04/18/2014 12:16 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

The Battle of Identities and Presidential Elections in the Arab Region

Presidential elections the Arab region are not an occasion to celebrate the joy of democracy and public participation in bringing about change, except exceptionally as in Egypt now. Instead, most elections are an occasion to be terrified of a conflagration in a given country. In most cases, the groups supporting the incumbent president remaining in power, often for decades, threaten that instability is the only other alternative. Algeria is a case in point, despite President Abdulaziz Boutaflika's old age and chronic health issues. In Syria, the presidential election is a one-horse race, as the only real candidate is current President Bashar al- Assad, who insists on holding presidential elections this summer as a means to circumvent the international consensus on the establishment of a transitional governing body with full powers, followed by presidential and parliamentary elections. In Iraq, there are fears of an open-ended bloody confrontation over the elections, in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki clings on to power. Lebanon's presidential election is somewhere between fear of vacuum and avoiding the extension of the term of President Michel Suleiman to safeguard the constitution, and the precarious or permanent alliances among sectarian leaders and parties in a game that is far from being actual democracy. In the folds of change, development, and adaptation playing out in the Arab republics, which hold elections, and the Gulf countries, Morocco, and Jordan, which are governed by monarchs, there are threads weaving national and individual identities, which have different or similar features, and interesting approaches to the notion of democracy.

The identity battle is not confined exclusively to the Arab region or the third world. It is chronic and it is currently raging in Russia, for example, where the link between identity and democracy is taking authority towards a dictatorial turn.

Unbridled ultra-nationalism fueled and inflated by Russian President Vladimir Putin has given him - by his decision - dictatorial powers. Putin did not content himself with using those powers at home, but also found foreign adventures - especially in the Crimea - to be additional tools to boost Russian nationalism in a populist way and to harness this to expand his dictatorial powers.

This is a bad development for Russia in the long run, no matter how much Putin's actions revive national euphoria, pride, and joy over its might and bullying. Putin is deliberately forging a dictatorial identity, and sucking the blood of the democratic identity to spit it in the faces of those who protest against him. This carries a lot of contempt for the people of Russia, no matter how much he seems today - in Putin's view - to be laughing it off with broad shoulders, challenging the hated West that dared to disrespect the dignity of Russia. But as the West suggests that it is unable or unprepared to stand up to Putin's adventures, it might be actually implementing a strategy to lure Russia into making the mistakes of unbridled nationalism.

In Israel, the Jewish identity is taking over the political and actual future of Israel and the Palestinians living inside Israel, numbering about one million people, or about a quarter of the population - and who are growing in numbers. Israel's rulers have chosen to believe that the best way to deal with the demographic dilemma inside Israel is to force the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state before negotiating the two-state solution: Palestine living side by side with Israel.

Practically speaking, what the Israeli politicians are asking is to turn Israel into a state for Jews only, which would invalidate democracy that guarantees equality within the state. Here, identity is not only taking a form that completely contradicts democracy, but also a form that is racist and discriminatory against one million Palestinians within Israel.

It is clear where Israeli politicians stand on the question of the identity and meaning of the Jewish state. What is a mystery, however, is where the Jewish popular base within Israel stands on the idea of an Israel exclusively for Jews, where non-Jewish Palestinians would be excluded from having equal rights within the Jewish state. This is a great challenge that raises questions about how much democracy is rooted in the Israeli mentality, but also in the mentality of those who support Israel's insistence on being recognized as a Jewish state as a precondition for the two-state solution.

Those who pretend that this is a semantic issue are required to clarify that they support a Jewish state where Jews, Christians, and Muslims are equal in access to posts, national privileges, and rights - not verbally but in writing through treaties and the constitution, which Israel seems to be comfortable without.

The issue is really about the supremacy of one identity and its power trample another. In other words, abolishing the Palestinian identity within Israel requires excluding it from the Jewish state. This is an ethical dilemma that is not only facing the Israeli people and government, but also the American sponsor of the peace process and the two-state solution, as well as the European partners who have buried their heads in the sand for fear of admitting to what is meant really meant by emphasizing the religious identity of the State of Israel.

Religious identity is clear in the strategy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where autocracy is coupled with religion in a theocracy that has become a national identity, which the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard who rule Iran seek to impose on the rest of the country. This does not conceal the reality of the restlessness among Iranians toward such an identity. To be sure, this regime does not enjoy popular consensus over its choices. Iranian youths are divided, and many of them reject this identity that has been imposed on them by the regime. Here, imposing an identity could be one of the most undemocratic and dictatorial practices at large, as it forces compliance in the name of God.

The Arab Gulf identity differs somewhat between one country and another, but, at its core, it is conservative and is comfortable with the idea of compliance. The Arab Spring did not reach the Gulf states not because of a preemptive suppression of protest, as much as the popular satisfaction with the existing social contract with their governments. This applies to the majority of Gulf countries, though not all.

However, the Islamic extremism and terrorism that came out of the Gulf region and reached the whole world certainly reflects the emergence of the identity of extremism from the same environment where the majority is satisfied by absolute loyalty without protest. Searching for an identity is not new to the Arab region as a whole, but the Islamic identity came to the Gulf and the rest of the Arab countries in the 1980s in the wake of the Iranian revolution.

Today, there is another identity making its way to the Gulf countries, which is certainly being analyzed by academics, in light of the radical change that has taken place within the Gulf societies. These regions were mostly desert in the 1970s; but today, they are modern oases with cutting-edge infrastructure.

These countries do not claim to be democratic in the traditional sense and do not labor to show themselves as homogeneous. But recently, they have started realizing the importance of human rights, the need for reform, and the unacceptability of discrimination in citizenship. However, they are still very far from adopting the democratic identity or seeking transition into a constitutional mode of monarchy. Interestingly, the peoples of these countries want political change to be gradual and not to be rushed, and favor a focus on economic development and the development of their cities.

Religious identity is strong in the Gulf countries and so is the Arab identity. In Yemen, tribal identity dominates the country, and for this reason, it was a wise decision to take the country from what former Prime Minister Abdul Karim al-Eryani called a simple state to a compound state - meaning unconventional federalism.

The identity of Islamic extremism is present in most Arab countries, from the Gulf to Yemen, Egypt, and Libya in particular. In Egypt, the identity of boldness to bring about change has triumphed twice, and could triumph thrice if necessary. This people toppled two presidents in one year, and are watching, holding leaders accountable, and imposing change from Tahrir Square.

In Egypt, like in Tunisia, the identity of rejecting the imposition of religion on the state has triumphed. The process of challenging the imposition of identity as the Muslim Brotherhood envisaged it has won, and those keen on protecting constitutions have prevailed.

The presidential election in Egypt will be a testament to how much the previous mistakes of change will be mended, as in the past, parliamentary elections were rushed before the revolutionary forces were ready to contest them, leading to the hijacking of the presidency and an attempt to hijack the constitution-drafting process.

There are fears of confrontations during the electoral process, but the Egyptian presidential election is not imposed from above with predetermined results. It is a popular choice being exercised in full momentum for an astounding renewal in the Arab region.

Sometimes interesting headlines appear in the media. This week, there was one such headline stating that the Muslim Brotherhood was "growing drugs in Sinai to finance terrorist operations." In other countries in the Arab region and the Middle East as a whole, there have been many headlines that linked clerics and political parties to the drug trade, to finance arms purchases and battles in their countries and beyond. This is an identity of fundamental contradiction between seeking to reform society on the basis of faith and destroying society through the exploitation of religion.

The change that is taking place through the presidential elections and through new identities being formulated is something to be celebrated, regardless of the difficulty to take joy in change amid fears of an explosion.

Jordan's King Abdullah II spoke about comprehensive reform as a strategic option for the Arab region as a whole, and the Arab states individually. He is right, but he is required like other leaders to turn words into deeds.

It is interesting to watch what is happening in the Arab region, where public squares overlap with presidential elections, and where new identities are being formulated that challenge what happened over the past few decades, when Islamic extremism hijacked the process of reform and development, and denied the region its beautiful dreams.

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi