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Thursday, May 28, 2009

'Democracy' in the Arab world

A Brookings Institution poll ought to give pause to those who believe that 'democratic elections' in the Arab and Muslim world are a panacea for the region's problems.
Who’s the most popular ruler across the Arab world? It isn’t Mubarak, who enjoys skyrocketing sympathy that is erasing hatreds and clashes at this time, in the wake of the tragic death of his eldest grandson. It also isn’t Lebanon’s president, with everyone tense in the face of the large-scale terror attack feared ahead of the Lebanese parliamentary elections. It is certainly not Gaddafi either, the most veteran ruler, who enjoys cheers that are orchestrated from above through threats and bribes.

The answer is both surprising and disappointing: Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, reached the top spot in a poll whose findings stunned even those who carried it out - researchers at the Brookings Institute.

After 10 years of a regime characterized by violence and hesitance, the dictator from Damascus heads the parade. In third spot, unsurprisingly, we find the hero of the swamps and back alleys, Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. The second spot was taken by a grey figure, almost unknown around here: Sheikh Mohammad al-Nayan, the ruler of Abu-Dhabi, the Gulf’s prosperous heaven.

The survey was undertaken in six states: Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. Two of the rulers of these states, Mubarak and the Saudi King, publically declared they are no friends of Assad because of the Iranian bear hug and because of his involvement in smuggling terrorists and stimulating terror attacks against them. Also, we shouldn’t forget the big mouth Assad has shown at their expense every time he faces a microphone or cameras.

More than anything else, the stars of this popularity parade blatantly attest to the bankruptcy of the vision of democracy and human rights born at the White House. Does anyone truly believe that if they flew the poll respondents far away from Syria, they would elect a ruler who clings to power only via threats, scare-mongering, and jails for political prisoners?
Read the whole thing. The columnist, Smadar Peri, predicts that as a result of this poll, President Obama will 'forget' to talk about democracy and human rights in Egypt next week, because democratic elections might depose President Mubarak and the Saudi royal family.

But there's more to it than that - or there ought to be. At the end of World War II, the United States and its allies occupied Germany and Japan for some period of time and changed the countries' culture before the allies allowed elections to be held. Non-democratic regimes cannot just be deposed if one expects true democracy to take hold. They must be rooted out completely and the entire culture and way of thinking must be changed.

This is the mistake that the United States and Israel made in the 'Palestinian Authority' when they allowed elections to be held in January 2006 and got Hamas. And it's a mistake they are on the verge of making again. Democracy cannot exist in a vaccuum. The culture that underlies it must be established and built up before it can take hold. In the United States, the Revolutionary War ended in 1781 but there was a constitution and a bill of rights before elections were first held in 1788. During that time, the form of government was debated openly and a constitutional convention took place.

Democracy cannot be imposed from the top down by autocratic regimes. It must be sold from the bottom up.


At 10:40 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Free elections in Arab countries will bring Islamists to power. The Algerians learned the hard way and the army had to abort the elections and defeat the Islamists with unimaginable violence. Over 16 years after that military takeover, Algeria is far from being a free society. And neither are the Palestinians today.

At 1:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Democracy is possible if the people surveyed or asked to elect a leader believe that the rule of law will prevail. Most in the Middle East "believe" that their fate has been decided by the western powers and that elections held are nothing but a guiltless trip for western leaders. The moment they feel they are really "free" from manipulations and conspiracies, and that their empowerment is real, you will see them vote for what is best for their countries. But as long as the people are afraid, they will vote with their hearts. To choose Assad is proof of their fear and not love or admiration.


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