Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Middle East's Leading English Language Daily
The Middle East's Leading English Language Daily

Wednesday, 30, March, 2005 (19, Safar, 1426)

Arab Democracy Revisited
Fawaz Turki, —

Here’s a classic case that rises to the level of “man bites dog”: The occupation of Iraq by the American military, we are told, has triggered the emergence of democracy movements around the Arab world, most notably in the Fertile Crescent, the Gulf countries and Egypt. Accept this spin that officials in Washington put on the story and you find yourself tipping your hat to the neocons.

Before you invite ridicule by reaching for your headgear, let’s take a closer look at America’s efforts to pitch democracy to the Arabs.

Look, there is no question about the fact that the times have changed in our part of the world. Arabs have entered a period of soul-searching, civil society is in a self-questioning mode and political regimes, long thought to be solidly established, are beginning — reluctantly in most cases — to loosen their autocratic grip on the public discourse.

Somewhat willy-nilly, the Middle East has become a proving ground for debate on topics ranging from the rule of law to freedom of the press, from representative government to equality, from universal suffrage to fair elections, from control by the ruled over public policy enacted by the rulers to the right of individuals to advocate and promote their interests around their political beliefs, and from protections for the poor and marginalized against discrimination to an independent judiciary — in short, ideal democracy.

Lest there be any misunderstanding of what this column is saying this week, I stress the point: Democracy is a moral good, indeed an imperative for a society that values political freedom and the life of the mind.

Yet for true democracy to thrive, it needs not only to be embraced but consolidated as well, systemically, where each subsystem of the social system, from public education to the public debate, dynamically interacts with the other, affecting and in turn be affected by it.

There are several so-called “democracies” in the world today where competitive, free and open elections were held, while at the same time lawlessness, corruption and abuse of power ran rampant, and decision-making was left to a handful of decision-makers.

The Philippines is a case in point. This was a country where democracy was given a head start in 1913, when the administration of Woodrow Wilson made preparations for the independence of the country 33 years later, endowing it with a solid familiarity with democratic values, institutions and processes.

Today the Philippines has a literate population, national identity is strong, the press is free, and the middle class is a significant political force to reckon with. Despite that, in the last four decades, only one president, Fidel Ramos, who served between 1992 and 1998, has entered and left office through a regular democratic process, and the national government remains, as Marc Plattner, director of the International Forum for Democratic Societies, wrote recently, “dominated by an unrepresentative elite that is more adept at advancing personal interests than at crafting coherent policies.”

There are other cases where nominally democratic regimes coexist with undemocratic practices, including several countries in Latin America that still have laws that discriminate against women, the poor, the disenfranchised and indigenous tribes, countries where prisoners of conscience endure torture while the privileged manage to exempt themselves from the law. “For my friends, everything,” proclaimed Getulio Varges, Brazil’s president (1950-1954). “And for my enemies, the law.”

As for Iraq, the Arab world’s putative “beacon of democracy,” Iraqi interrogators still torture Iraqi detainees, including the regime’s political opponents, in the same manner that Baathist thugs had done under Saddam Hussein.

I’m not saying that there exists, should exist, or has ever existed, a pristine, idealized democracy anywhere (heck, we’re human), for come to think of it, even ancient Greece, that invented democracy, was not above scrutiny in the way it failed to apply fully the rules of “demos” to protect those individual rights that we today consider the major building block of democracy. (Athens, along with the other Greek city-states, it will be recalled, had large communities of slaves.)

The Arab world today does indeed, and desperately so, need democracy. Arab societies are broken in back and spirit, and Arab citizens are helpless and adrift, bereft of political cohesion and cut off from all that is vibrant and dynamic in the global dialogue of cultures. And has been for many years.

To explain that phenomenon, some commentators in the West have fallen back on a racist canard: Arab culture, along with Islam itself, is resistant to democratic values, and violence forms a part of the “Arab character.”

Humbug. Those of us Arab activists, democrats one and all, who have agitated for meaningful reform all these years, began our campaign, often at great cost, back in the 1950s, when those commentators were in diapers. We had read John Lock and Karl Marx, Montesquieu and Ibn Khaldoun, the “Federalist” and the “Republic” in our college days, when American intellectuals, filmmakers and journalists were brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee to be grilled about their ideological beliefs. (“Have you no sense of decency, Sir,” one of them asked good, old Joe McArthy.)

There is, of course, more to it than that. To make the long crawl to democratic transition and then democratic consolidation, we have to dig ourselves out from the hole that the Euro-American world had put us in, and clean the mess it left us behind.

The authoritarian regimes that for well over half a century have thrust on us a legacy of lopsided development, that not only left societies unfree but left them in political, moral and cultural decay, were indeed made up of elites native to our world. But these elites were supported, and their survival underwritten, by the “free world,” that saw them as a bulwark against the “threat of communism” and as their pliant policemen whose primary job was the suppression of populist movements opposed to Western neocolonial influence and Israeli designs.

So don’t, I say, give us bunk about Iraq being the trigger for democratic movements in the Arab world, as if we’re a bunch of primitives happy for the glass beads handed out to us by Western explorers.

We have an important job ahead of us: Crawling out of that hole, and cleaning that mess, left us by the “free world”.

Just as in 1885, when the European powers met in Berlin to partition Africa, legalizing a land grab across the continent — leaving Africans 120 years later the task of overcoming the dreadful consequences of that historic event — these Europeans in like manner felt that our region was a “world for the taking” and, armed with the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement and the equally infamous Balfour Declaration, parceled out the Middle East, betrayed the cause of Arab freedom and supported Arab despots whose job assignment was to protect Western strategic designs.

And now they’re all busy, getting on their high, paternalistic horse, introducing us to democracy.

Oh, puleeeeze! Don’t these folks have better things to do with their time?