by centuries of Ottoman domination.

This long legacy is enduring and invidious. For all the euphoria and the undoubted bravery seen on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere, there remains a fundamental and persistent doubt amongst Arabs that democracy can work for them as free-thinking individuals.

And these doubts are prompting voters to seek the reassurance of religious or ethnic affiliation. This trend, by definition, limits freedom of choice, which is a pillar of independent, democratic life.

Don Beck & Chris Cowan (1996) hold that, often, the first response to the challenges, pressures and opportunities of change, is to slip down the Spiral. Thus, when confronted with the what next? of revolution, the BLUE/ORANGE thinking required for Western-style Democracy is too complex – and, because of that, too scary – for many whose thinking has been driven by the vMEME harmonic of PURPLE/RED. Grinding poverty (BEIGE), ethnic and/or regional tensions (PURPLE) and a stubborn refusal to obey and conform anymore (RED) have played their part in all the Arab uprisings. But, for many such people, used to being governed by ruthless RED/BLUE dictatorships, the jump up the Spiral to BLUE/ORANGE thinking simply cannot develop quickly enough to fill the void left by the collapse of the dictatorship. Therefore, a sideways retreat to the PURPLE/BLUE of safe and orderly institutionalised religion is attractive.

‘Not fair’
In Tunisia and Egypt, for example, post-revolution politics has been dominated by Islamist groups.

The electoral success of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists has set a pattern that will not be easy to break. President Mohammed Mursi’s promise to create an inclusive society will be hard to keep.

Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, on forming a new government, said it was time for Egyptians “…to stop asking who is a Copt, a Muslim or a Salafi. I don’t see that. All I see is that we are all Egyptians and this should be the main principle.”

This might be the ideal. But the overwhelming desire thus far in democracies in Arab countries has been for representation, first and foremost, on a sectarian or ethnic basis. This has been the case most obviously in Lebanon and Iraq.

Egypt looks like following suit, as the reaction to the formation of a technocrat-dominated cabinet has illustrated.

Egypt’s Salafists complained that their strong showing in the parliamentary elections was not reflected in the apportioning of cabinet posts – they received none.

Muslim Brotherhood supporters felt aggrieved that only two of their members had become ministers; and the Copts were unhappy at the appearance of only one Christian in the cabinet.

“It is not right that Copts get treated in this way,” Bishop Bakhomious, the acting head of the Coptic Church, told a Cairo newspaper. “We had expected an increase in the representation of Copts. The way the cabinet has been formed is not fair on us.”

Egyptian Christians’ unhappiness at the cabinet composition is an indicator of their lack of confidence in the new democratic system.

They feel that only their own strong representation in government would safeguard their interests. As a result, Copts are seeking to form political parties, thus strengthening further the grip of religion on democratic life.

What Gerald is identifying, to all intents and purposes, is the effects of the PURPLE vMEME seeking safety-in-belonging – and belonging requires you to know who you don’t belong to as well as who you do. Thus, PURPLE emphasises and drives differences. Copts, for example, identify with each other as the in-group and make Muslims and Salafis the out-groups. The other tribalist groupings do exactly the same. In Iraq, Sunni vs Shia conflict has severely restricted post-war reconstruction and destabilised attempts to form a government representing all communities.

As I point out in the Global feature, Stratified Democracy vs Modernisation Theory, attempts to imposed Western-style Democracy on tribal societies are doomed largely to failure unless PURPLE, RED and BLUE needs are tackled in sequence, thus enabling people’s capacity for ideas to move up the hierarchy of the Spiral.

Political paralysis?
The problem that President Mursi and other newcomers to Arab leadership will find is that democracies are being created in countries lacking political institutions and political parties that cut across sectarian and ethnic lines.

Secular parties, such as they are, were emasculated and discredited during the era of totalitarian rule and offer few attractions to first-time voters.

Give it time, one might say. Europe needed centuries to fine-tune its democratic traditions.

Perhaps new political parties might be established, rooted in Islamic traditions but espousing modern economic and social policies that could appeal to voters from all backgrounds.

Is Gerald asking for a kind of Islamic equivalent of the Church of England where the fundamentalist approach (RED/BLUE) to the religion is largely washed away by scientific rationalism (BLUE/ORANGE) and an increasing valuing of the human spirit freed of restrictions (GREEN)?

Looking at these ideas in terms of vMEMES shows vast gulfs in values and understanding between the different ways of thinking.

But can this process be fast-tracked? The evidence in Lebanon and Iraq points unequivocally to the fact that turning the political machine around, once it has headed off down the sectarian and ethnic route, is well nigh impossible.

Sectarian conflicts can burn themselves out if more complex vMEMES gain influence. An example of this was the withering of the PURPLE/BLUE passion in Eire to recover the ‘6 Counties’ – as the Irish Republic’s economy boomed in the early-mid 1990s and ORANGE’s focus on wealth creation and personal advancement became stronger. But, almost always, the ending of sectarian conflict requires a combination of war weariness and the emergence of more complex vMEMES to change thinking.

As many as 80 parties were formed after the ousting of Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali

The Taif Agreement of 1989 was supposed to bring an end to political sectarianism in Lebanon. But cross-community politics is as elusive as ever.

Iraq, for its part, has slipped into a political system where Shia, Sunni and Kurdish loyalties are paramount. Iraqi national politics, as a result, is paralysed, while the major sectarian and ethnic groups vie for ascendancy.

Iraqis today face the unwelcome realisation that the removal of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent departure of the US military have failed to bring them true independence as free citizens of Iraq facing a range of political choices that are free of religious association.

Against this background, liberal and secular Arabs are bound to feel uneasy. For them, the euphoria experienced during those early days of protest has passed.

 Al-Hayat columnist Raghida Dergham, writing in November 2011, observed: “We are on a swing of uncertainty, going up in celebration of the ouster of regimes that monopolised power for 30 or 40 odd years, then down in frustration over the alternative that is now coming to monopolise power with theocratic authoritarianism.”

The Arabs, therefore, may have to wait for the next awakening before they can achieve true independence.

Such an awakening will need to have more complex vMEMES in the mix if a sustainable path to Democracy is to be achieved.



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3 Responses

  1. Tom Christensen says


    I believe there is capacity on the part of many world leaders to understand contexts of interest at the level of complexity provided by SDi. The problem is that the conventional conversations about the worlds issues are flatland perspectives. Many people are ready for a more complex perspective, but its not arriving in front of them. Your work, as exemplified in the piece above, is just what is needed to feed this undistinguished hunger of so many. Thank you, and please…more, and more, and more….

    Tom C.

  2. Keith E Rice says

    Very interesting, Said. Thank you for such an intriguing contribution!

    I know next to nothing about Rafik Hariri – and not that much about the troubled history of post-colonial Lebanon. Very long and bloody civil war…. Hezbollah in the South and Israeli incursions…. Massive Syrian influence and meddling….

    I have the vague impression that, before the civil war destroyed so much, Lebanon – and Beirut in particular – were very much the model of what modern Arab society might become if BLUE, ORANGE and GREEN values could have influence. West-facing in so many ways – and way too much for the fundamentalists! – yet still holding on to so much of what is noble and great in Arabic traditions. And I have the impression that some of that ambience has started to be reborn – Hariri’s influence? – in more recent times.

    However, I’m not sure I quite share your faith in the efficacy of education – at least, on a universal basis. When Walt Rostow’s (1960) Modernisation miracle cures to Third World poverty – – foundered almost immediately on the failure of PURPLE traditional societies to move rapidly into more ordered (BLUE) – even entrepreneurial (ORANGE)! – mindsets, the Functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons (1964) quite correctly identified values as the problem. Other Functionalists such as Bert Hoselitz (1964) advocated education programmes as a way of inculcating indigenous populations with Western values and thus making obsolete traditional values. Of course, as Spiral Dynamics shows us, the recipient mind has to be receptive to the meme being pumped at it – and that ‘receptiveness’ won’t take place unless the incoming meme fits with the value system currently dominating in the individual’s selfplex.

    As an educator myself, I have no doubt that education is a key element in any form of social engineering…but perhaps we need to refine just how you see the critical role of education and to explore more how Hariri manipulated different value systems in the way you describe. From what you’ve described, it seems Hariri was an arch-manipulator, effectively building a Lebanonese MeshWORK….?


  3. Said says

    Keith, your vMemetic analysis is right on. Once the shackles of a RED dictator are removed, culture must find its place right where the center of gravity for Life Conditions is. There’s no doubt that the majority of the Middle East is in Purple-RED and the current downshifting to sectarian/religious groupings is natural in order for organic emergence to take place. This might take centuries if left to its own devices, but since we live in a global village, much can be borrowed from other models such as the ones for Singapore and Indonesia and adopted to indigenous LC’s that are unique to each country.

    In my recent guest entry on your blog, I mentioned Rafik Hariri, the Billionaire Lebanese PM. He was a true wizard of Lebanon’s Life Conditions. His platform for developing the country after the civil war was the most ambitious yet indigenous plan for development in the region that should be copied. Before becoming PM Hariri committed millions of his personal money to academic scholarships to educate any bright Lebanese citizen in the best universities in the world (Harvard, MIT, Sorbonne, Oxford) and the conditions for repayment were that the recipients must return to Lebanon to rebuild its institutions with their education (injecting culture with BLUE-ORANGE vMEMEs through tens of thousands of well educated citizens). Western governments today can fund similar policies as part of their aid packages to the Arab Spring.

    Once Hariri became PM, he rebuilt downtown Beirut and much of the essential infrastructure that for centuries was the financial hub of the region intending to expand employment opportunities for the future. His approach was systemic. His various charities helped anyone in need regardless whether he was in office or not. In short he addressed the needs of his country systemically while gaining their trust (the essential catalyst needed to move a culture from purple-RED to higher levels up the spiral of human emergence). He was viewed as a visionary leader by the country’s Blue-ORANGE and as a benevolent monarch/tribesman/Za’eem by the Lebanese in PURPLE-RED regardless of religion. His development plans were so congruent with Lebanon’s LC’s he was elected PM 4 times. Over a 2-dacade stretch, his development ambitions began to bare fruit and Lebanon was well on its way to move past the region’s purple-RED LC’s and solidly into blue-ORANGE center of gravity.The only group that did not embrace Harriri’s development platform was the Hizballah group who were beholden to a much bigger (RED) master, the Syrians. Harriri appeased the Syrians as much as he possibly could, but their diabolical RED system eventually came to see him as a threat to their regional dominance.

    Since his assassination in 2005 Lebanon’s development has been arrested, as the majority of the Lebanese await the demise of the Syrian regime. After a period of RED jockeying for power a new Blue-ORANGE leadership will rise that will include a disillusioned Hizballah in a new national platform.

    Unlike the model for Lebanon much of the region’s LC’s still identify with tribal values and mistrust remains a big issue. The culture needs to be injected with the belief that education is the only way forward. That, in my opinion will initiate Islam’s move from being an absolutist system and allow culture to move into a form of democracy that doesn’t rely solely on the Qur’an as the source of law and order.

    After all that’s said and done, it is designing for where life conditions are that determine the fate of a culture. Even with a one-person one-vote democracy, the allegiance is still to the tribal not the national political figure. Before we look to see democratic institutions, lets look to develop the region’s minds to empower them with capacities for individual thinking first. The Middle East has a preference to warm colors (meaning the region won’t linger too long in BLUE and dwell over why it doesn’t have the same density and depth as the West. Only when the rewards of ORANGE and the autonomy of its values supersede the clannish lore of the tribe, will Arab-style democracy appear. It will be out of necessity to get to ORANGE than the need to deliberate over the best form of governance.