Why the next wave of Arab awakening should be waged for pluralism

Marwan Muasher, the former deputy prime minister of Jordan, thinks it was too simplistic for the world to expect that the Arab Spring would so quickly evolve autocracies into democracies. Margaret Warner sits down with Muasher to discuss his new book, "The Second Arab Awakening: And the Battle for Pluralism."


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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: What's become of the Arab spring? In 2011, there was great hope that democracy would replace authoritarian regimes in a number of countries in the Middle East, but that's not exactly what happened.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner explains why.

MARGARET WARNER: As the fourth year of the Arab spring begins, the Middle East is seeing fresh waves of violence of widening scope.

In Syria, Sunni-led rebels long fighting President Bashar al-Assad's forces are now battling jihadi extremist units as well. In Iraq, where Sunnis are protesting the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Maliki, militants linked to al-Qaida have seized key western cities. And in Lebanon, spillover from the Syria conflict has triggered car bomb assassinations of top Sunni figures and bombings of Shiite neighborhoods in Southern Beirut.

Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan, takes a long view of all this in his new book, "The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism."

We sat down for a conversation about it at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Marwan Muasher, thank you for joining us.

What you call the second Arab awakening has so far seemed to have unleashed, basically, chaos and violence in Syria and in Libya, and new forms of undemocratic rule in Egypt, even Tunisia. Why is that?

MARWAN MUASHER, former Jordanian official: There is no transformational process in history that occurred the course of a short three years. The Arab world is no different.

The Arab world was living under a state of artificially induced stability for a long time, non-democratic governments, an Islamic opposition which promised the moon and did not -- was not put to the test to deliver on any of its promises.

Now that the lid has been taken off, all kinds of issues are coming out. So I think while it was simplistic to call it an Arab spring right after it occurred, expecting, you know, autocracies to evolve into democracies overnight, it is equally simplistic to think that this is an Arab winter, and that this is necessarily how the process will end.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do you think that this region will move to some sort of stable, but also open and democratic rule?

MARWAN MUASHER: I think what we have already seen is the bankruptcy of both the secular regimes and forces that are attempting to rule without a system of checks and balances and of a religious opposition which is promising the moon, but has not delivered on results.

That vacuum, if you will, that bankruptcy of both the secular and the religious forces has not been filled yet. Obviously, radical forces, al-Qaida types in Syria and other places, are attempting to make use of that to their own advantage.

So far, what we have not seen are third forces which are, you know, for democracy, for pluralism, assert themselves in this new transformation, and to present themselves as credible alternatives, both to the religious opposition that is there in the Arab world and to the secular, both regimes and forces who are also behaving in an exclusionist manner, and not really putting in place institutions that would assure a democratic and pluralistic culture.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think there's anything in the sort of Arab culture or cultural DNA of this region that makes whoever gets in power embrace a kind of zero sum game, exclusive form of governing?

MARWAN MUASHER: Absolutely not.

What we are witnessing is a direct result of an era in the Arab world where democracy was not practiced nor encouraged, an educational system which basically taught people just to blindly follow leaders without critical thinking, without asking questions.

So, obviously, when this is disturbed, both the religious and secular forces are behaving in nondemocratic ways. It's so far a winner-take-all strategy. And as I say always, a zero sum game has meant that the sum is zero so far.

 

Until both forces realize that this is not a battle between secular and religious elements, until that becomes a battle for pluralism, where everybody assures the right not only of themselves, but of others, to operate in the political sphere, this second Arab awakening will not be successful.

MARGARET WARNER: But how do you foresee this battle taking shape? I mean, for instance, in Egypt, the young people, the middle-class people who came out to Tahrir Square demanding that Mubarak go said this is what they wanted, and yet they proved incapable of doing the hard work of building parties, and went -- and they lost the election.

MARWAN MUASHER: This is a natural process that will, I think, take its course in Egypt, maybe 14, 15 years before we see stability come again and before people realize that pluralism needs to be the underlying foundation, the operating system for everything that can be done.

MARGARET WARNER: The other split, of course, we're seeing -- and it seems to be growing wider and wider -- has been between Sunni and Shia. Who's going to resolve that? How will that get resolved?

MARWAN MUASHER: Again, this is, I think, a result of -- a direct result of the lack of pluralism, because the Sunni-Shiite divide in the Arab world is not just a religious divide. It's all -- also a political divide.

MARGARET WARNER: It's about power.

MARWAN MUASHER: It's -- well, yes, and groups, particularly Shiite groups in the Arab world have lived as second-class citizens for a long time. They were not given equal rights.

In my view, if all the ethnic, religious, political groups in Arab world are treated as equal citizens, a lot of these problems would just disappear. But this is not going to be automatic or immediate. This is going to take decades of work, in which you have to do things to the educational system, the value system that exists in the Arab world. In other words, there are no shortcuts to democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: But, in the meantime as you pointed out, extremist elements, violent jihadi elements are taking advantage of this vacuum.

The U.S. has made clear it's not going to intervene in the classic military sense. What will -- I mean, other than hoping that pluralistic forces get their act together, what will bring this region to some sort of stability?

MARWAN MUASHER: I think the jihadi sort of phenomenon is transient in the Arab world.

The radical elements in Syria now are being fought by the moderate Islamists themselves. This is a fight that needs to go on. But the overwhelming majority of the Arab world do not subscribe to al-Qaida types, do not subscribe to this jihadi radical thinking.

In the end, the street in the Arab world, just as the street in any other place in the world, who cares about job, about improving their lot -- they don't care about ideology and radical forces.

MARGARET WARNER: And overcoming that has to be done by the people on the ground, not by outside powers.

MARWAN MUASHER: Absolutely. This is a responsibility of Arabs themselves, no one else.

MARGARET WARNER: Marwan Muasher, thank you.