Past Event

The Information Revolution: Democracy and Legitimacy in the 21st Century

On May 21, 2012, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion with the Rt. Hon. David Miliband, Member of Parliament and former Foreign Secretary of the UK, and Wadah Khanfar, Co-founder al Sharq Forum and former Director General of Al Jazeera. The debate focused on the roles of both old and new media in the recent uprisings across the Middle East, as well as the sources of legitimacy emerging as leaders around the world face challenges to their power. The panel discussion, which was followed by a question and answer session, was moderated by Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic, and media communities.

Salman Shaikh began the discussion by asking David Miliband what the new sources of legitimacy are in a world where governments are increasingly being challenged on the ground and through new media. Miliband cited four sources of legitimacy, adding one to the three identified by Max Weber.  They were: state-building; historical legitimacy or lineage; a democratic mandate, buttressed by institutions that keep others in check; and finally the state’s efficiency in delivering services to its citizens. Miliband recognized that some states score higher or lower in the four different areas of legitimacy. Europe, for example, has traditionally benefitted from a high degree of democratic legitimacy yet is increasingly earning lower marks for its efficacy in providing for citizens. There are different balances across the Middle East, he stated, where legitimacy is secured through state-building, theocracy, and the delivery of services, but rarely through a democratic mandate. In addition, Miliband cited the newly significant component of international legitimacy, articulated through an emphasis either on national sovereignty or international law. A mismatch between strong international legitimacy, in the absence of other sources such as the delivery of services, he stated, could inform understandings of the Greek and Italian crises.

Khanfar agreed with Miliband on the sources of legitimacy yet pointed out that “the Middle East has never had proper nation states.” He went on to say that the region has been suffering from a legitimacy deficit since World War I.  The Middle East is now facing a crisis of legitimacy, as states’ borders have been defined not by national interest, historical legitimacy, or tribal borders, but by foreign powers. Today, then, we are seeing the first free debate in the Middle East about the concept of legitimacy, and the very definitions of these states are in question. Major questions will be asked, Khanfar said, about whether the region can survive as 22 independent nation states.

Khanfar said Islam will inevitably constitute an important part of the debate about the formation of the state and the definition of its legitimacy. Islam in the Middle is seen not as a religion but as “a way of life,” he said.  A deep suspicion of the concept of democracy in the region – largely the result of authoritarian regimes using it to garner support and prop up their rule – means that it will need to be reinterpreted in an Islamic conception. Islamic notions of democracy and leadership should be redefined in the new context to provide governments with constitutional legitimacy. More broadly, in Khanfar’s view, religion needs to be separated from the state. Modernization, he explained, “made Islam a toy in the hands of politicians.” For that reason, he argued, religion needs to be liberated from the hegemony of the state; society, not the state, should be entrusted with religion, he said.

In response to a question from Miliband about whether in the Arab world the bar for establishing legitimate rule has been raised in the aftermath of the recent uprisings, Khanfar responded that expectations for leaders have increased over the past few years. Social networks, he stated, provided a generation of youth with “a new imagination of politics” and allowed them to create “a virtual democratic zone.” Social networks are by their nature democratic, Khanfar argued, as everyone joins on equal footing. In this arena – which will become an integral part of mainstream media in the coming years – it is possible to unite people through ideas rather than social class or tribe. This was crucial in instigating the revolutions in the Arab world, Khanfar argued.  He warned, however, that the spirit of the revolution is not being carried forward in the countries in transition, as elections have brought to power traditional political actors. He expressed the need to “inject the political system with the spirit of Tahrir,” so that it does not resort to partisanship, which may lead to more traditional sectarian or tribal politics. Miliband pointed out that people are increasingly able not only to share their own opinions but also to compare public statements and private actions. The increased ability of citizens to reveal governmental hypocrisies – one of the greatest sources of illegitimacy – makes them better equipped to challenge their leaders.

Shaikh next posed the question of whether media can become too intrusive, or obstruct effective governance. Miliband answered that media is “a very blunt tool.” Yet as increasing amounts of information are available to ever more people, autocratic rulers will be unable to stop that flow, and the bar for establishing legitimacy will be raised. Khanfar added that the media are allowing people in the Middle East to become much more informed than in past decades, enabling them to judge politicians’ actions. The “wisdom of the crowd,” he said, can be trusted. People in the region have regained their dignity and feel able and proud to participate in politics, he said.

On a note of warning, Miliband pointed out that “government by the people” is as important as “government for the people” arguing that that mob rule remains a danger. “The lesson from history,” he explained, “is that all power has to be checked by independent institutions.” He also compared Khanfar’s description of Middle Easterners proud to vote, with citizens of gridlocked Western democratic systems. “The paradox of democracy,” he said, “is that where it exists it is in disrepute.”

Shaikh next asked Miliband what he has thus far learned from the Arab Awakenings. Miliband cited four lessons: the importance of having faith in the ability of people to assert themselves; the cross-generational aspect of the uprisings; the willingness of parties, when in power, to compromise; and the tendency of the nation-building process to turn countries inward. On the last point, he warned that such internal focus is dangerous, stating that the Palestinian plight is not being given sufficient attention in the current climate. Nations of the region need to act together and should therefore foster ties among themselves, he said.

In answer to a question about what the Middle East can learn from Western democracies, Khanfar answered that mature democracies have developed shared values and common interests that the Middle East lacks. For the first time, he said, the Middle East is being given the chance to define the interests of the state. Responding to Miliband’s comments, Khanfar noted that the priorities of the region are well understood by the public. At this time, he said, Palestine is not considered as pressing an issue as other internal concerns. Nonetheless the debate on Palestine will continue, as it is “part of the DNA of public opinion.” Ultimately, Khanfar explained, states of the Middle East need to get their houses in order before facing the Palestinian issue.

Following the panel debate, the question and answer session covered a range of issues, including the role of youth in the post-Arab Spring Middle East and the role of Islamist parties in Arab states. Gilles Kepel opened the session by asking whether Wadah Khanfar still considered Al Jazeera to be a key player in the revolution, arguing that nationally-based mainstream media were playing a much larger role since the onset of the revolutions. He also wondered whether Al Jazeera needs to adapt, as new local channels are emerging around the region. Khanfar answered that the spirit and mission of Al Jazeera have succeeded in spreading throughout the Middle East, explaining that the network has never viewed itself as competing for dominance. Indeed, Al Jazeera always endeavored to give people a voice, Khanfar said, and many of the new channels were inspired by Al Jazeera’s mission. Still, he cautioned, the region’s media landscape has not yet reached maturity, and much needs to be done to ensure access to credible news sources that are not tainted by partisanship. Moving forward, Al Jazeera plans to move into a second phase of influence by creating departments focused on new media.

Another question concerned whether David Miliband saw any recent examples of hypocrisy in Western foreign policy toward the Arab world. Miliband said that over the years, the durability of the Middle Eastern autocracies lulled Western governments into a “routinization” of their foreign policies. As a result, questions were not asked about the internal dynamics of regional players. It is important to take into account that governments can never achieve everything they hope to, he said. Furthermore, in last 18 months, Miliband stated, we have seen that it is internal rather than external opposition that ultimately succeeds in toppling regimes, aside from the Libyan exception.

Khanfar also addressed this point, placing the burden of reform on national governments. As for monarchies such as Jordan, he said, they can either assume they are safe from revolt or take the necessary steps to make their regimes more open. In his view, Morocco has taken measures to appease citizens’ demands, with its leadership recognizing the difficulty of challenging popular pressure for greater representation. Governments need to make reforms, Khanfar said, “nothing can survive in front of the Arab Spring.”

The following question concerned how the Middle East’s new democracies can and should protect women and minority rights. Khanfar answered that an organic methodology of addressing these issues should be developed, as women and minorities had for decades been discussed primarily through a Western prism. He said the status of women has improved “more in the past two years than over the past 20,” citing the example of Yemeni women leading demonstrations in conservative Sanaa. Khanfar described a “new momentum in our societies” that will allow for more change than has been seen in the past. Khanfar also made the point that the notions of minority and majority are not in the Middle Eastern lexicon, as the region is “a mosaic of different groups.” With the arrival of the modern state, he stressed, we have the opportunity to include minorities in the mainstream to eliminate sectarian, ethnic, and other divisions in the minds of the region.

Another question concerned what many considered to be Al Jazeera’s uneven coverage of the uprising in Bahrain. Khanfar answered that the Bahraini crisis came at the time of other revolutions and so was not as highly prioritized as coverage of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Nonetheless, he stated, the Bahraini opposition had direct access to Al Jazeera until correspondents were expelled from the country. Khanfar explained that the network had nonetheless maintained coverage, sometimes through undercover reporting. Despite efforts to cover the ongoing events Khanfar said, “we were criticized by both parties;” the opposition felt that Bahrain did not get as much coverage as other countries, while the Bahraini government believed Al Jazeera gave the uprising undue attention.

A final question concerned whether new media will make it impossible for politicians to respond to citizens’ grievances. Miliband responded that media is a symptom, not a cause, of people’s grievances. He said that 24-hour media is making the electorate better educated about a variety of domestic and global issues. Still, it is important not to overestimate the power of media. Where there is a cacophony of voices, the danger is not media domination, but rather fragmentation, he said. As populations become more aware they will be more able to process information independently; “the critical mind is the essence of democracy,” he said.


The Information Revolution: Democracy and Legitimacy in the 21st Century

2011 was a year of mass upheaval. In the Arab world, a succession of autocrats were toppled by broad popular uprisings calling for greater prosperity, inclusion, and dignity, in a movement that has shaken the foundations of states across the region. Further afield, the prolonged aftermath of economic crisis has brought a disenfranchised “99 percent” into the streets of cities across the globe. In parts of Europe, governments forced to impose programs of austerity are facing regular crises of authority, caught between the demands of their EU financiers and those of their unwilling publics. Placing these developments in the broader context of an information revolution that has seen a decentralization of knowledge – and the means to deploy it – David Miliband and Wadah Khanfar discussed their implications for the future of democracy and legitimacy in the 21st century.

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