Powered by WebAds

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Democracy isn't just about free elections

Something is going awry in the American effort to bring democracy to the facist regimes of the Middle East. Saad Eddin Ibrahim summarizes the problem in an article in today's Washington Post:
According to the preliminary results of a recent public opinion survey of 1,700 Egyptians by the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Center, Hezbollah's action garnered 75 percent approval, and Nasrallah led a list of 30 regional public figures ranked by perceived importance. He appears on 82 percent of responses, followed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (73 percent), Khaled Meshal of Hamas (60 percent), Osama bin Laden (52 percent) and Mohammed Mahdi Akef of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (45 percent).

The pattern here is clear, and it is Islamic. And among the few secular public figures who made it into the top 10 are Palestinian Marwan Barghouti (31 percent) and Egypt's Ayman Nour (29 percent), both of whom are prisoners of conscience in Israeli and Egyptian jails, respectively.

None of the current heads of Arab states made the list of the 10 most popular public figures. While subject to future fluctuations, these Egyptian findings suggest the direction in which the region is moving. The Arab people do not respect the ruling regimes, perceiving them to be autocratic, corrupt and inept. They are, at best, ambivalent about the fanatical Islamists of the bin Laden variety. More mainstream Islamists with broad support, developed civic dispositions and services to provide are the most likely actors in building a new Middle East. In fact, they are already doing so through the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, the similarly named PJD in Morocco, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine and, yes, Hezbollah in Lebanon.

These groups, parties and movements are not inimical to democracy. They have accepted electoral systems and practiced electoral politics, probably too well for Washington's taste. Whether we like it or not, these are the facts. The rest of the Western world must come to grips with the new reality, even if the U.S. president and his secretary of state continue to reject the new offspring of their own policies.
What is perhaps most indicative of the problem is that Ibrahim, a known 'democracy activist' in Egypt, does not see the election of groups like Hamas and Hezbullah as a problem. To the contrary, he believes that the United States and other western countries have to accept and deal with the results:
Instead of welcoming these particular elected officials into the newly emerging democratic fold, Washington began a cold war on Muslim democrats. Even the tepid pressure on autocratic allies of the United States to democratize in 2005 had all but disappeared by 2006. In fact, tottering Arab autocrats felt they had a new lease on life with the West conveniently cowed by an emerging Islamist political force.

Now the cold war on Islamists has escalated into a shooting war, first against Hamas in Gaza and then against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel is perceived in the region, rightly or wrongly, to be an agent acting on behalf of U.S. interests. Some will admit that there was provocation for Israel to strike at Hamas and Hezbollah following the abduction of three soldiers and attacks on military and civilian targets. But destroying Lebanon with an overkill approach born of a desire for vengeance cannot be morally tolerated or politically justified -- and it will not work.
Therein lies the problem. To Ibrahim and to the Islamist 'resistance movements,' democracy is about free elections, and the ability to elect and to be elected. But to the Bush administration and to other proponents of democracy, it's about much more. To Americans and Europeans, democracy is about equal rights before the law and equal opportunity. In the words of the American declaration of independence, it's about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Any system of government that does not protect minority rights therefore cannot be a democracy, because it denies those citizens who did not vote for its government the basic rights listed above. Thus, for example, regardless of how free elections might be in Saudi Arabia, so long as one is not free to believe in anything or to practice any religion other than Islam in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia will not be a democracy.

Somehow, the Bush administration has failed to convey these basic truths to the countries it is attempting to 'convert' to democracy in the Middle East. Perhaps it has conveyed these truths, but the Arab countries are not willing to hear them. Whatever the case may be, it is clear to all westerners that 'Palestine' is not democratic today, and that while Lebanon may be democratic, it is teetering on the edge of becoming undemocratic so long as Hezbullah's agenda is part of its government.

The governments of Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad and the Saudi royal family are not democratic, but the government of Hamas is no more democratic, and worse, it is also a war mongerer. Under those circumstances, it may be better to leave well enough alone.


At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seams to be part of the western mentality to proselitize. First they would convert everybody to xtianity and know the have replaced that with democracy.

At 3:14 PM, Blogger Bret said...

Were the Palestinians really less of a threat when they were a dictatorship? Was Arafat really that much better than the current leadership?

With one small change in attitude by those of us in the West, I think such democracies are actually much preferrable: in a war, only the government and the military are fair targets, but in a democracy, the government is the people, so everyone is a fair target. Certainly, that's the Arab attitude towards Israel.

I think that Israel would have a responsibility to avoid civilian casualties if war broke out with Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc. On the other hand, I think that Israel has absolutely no requirement to avoid civilian casualties in Lebanon and Gaza. Indeed, I believe that it's very counterproductive to do so in that it allows those voters to support Hezbollah and Hamas relatively safely. If they knew that their lives would be seriously endangered by voting for Hezbollah and Hamas, I think they would quickly learn to vote differently.

This change in attitude would level the playing field regarding deterrence between dictatorships and democracies and would make democracies - even poor ones like Hamas - preferrable to the dictatorships. It also happens to level the playing field regarding Hezbollah's and Hamas' view of civilian casualties in Israel, since they view such casualties as a feature, not a bug.

Democracy is about a people being responsible for their own government. A responsible people must bear the consequences for their choices.


Post a Comment

<< Home