The Arab Spring and the Elusive Fifth Model?
No. 2 2013 April/June
Polur Raman Kumaraswamy

Professor at  Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Honorary Director of the Middle East Institute, New Delhi.

Consensus Building as a Possible Option for the Muslim World

The Arab Spring has shown no signs of ending, nor is there an endgame in sight. More than two years after Mohamed Bouazizi unknowingly sparked off widespread popular protests, both the region and the wider international community remain clueless as to the final outcome. Some familiar faces have disappeared, dominant groups have become marginalized and new ideas have been added to existing political discourses. These are refreshing especially for the Arab youth – the largest population group in most countries – who had not seen anyone other than the despised incumbent rulers.

But the role model remains elusive. None of the Arab countries, including those who have managed to remove authoritarian rulers, could come up with an alternative to the prolonged one-ruler model that had dominated the region since the early 1950s. Not just the protesters, even the rulers appear clueless as to what would be the acceptable minimum both to preserve the political stability and to satisfy the demands of the masses. Even the almighty cannot satisfy all groups; but is there a model that would be satisfactory to the largest number of populations in individual Arab countries?

A review of the developments since January 2011 allows us to outline four models that have been suggested as alternatives to one-party or one-ruler model that has come to dominate the Arab polity since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the process of decolonization. For convenience, these can be identified as Algerian, Iranian, Lebanese and Turkish models. Though these appear attractive, this article argues that all of them are problematic and would be unsuitable to the Arab conditions and hence the Arab countries would have to look for the elusive fifth model of consensus building. Rather than focusing on the western model of electoral democracy, they need to look for national consensus building if they are to overcome the current wave of unrest and to prevent possible collapse of state-nation experiments.


The most visible manifestation of the Arab Spring has been the ascendency of Islamists in various parts of the Middle East. This has prompted many, especially Turkish leaders and scholars, to suggest that the Justice and Development Party or AKP of Turkey provides a possible model for the Arab situation. The party has managed to synthesize Islam with modernity and used democratic means to come to power. Its three successive electoral victories since November 2002 are seen as vindication of its endorsement and acceptance by the electorate. The AKP model is also aimed at dispelling the negative stereotypes about the Islamists in some quarters of the West. If Turks can vote a moderate Islamist party into office through democratic means, why not the Arabs, the argument goes.

The agendas of the Arab Islamists and the AKP appear similar. In Turkey, the AKP is trying to slowly dilute, if not alter, the existing secular Kemalist order and in this it has been helped by the prevalent political institutions in the country. Even though the AKP is accused by many Turks of diluting the country’s secular fabric, it is essential to recognize that Kemalism was primarily undemocratic and was never subjected to the consent before it became the basis of order in Turkey. Any dilution that the AKP seeks to achieve would require the consent of the people and hence would be more democratic and moderate. This would not be easy as Tayyip Recep Erdogan is finding out from the protesters in Taksim Square in Istanbul.

Important as it is, there are problems with this model. Arabs are not Turks; both ethnically and by temperament and the historical divide accentuated by the prolonged Ottoman Empire would make Arab Islamists reluctant to embrace the Turkish model. Nevertheless, the problems are much deeper. The success of the AKP did not happen in vacuum; it was the result of the historical process dating back to the Kemalist era. The efforts of Kemal Ataturk to establish a modern Turkish Republic were aimed at breaking with the past, which for him included the Ottoman Islamic past. His desire to westernize Turkey was accompanied by him discarding some of its Islamic heritage such as the Arabic script of the Turkish language. With a mix of passion and authoritarianism, Kemal Ataturk transformed Turkey through the effective use of the military as an instrument of state power.

This trend continued after him. Through its periodic interventions, the military emerged not only as the custodian of the Kemalist legacy but also the self-appointed protector of the secular Turkish Republic when 98 percent of its population is Muslim. This in turn resulted in the emergence of a middle class that has developed a strong interest not only in the status quo but also in the plurality and co-existence, both essential pre-conditions for a multiparty political process. In the past, political crises were invitations for military intervention, but since the late 1990s Turkey has witnessed a different phenomenon. The failure of the existing political forces in the country has resulted in the growing popularity of parties with an explicit Islamist agenda; first was the Welfare Party and then came the AKP, with Tayyip Recep Erdogan playing a prominent role in both.

In short, the success of the AKP has not only been due to failure of other secular political parties but also due to the establishment of other institutions essential for the political process, such as effective parliament, multiplicity of political parties, separation of power and a professional army to safeguard the larger interests of the state. The historic roots of Turkey also enabled the forging of these institutions.

Most Arab countries, on the contrary, lack any of these institutions. Prior to the Arab Spring, the Arab masses were unfamiliar with multi-party elections. Until the election of Mohammed Morsi as President of Egypt in June 2012, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was the only Arab leader to be elected through popular votes. Periodic presidential elections in Egypt, Syria and Tunisia, for example, were a farce and had only one candidate – the incumbent – on the ballot paper. In some cases, the president never secured less than 98 percent of the valid votes!

Second, as was the case with Iran before the 1979 Islamic revolution, mosques remained the only avenue where Arab citizens could congregate, discuss and indulge in public activities without the undue interference of the state. Not that the Arab mosques were free; in most cases the preachers were paid by the state and hence were closely monitored and their sermons and activities moderated by the state. However, in the absence of other political avenues, the mosques remained the only public spaces in many Arab states.

Third, in most cases, the Islamists belong to the Johnny-come-lately category. They were not in the forefront of anti-regime protests even though they were the principal targets of various Arab regimes. Their forays into Tahrir Square, for example, happened when it was clear that Mubarak’s days were numbered. This trend holds for other countries too. However, their organizational skills and prolonged social welfare networks proved effective when they decided to take the political plunge. Before long, the Islamist emerged as the leading alternative to status quo in many countries. This preeminence can be seen also in cases where the protests became prolonged and violent as in the cases of Libya, Yemen and Syria.

Do these make Turkey a model for the Arab Spring? The Arab Islamists are less fortunate than their Turkish counterparts. They are not only trying to provide an alternative political order, but also having to do so in the absence of any viable institutions and checks and balances. As President Morsi is finding out, democracy cannot be brought about through authoritarian orders and concentration of powers.

The Arab regimes have not only been authoritarian and far removed from the masses, in most cases they have also been dynastical. Both monarchies and republican regimes have sought to keep succession within the immediate families. In the case of Syria the constitution has to be amended to reduce the age of the President to suit specific circumstances. Succession, not institution building, has been their priority.

If these are enough, the democratic credentials of the Arab Islamists are seriously questioned both within and outside the region. Many accuse them of pursuing a hidden agenda: one person, one vote, and one time. Even in private, prominent Islamist leaders have not dispelled such fears about their willingness to recognize and accept defeat in free and fair elections. The only Arab precedent available – that of the Palestinians – is not encouraging either. Since the early 1990s, the militant Palestinian movement – Hamas – refused to accept the legitimacy of Yasser Arafat and the political institutions headed by him such as Fatah, PLO and the PNA. Since the January 2006 elections, the Fatah has taken over this rejectionist role and refused to come to terms with the electoral successes of Hamas. Indeed, more than the outside world, it is the Fatah’s refusal to recognize and accept the electoral verdict in Hamas’ favor that is contributing to Palestinian disunity.

Lacking in crucial political institutions, the Arab polity is different and the Arab Islamists are dissimilar to the AKP. Turkey therefore cannot be a suitable model for the Arab Spring.


The emergence of Islamists as the major force in many Arab countries raises the prospects of an Iranian model. Indeed, many Iranian leaders did not escape the date of Mubarak’s fall, 11 February 2011, which coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. The subsequent elections in Egypt and Tunisia as well as in Bahrain witnessed an upsurge of the Islamists. The popularity of the Islamic Action Front in Jordan has been a major concern for King Abdullah and his slow pace of political reform. Islamist forces were also active in other Arab countries such as Libya, Syria and Yemen which plunged into violence. Even if the rulers were not prepared to emulate the Iranian model, does the Islamic revolution offer an attractive option for the Arab masses?

One cannot ignore the fundamental religious composition of Iran and the Arab countries and its wider implication. Historically, Sunni Islam prefers status quo to chaos. Its preference for stability and order have at times resulted in Sunni Islamic scholars tolerating and even endorsing authoritarian and unjust rulers lest the Muslim societies are plagued by chaos and anarchy. In contrast, Shi’a Islam presents itself as the force of resistance and defender of justice and equality and hence by nature it is anti-status quoist. The experience of Shi’a-influenced Hezbollah in Lebanon is a case in point.

Within the context of the Arab Spring, it would imply a Sunni preference for order than the Shi’a preference for a violent overthrowing of the regime. The preference of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Ennahda movement in Tunisia reflect this preference for a gradual transition than to violent transformation. The same held true for the Libyan and Syrian cases before they plunged into civil wars.

Moreover, importantly, the success of an Iranian model pre-supposes the presence of a charismatic leader who commands widespread respect and religious authority; or someone with a stature of Ayatollah Khomeini who led the Islamic revolution in Iran. This has not been the case in the Arab Spring. In none of the Arab countries did the protesters have a recognizable platform, let alone a leader. The dispersed nature of the Arab Spring prevented the domination of any particular group or class of protesters but it was also its weakness. Hence, without a strong leader with religious credentials, the Arab Islamists cannot emulate the Iranian model.

The strength of Khomeini was his prolonged opposition to the Shah of Iran dating back to the early 1960s and this has not been the case in the Arab world. Most Islamic scholars and institutions have been co-opted by the Arab regimes. As critics have argued, the ulemas in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been reduced to appendages of the state and in the process lost esteem in the eyes of many ordinary citizens. Many ulemas have not even maintained a resemblance of distance from the regime.

Moreover, the Arab regimes are not secular either in the western or in the Kemalist sense of the term. They are more crypto-Islamist than secular. While depicting themselves as a bulwark against religious extremism, many Arab rulers did not hesitate to accommodate the demands of the religious sections of the public. Both to ward off criticisms and to shore up their legitimacy, many Arab countries included Sharia as a principle of the source of legislations. Even revolutionary regimes did not hesitate to restrict top jobs in the country only to the believer. In some cases, the state has gone to the extent of defining the believer.

Above all, in Iran the ulema could capitalize on the popular grievances by playing up the sense of westernization of the regime and its resultant alienation from the Iranian social world. The Shah was far ahead of his times and was seeking to transform his country along western lines even while taking measures that marginalized and in the process alienated the powerful landed gentry. The Arab world is more diffused and has been exposed to different cultures and societies. Tunisia, for example, is a mosaic of Arab, Islamic, African, Berber and European influences. The same holds true for many other countries, which have extensive interactions with the outside world. In practical terms, this means that the Arab society has been under greater influence of secularism than the Iran of the 1970s. The willingness of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia, for example, to position themselves as moderate forces vis-à-vis the extremist salafi is a recognition of the popular opposition in these countries to religious extremism.

Thus, the absence of a charismatic leader, the traditional Sunni preference for tranquility, prolonged external influence and the secular nature of society mean that the Iranian model is not an option for the Arab Spring.


The Algerian model implies active military intervention to prevent an Islamist takeover of the state and the maintenance or restoration of the secular order. This has been suggested by some as a counter to secularist fears of an Islamist takeover of their countries. This would be similar to the military response in Algeria in 1991 following the impending electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). In the current context, this would mean an active military intervention to prevent the Islamists from taking over and imposing an extremist political order a la Afghanistan.

Unfortunately for the army, the discredited republican regimes that were overthrown or challenged have relied on the military for both survival and legitimacy. Hence, the Algerian model would imply the return of the military as the principal arbitrator, something that the Arab protesters have sought to end. The restoration of the status quo ante would make the Arab Spring a futile exercise and even the Arab Islamists do not wish to end up like the FIS.

Even when they are professional, Arab armies are not national institutions. Like the rest of the country, most armies lack an inclusive national character. With the notable exception of Egypt, the Arab army mirrors the social order and disharmony. Even there, the Coptic Christians are excluded from holding senior positions. While the army is too weak in Tunisia, it is divided along ethnic and tribal lines in Libya and Yemen. These internal divisions within the army have significantly contributed to the civil war and continuing violence.

The Syrian case is different but not dissimilar. Its army reflects the composition of the ruling elite and is dominated by the Alawite minority. In some ways, the ongoing violence in Syria is primarily an attempt to the preserve the Assad-Army-Alawite status quo. Indeed, their individual and collective survivals are closely intertwined.

Given the demographic situation in favor of the Shias, Bahrain has long been recruiting Sunni Arabs by offering them citizenship. In the wake of the Arab Spring, a large number of Pakistani citizens are being enlisted in the army. The oil-Arab countries in the Gulf have the most modern weaponry and arsenals but their ability to put these to use has been limited. In times of a national crisis, as exposed by the Kuwait crisis of 1990-91, they depend heavily upon external powers for survival. Likewise, Saudi Arabia had to seek the help of the French elite forces to end the siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by Juhayman al-Otaybi in November 1979.

Moreover, the military takeover was not peaceful in Algeria and eventually the military had to relinquish power in favor of a more acceptable political arrangement. Thus, any Algerian model for the Arab Spring would only be a temporary one and would not be able to fix any of the issues, which started the protests in the first place. Since most of the Arab armies are not strong national institutions, their ability to bring about institutional changes similar to the one brought about by the Turkish military is also limited. At best, they would be a transient feature and in the Arab context would mean a continuation of the past.

Moreover, the return of the military would galvanize public protests and this time around even the Islamists who are beginning to taste power through ballot boxes would also join. It was not accidental that one of the first and reasonably successful missions carried out by President Morsi was to limit the powers and influences of army, especially its top echelons.


The diverse and competing political forces unleashed by the Arab Spring make the consociational model of democracy in Lebanon an attractive idea. Though the Arab and Islamic identities are dominant, the Arab world is not homogeneous. Not only are there a number of pre-Islamic and non-Islamic communities, these countries also have a number of non-Arab populations. Even if one excludes the three non-Arab states namely, Iran, Israel and Turkey, the pre-eminent Arab identity of the Middle East has to come to terms with Bedouin, Berber, Druze and Kurdish identities. On the Islamic front, it has to accommodate not only Christian and Jewish identities but also a number of non-Sunni Islamic denominations including Shias, Baha’is, Ismaili, etc. Even if each and every sub-group could not be accommodated, the consociational model a la Lebanon would provide representation to the most dominant groups in each country and ensure some sort of collective bargaining.

Four things, however, work against the Lebanese model. The consociational model recognizes only three dominant groups in Lebanon, namely, Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shi’a Muslims and others such as Druze, Baha’is etc. have to be incorporated into these groups for the purpose of sharing state power and distributing wealth. In countries such as Syria, which have numerous religious and ethnic groups, the consociational model could mean dismemberment of the state.

Second, the Kurdish population is distributed among Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey and any concession to Kurds in one country would have a cascading effect and undermine stability in the others. The Kurdish irredentist groups would seek to unify different parts of their historic homeland and seek a greater Kurdistan, which would only add to the problems of these four states.

Third, the Lebanese model did not evolve overnight. In a desire to provide a homeland for the Maronite Christians and in the process gain a foothold in the Middle East, the French created Lebanon or a greater Maronite state. To maintain the Arab identity of Lebanon, a compromise was worked out which gave greater power to the Maronites, which was subsequently consolidated. The distribution of power among the three principal religious groups came after prolonged struggle and was consecrated following fifteen years of bloody civil war. A similar experiment in Iraq is still a work in progress and has merely divided the country along sectarian lines. Even though it can proudly claim to have elected the first non-Arab head of state in history, Iraq is characterized by sectarian divisions and there appears to be no end to the cycle of violence. Things would not be any different in other countries, if this model were to succeed.

Fourth, the introduction of a new political arrangement would demand the presence of a strong political force, often external. As Turkey has made clear, the presence of a strong national leader would enable national consolidation at the cost of minority rights. Ataturk unified and strengthened Turkey but at the cost of the Kurds. There are no towering Arab personalities in sight. Hence, the Lebanese model as a solution for the challenges posed by the Arab Spring would mean an active external and prolonged intervention aimed at nation-building process. Regime change is far easier than regime transformation and no country or group of countries have the appetite and power for such a herculean task. Without such an active external intervention, the consociational model would not take off or would follow the lines of Iraq and plunge these countries into further chaos.


If the Arab Spring were to bring about meaningful changes in the Arab societies, what is needed is a political order that is not only democratic but also inclusive. The western type electoral democracy may be attractive for the Islamists especially when they are gaining popular support wherever elections are held. Even if they do not gain absolute majority, they have emerged as the most dominant political force in the post-2011 Arab world. Through prolonged social welfare networks, organizational skills and political adaptability they have not only emerged as an alternative to the despised authoritarian regimes, which were overthrown, but also adapted themselves to various democratic jargons. Even if the real meaning still remains unclear, the Islamists of different hues speak of liberalism, democracy, universalism and equality.

The expression of democratic spirit and their electoral popularity have made them politically acceptable to the West and other major players in the world. Domestic support thus has given them an international legitimacy and they are here to stay. However, their long-term political agenda would be problematic if they assume the 51-49 form of democracy as a carte blanche for their Islamic agenda and seek to transform the Arab societies into Islamic states.

That such a course would result in social confrontation the new rulers of Egypt and Tunisia are finding out at bitter cost. The millions of protesters who assembled in Tahrir Square and other places did not aspire to replace one dictatorial regime by another. For many in these countries, the Islamists alone do not have monopoly over their faith and its manifestations. An authoritarianism driven by ideology is far more dangerous than the military rule; the latter only fights for its survival, while the former also seeks the indoctrination and submission of the others. During his final days in office, Mubarak was called Pharaoh; an abusive expression denoting pre-Islamic and non-Islamic jahila period. A similar expression has already been used towards the Islamist Morsi.

The refusal of the Arab Islamists to unequivocally endorse democracy and declare their willingness to accept a popular rejection have become major concerns for the secularists vis-à-vis the new forces. The more the Arab Islamists talk of democracy and popular endorsement, the less convincing they become.

To be credible and to simultaneously carry forward the spirit of the Arab Spring, the Arab world, including its Islamists, would have to tread the long and painful path of consensus building. This method is inclusive and hence more enduring than electoral democracy.

More importantly, it is inherently Islamic and hence they would not be accused of imitating the West. It was only through consensus that the four immediate successors of Prophet Mohammed were chosen in the 7th century. Only Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, died naturally – the other three were brutally killed. Yet, the selection process was inclusive and based on consensus. Not all were happy and this process itself sowed the first seeds of divisions, namely the emergence of Shi’a Islam.

Many would long for a modern-day Saladin to redeem the Muslim societies. While the legendary Kurd was benevolent to his captives, especially towards non-Muslims, the modern era only produced authoritarian dictators who were socialists in the sense that they were equally brutal towards all the citizens.

Consensus building is perhaps the closest model available for the Arab Spring, especially its newly emerging Islamist leaders. Going by the example of Libya and Iraq before that, any other model, democratic or authoritarian, would only plunge these societies into further chaos.

There is, however, one catch. In the 7th century, consensus building meant soliciting and accommodating the views of the Muslim believers, mostly men. This narrow base would not work in the modern context. The Arab consensus would have to include not only religious Muslims but also secular Muslims, non-Muslims and, above all, women. Therein lies the real challenge for anyone looking for a model to supplement the stirrings of the Arab Spring.