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Key Text Getting to Pluralism: Political Actors in the Arab World

Author: Marina Ottaway and Amr Hamzawy
Date: 2009
Size: 107 pages

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Why has political pluralism in the Arab world not yet matured into functional democratic politics? This book examines the weakness of the secular parties, the complexities of Islamist participation in politics, and incumbent regimes' grip on power. Formal political spaces are tightly controlled and have failed to achieve democratic dividends. Informal protests are increasingly popular as a way of making demands on leaders, but have not yet reinvigorated formal politics or generated concessions from governments.

Arab publics are exposed to a much broader range of ideas and are engaging in new discussions as a result of the growth in newspapers, satellite television and blogs. But incumbent regimes have tightened again their grip on politics. As a result, publics are increasingly disenchanted with formal political life, and voting turnouts are decreasing. Political parties find it difficult to build up their constituencies among a disenchanted public and to influence policies. In particular:

  • Democratic reform led by incumbent regimes has been designed to garner domestic and international legitimacy while maintaining a tight grip on power:
    • In Morocco, the king has encouraged political party proliferation and disunity to prevent any cohesive challenge against him
    • In Egypt, political reforms were reversed when Islamist parties gained popularity
    • In Bahrain, an elected lower house is restrained by the king's control of the upper house; the king can choose over half of its representatives.
  • Secular parties have failed to develop dynamic organisational structures and convincing political programmes. At the same time, by constructing and expanding networks in education, health and other social services, Islamist movements have partially supplanted ineffective government agencies.
  • Nonviolent Islamist parties have become the Arab world's strongest parties. They are stronger than both secular parties and violent Islamist organisations. Islamist parties have, however, found it hard to create impact. They face difficult choices and are experiencing internal struggles between hardliners and moderates.

The imbalance between ruling establishments and opposition parties is too great, and government control is too strong to make political reform through elections likely. Amidst the stagnation of formal political life, informal protests are beginning to proliferate. Networks of activists have emerged at the local and national levels, most based on small-scale initiatives and linked to social and economic demands. However, such protests have not, as yet, injected new dynamism into formal politics or scared governments into making concessions.

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Source: Ottaway, M. and Hamzawy, A., 2009, 'Conclusion: Old Actors and New Arenas' in Getting to Pluralism: Political Actors in the Arab World', eds. M. Ottaway and A. Hamzawy, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C., pp. 97-108
Author: Marina Ottaway , ; Amr Hamzawy , ahamzawy[at]
Organisation: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP),