Book Review: Winds of Democratic Change in the Mediterranean?

Stefania Panebianco, Rosa Rossi (eds.), Winds of Democratic Change in the Mediterranean? Processes, Actors and Possible Outcomes (Soveria Mannelli, Italy: Rubbettino, 2012). 381 pp., ISBN: 9788849831832.

The so called Arab Spring started in January 2011 in Tunisia where initial street demonstrations for better living conditions escalated into clashes with the authorities and convinced president Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia. These events had an immediate contagious effect, favored by the globalization of communication, and popular uprisings emerged also in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco and Syria. All this created great expectations by analysts that the Arab Spring could represent a starting point for a new wave of democratization involving Middle East and Northern African (MENA) countries, and therefore that it could challenge the assumption of Arab exceptionalism with regard to democracy.

This volume, edited by Stefania Panebianco and Rosa Rossi, investigates this complex phenomenon and addresses crucial questions such as the causes of popular requests, how to democratize the Arab world, and whether the international community can promote democracy in this area. Interestingly the approach of the book is multidisciplinary and analytical: historical, philosophical and political science approaches have been used to analyze three key dynamics, the process of political and social change, domestic and external actors promoting or preventing change, and the possible outcomes. As illustrated in the introduction, the metaphor of winds of democratic change – used also in the title – suggests that there is not only one unique and straightforward path of political change, and that it can be the result of different combinations of historical, political, economic, and social factors.

This book was the result of the Jean Monnet Information and Research Activity on ‘EU Foreign Policy and Democracy Promotion’ (EUDEM project) of which Stefania Panebianco and Rosa Rossi were, respectively, Academic Director and Tutor. The volume consists of 16 thematic chapters divided into three parts on processes (Part 1), actors (Part 2) and possible outcomes (Part 3), in addition to an introduction and a conclusion. Part 1 includes different theoretical and empirical issues in order to better understand the prospects of regime change in the MENA area. In this part, key domestic variables – such as historical legacies (chapter 1 by Davide Grassi), economic development (chapter 2 by Roberto Roccu, with a specific focus on Egypt), civil society organizations (chapter 5 by Rosa Rossi), and religion (chapter 6 by Luca Ozzano with a specific focus on Turkey) – are examined in order to evaluate the prospects of democratization for this area. This part also contains an in depth analysis of the notion of equality of opportunity, which is considered as a fundamental element of democracy (chapter 3 by Ian Carter), and of the notion of tolerance without values, with reference to exchanges between citizens coming from different cultural backgrounds (see chapter 4 by Fabrizio Sciacca). The second part of the book deals with key external and domestic actors in promoting political change. Specific actors considered are the European Union (chapter 7 by Stefania Panebianco), parliamentary bodies, sub-state regions and cities (chapter 8 by Stelio Stavridis, Roderick Pace and Paqui Santonja), the United States (chapter 9 by Maria Do Ceu Pinto), the web and new media (chapter 10 by Daniela Melfa and Guido Nicolosi), and religious movements like the Muslim Brothers (chapter 11 by Laura Guazzone with a specific focus on Egypt). The last part of the book, which is based on the general assumption that it is too early to establish whether the area is experiencing a truly democratic transition or simply political change, evaluates the possible future outcomes of the Arab Spring. This is done into different ways: drawing lessons from the past, focusing on different issues and factors, as the role of war in creating new political systems (chapter 12 by Biagio Spoto), the colonial legacy and business relations (chapter 15 by Federico Cresti on Italy-Libya relations), and religious issues (chapter 16 by Alessia Melcangi on the Coptic minority in the case of Egypt); and finally looking at the possible transition of specific case studies, as Lebanon (chapter 13 by Rosita Di Peri), and Tunisia (chapter 14 by Béatrice Hibou).

In the conclusion, Stefania Panebianco resumes the main findings of the volume. First of all, it is argued that the popular claim for freedom, justice and equity clearly (and violently) expressed during the Arab Spring seems to be enough to put into question the assumption of the Arab exceptionalism with regard to democracy. Moreover, it seems that Arab protesters have de facto agreed upon a shared definition of democracy, which is both procedural and participatory, and thus based on political rights and individual liberties. Second, the book confirms that political regime change should be conceptualized as a primarily domestic driven process, in which domestic agents and structures take the lead in explaining this dynamic. It was only when the authoritarian regimes, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, lost their internal legitimacy, as demonstrated by the widespread popular uprisings, that the long-standing authoritarian leaders were defeated. This lost of internal legitimacy can be explained with the incapacity or unwillingness of the incumbents to deal with new structural internal conditions characterized by the rising costs of living, unemployment, poverty, and corruption. The contributions show that four different kinds of internal actors took and will take the lead in determining this process of domestic change: Islamist parties, the army, the new media, and newly established civil society organizations.

On the whole this book presents an all-encompassing and well-thought evaluation of the Arab Spring and suggests different approaches and directions that should be further investigated by students of Comparative and International Politics interested in the process of political change in the MENA countries.

Elena Baracani is assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Bologna.

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