November 20, 2006


The Road to Democracy in the Arab World (Uriya Shavit, Autumn 2006, Azure)

There is no truth to the claim that the Arabs have never had any contact with democracy. Just the opposite is the case: Democracy has historic, if not particularly fruitful, roots in Arab societies. In fact, it is this very experience with democracy that makes their approach to it more complex and guarded than that of other cultures.

The Arab acquaintance with democracy began as far back as 1829, when Muhammad Ali, one of the founders of modern Egypt and the governor of the Ottoman district, announced the establishment of a “consultative council” (majlis al-mashwara).3 The council was based on the Islamic principle of Shura, whose standard interpretation requires a ruler to include the community in the decision-making process. Both the council’s structure and its presentation to the public demonstrated the contradictions bound up with the question of democracy in the Middle East in subsequent decades: First, between dependence on a traditional political model on the one hand, and the establishment of outwardly Western political institutions on the other; and second, in creating ostensibly representative institutions while retaining monopolistic sovereignty in the hands of the ruler. Indeed, although the council’s members were appointed and their role purely advisery, Arab intellectuals nonetheless drew a connection between the council, parliamentarianism, and Western democracy. Egypt’s official newspaper regularly compared the council to institutions such as the British parliament and the French National Assembly, and Rifaa Rafe al-Tahtawi, principal of the Egyptian school of languages and head of the government department of translations, used the word Shura to describe institutions like the U.S. Congress.4

Until the end of the eighteenth century, in fact, liberal principles enjoyed a measure of support in Arab societies, often through emphasis on the parallels between Western-style government and Shura. The turning point came after World War I, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent establishment of the Arab states. With the West’s victory, democracy ceased to be the preserve of a handful of Western nations. Now, it was a concept with universal pretensions. Middle-class Arab society felt the first stirrings of a national, liberal consciousness: Government officials, lawyers, journalists, and merchants familiar with Western political models saw in them a suitable alternative to the traditional, yet eroding, frameworks for their own identity. Moreover, these models held out the promise of liberation from foreign rule: The West’s strength, it seemed clear, lay in its political system, and adopting this system was the surest—perhaps only-means to success.

After the war, the idea of liberal democracy took firm hold in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. In these countries, the middle classes were the driving force behind the push for a liberal constitution, even before Great Britain and France (known as the Powers) were ready to support one. The liberal viewpoint also spread to Arab territories not ruled as mandated regions, or still lacking a genuine middle class. In Kuwait, for example, then under British influence, a merchants’ organization was established in 1921 to demand that the emir institutionalize their participation in the decision-making process.5 Even Ibn Saud, the only Arab leader not under the rule of the Powers in the 1920s, was forced to order the establishment of a “residents’ council,” elected by ballot and entrusted with both legislative and executive powers, when the idea of free elections and representational government became so popular in the Arab world as to be a near condition for domestic and international legitimization of his 1924-1925 conquest of the Hijaz strip.6

During the same period, the West performed a dual function in the inculcation of liberal democracy in the Middle East. On the one hand, Britain and France acted as political mentors, helping to move Arab societies towards full independence; they aided in the establishment of a political system that would guarantee fair competition between parties, freedom of speech and inquiry, freedom of assembly, and equal rights for women and minorities. On the other hand, the Powers also sought to promote their own strategic interests and bolstered the status of political forces loyal to the West. This duality inevitably resulted in a deep mistrust of Western forms of government in the Arab world: Arabs largely perceived it as a fraud, an illusion intended to distract them while the West perpetuated its domination of the Middle East. They came to regard democracy as a synonym for the underhanded promotion of foreign interests. This is where the Gordian knot of the Arab democratic question emerged: The West was seared into Arab consciousness as a liberator that is also a conqueror, and liberal democracy as a solution that is also a problem.

The fledgling Arab democracies survived, fragile and artificial as they were, so long as the Powers remained in the region. When their Western patrons left, they quickly fell apart. Yet the failure of this political experiment did not dim the appeal of democracy as an idea. In fact, the Arab regimes that arose at the end of the 1940s from the ruins of these failed liberal enterprises presented themselves as the “true” embodiments of democracy. And indeed, they did adopt the idea that a citizenry should enjoy basic freedoms and the right to elect its government—in theory. They also theoretically adopted the belief that this concept should be institutionalized through written laws and in representative institutions whose forms were copied from the West. In practice, however, these regimes insisted that there were various ways to implement democracy, and various stops on the road leading to it.

Initially, for example, the Free Officers in Egypt and the Baath leaders in Syria claimed to be spearheading a “transitional” stage during which their societies would be freed from Western interests and gain equal economic footing with their Western counterparts. They claimed that once this stage was complete, it would be possible for the re-establishment of a “true” political democracy. Yet when this transitional period was extended indefinitely, and power remained in the hands of a small group of unelected revolutionaries for a protracted period, the regimes were quick to deflect blame. It was the fault, they insisted, of their societies’ lack of readiness, or, better yet, of their enemies in the West.7 The situation was similar in several of the more conservative Arab countries: Kuwait and Bahrain, for example, began their independence as parliamentary emirates in which the people’s representative had real legislative authority. In short order, however, their constitutions were suspended, the elected assemblies were dissolved, and opposition leaders were incarcerated. All the while, the rulers presented these steps as a temporary “freezing” of political freedoms whose goal was the revival and revitalization of “authentic” democratic life. Thus did Arab regimes declare themselves the standard-bearers of the democratic ideal, even as they insisted it was not yet possible to implement this ideal on account of the ever-present threat of instability.8

This chasm separating the democratic rhetoric and despotic reality of the Arab regimes did not go unnoticed. But demands that the situation be corrected, voiced from the early 1950s to the early 1980s, were not, for the most part, of a liberal nature. Reformists did not see in Western democracy a recipe for the improvement of a country’s political, economic, and cultural situation, since, to their mind, this recipe had already been tried and found wanting. Moreover, the West was no longer enjoying hegemony; the Communist bloc now offered a political and ideological alternative to liberalism. Thus, while the United States had replaced Britain and France as the Western power with the greatest influence in the Middle East, that influence, starting in the early 1950s, was limited by the cold war balance of power.9

The demise of the edifice of Soviet communism in the early 1990s led to a conceptual swing in Arab societies. Not only was the West restored to its post-World War I status as an unrivaled military and economic force in the Middle East, but so, too, did liberal democracy revert to what it was at the beginning of the century in the region: A form of government with universal pretensions.

The significance of these developments was not lost on many Arab intellectuals. At the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, discussions on the universality of liberal democracy proliferated in Arab countries. Some intellectuals even dared to state openly that in the post-Soviet world, Arab countries must also go the way of liberal democracies, since the fall of communism had provided definitive proof that there are no grounds for the Arab regimes’ pretense to being a link between “social democracy” (an equal social order) and “political democracy,” in the same way that there are no grounds for the pretense of delaying democratic reforms in the name of creating “true” democracy. These intellectuals insisted that the type of democracy practiced in the West is the only type worth practicing, and is furthermore a condition for becoming an advanced and free country. Despite bitter past experience, they demanded that the Western model of democracy be adopted in Arab countries, with no excuses, and without delay.10

Determined calls for democratization and liberalization following the demise of communism came not only from academic circles of independent Arab intellectuals, however. Soon, they had infiltrated into the pages of newspapers under strict government supervision. Several articles published in the Saudi paper Al-Riyadh in the summer of 1989, for example, vehemently attacked the false democracy practiced in the Arab and Third Worlds, as well as the view that liberal democracy is unique to the West. One article angrily wondered why the Arab world persists in thinking that, at best, Western democracy may be viewed from a distance, “just as one views from a distance ice-skating rinks, Big Ben, the Canadian waterfalls, voyages into space, and the lakes in Regent’s Park.”11

True, the awakening of the idea of liberalism among Arab intellectuals must be viewed in context. The number of intellectuals who spoke up in favor of adopting liberal democracy was extremely small, and they lacked the audacity to lead the struggle themselves. They believed in following the example set by the “solidarity” movements, yet none of them saw themselves as a Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel. Thus, the debate they prompted did not lead to the establishment in any Arab country of an institutionalized movement that put the question of democracy at the top of its agenda. They were the standard-bearers, but they had no followers.

Yet, despite its weaknesses, the debate among reformist intellectuals on the question of the universality of liberal democracy posed a new challenge to the political order in the Middle East. Some of these thinkers linked the collapse of the Soviet bloc to the failure of the Arab regimes’ political rhetoric, and concluded that these regimes were destined to follow ignominiously in communism’s footsteps. Moreover, these reformist thinkers translated America’s triumphalist stance into Arab terms: Like Francis Fukuyama, they, too, asked Arabs to view liberal democracy as a system of government suitable to all of humanity, and entreated them to ignore its Western roots. And like Fukuyama, they also assumed that with the collapse of communism, the last serious ideological alternative to liberal democracy had vanished.

The re-awakening of the idea of liberalism in the Arab world was short-lived, however, for in the summer of 1990, everything changed. In August, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States assembled an international coalition on Saudi soil to counter Saddam Hussein’s aggression. In Hussein’s rapid defeat, the Arabs witnessed the total military superiority of the West over their region’s strongest army.

In the eyes of many Arab intellectuals-among them even those who had been calling for political reform in the Arab world-the Gulf War served as a warning of the dangers the post-Soviet future posed to their nations and culture. Not merely a confrontation between countries, but rather the beginning of a wholesale clash of two civilizations, a struggle whose true cause is the desire of the West to quash Arab power and eradicate the very possibility of the existence of an opposing force.

Arab thinking about the war, then, ran toward an anxiety that the West would once again seek to impose its interests and values on the Arab nations, just as it had done after World War I. Thus did many Arab intellectuals infer the objective of the Gulf War from its outcome: Since the war had ended in a hard blow to the Arab state with the strongest army and an enlargement of the Western military presence in the Arab state richest in oil, then that must have been its purpose from the start. Many went so far as to describe the war as a Western conspiracy whose true goal was the realization of the vision outlined by President George Bush, Sr. of a “new world order” defined as global American hegemony and the return of the Middle East to Western-imperialistic rule.12

In the months after the war, this view began to dominate debates on democratic reforms in Arab states and most Arabs rejected the possibility of adopting the Western model of democracy, or even the very idea that the West might serve as a source of political inspiration. [...]

This, then, is the situation that now confronts the Arab world: The war in Iraq and America’s liberalization initiatives have put the question of democracy at the top of the agenda. But the new Western presence also engenders fears of a revival of the days of imperialism and subjugation. Without the West’s involvement, Arab democracy is impossible, but with the West’s involvement, a massive psychological and political stumbling block to the establishment of Arab democracy is created. How is either side to escape from this impasse?

The public debate in the United States surrounding the future of Bush’s plans currently oscillates between two approaches. According to the first, the administration plays up false or temporary accomplishments and insists that the Middle East’s road to democratization is being paved-even if it does still remain a long one. The second, espoused by the war’s opponents, calls for an immediate withdrawal of Western armies from Iraq and the abandonment of all aspirations to “impose” foreign regimes and worldviews on the Arab world. Adherence to either of these views is likely to lead to the same result: The defeat of the Western project in Iraq, the repeal of hopes for liberalism in the Arab world, and a serious erosion of America’s strategic and moral standing in both the Middle East and the world at large.

Clearly, the United States must adopt a new doctrine, one that attempts to sever the connection in the Arab mind between democracy and the promotion of Western power. First, this doctrine must acknowledge the necessity of maintaining American forces on Iraqi soil, since a hasty withdrawal is liable to tip an already unstable situation toward wide-scale anarchy. Moreover, such a move will certainly be interpreted in the Arab world as proof not only of the West’s weakness, but also of the weakness of liberalism itself. Second, this doctrine should incorporate two new principles into its previously stated commitment to Iraq: One, a reduction in the contingency between potential outcomes of the democratization process in Arab societies and the condition of the American economy; and two, the universality of American standards in the field of human rights. Whereas the first principle will afford the United States more room for political maneuvering-and, in time, rid it of the suspicion prevalent in the Arab world that its true goals are imperialistic-the second principle will lend its foreign policy the credibility it currently lacks and help those Arab liberals who oppose their regime obtain the legitimacy denied to them today. Indeed, one of the main difficulties that today’s Arab freedom fighters face is the suspicion that they are lackeys of the West. So long as America continues to discriminate between liberals, advocates of the pan-Arab idea, and Islamist activists, then democratic leaders like Riyadh Seif in Syria, whose commitment to liberalism has withstood over four years of incarceration, will not gain the support of his own people.

The new doctrine will have to address the political problems related to the oil economy. American dependency on Arab oil must be reduced, and this reduction must be linked to the question of democratization. Today the United States has no exculpatory answer to the accusation that its true interest is ensuring the continued supply of oil from the Persian Gulf, and nurtures regimes that prove accommodating on this point. The United States ignores human-rights violations in the Gulf emirates while reproaching Syria for similar violations in its territory. It warns Damascus of the consequences of its involvement in terrorism, but tiptoes around the proven connection between the Wahhabi establishment and the insurgency in Iraq. So long as the West depends so heavily on Middle East oil, there will be no easy answer to the charge that America’s only priority in the region is advancing its economic interests.

Another issue the new doctrine must address is the Arab belief that democracy promotion is an excuse by the United States to remove from power rulers who are not to its liking and replace them with ones who are. In truth, this accusation cannot be dismissed as pure propaganda, since the administration went to war against Iraqi tyranny but contented itself with generalized declarations in favor of reform in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. “What is the moral difference between Baghdad and Riyadh?” Arab intellectuals ask. When they do not receive a reasonable answer, they doubt the sincerity of the democratization initiative as a whole.

America must therefore set consistent standards for the implementation of diplomatic and commercial sanctions on Arab regimes guilty of human rights violations. Consistent standards will have the double effect of forcing Arab regimes to ease their grip on society while convincing these regimes’ opponents that they are not alone in their struggle for reform.

Whether the President realizes it or not, it will benefit his vision of the middle East greatly when he's forced to accept the division of iraq into three states.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2006 9:55 PM

Ah, great minds, I see, are beginning to think alike on the nature of the final victory over Iraq.

The entire Shavit essay for all its equivocations, may be summed up in one hyphenated expression: Boxer-Leninism. Ressentment is crippling the Arab East. They could liberate themselves, they could become prosperous and happy, but they cannot escape their envy and hate.

Get over it, dear Arabs. Follow the example of good King Mieszko the First back in 966. The West had something to teach Poland, and Poland was ready and willing to give up being prarie bunnies* to learn it. Neurotic fixation on a surpassed culture is a very poor reason to wallow in barbarism.
*Cute: "Polani" = "people of the fields."

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 20, 2006 11:04 PM

Yet modern Europe is reverting because we surpassed them. It's hardly a novel reaction.

Posted by: oj at November 20, 2006 11:29 PM

I thought we did gracefully accept their victories. We just also pointed out that their continuing three-point plan of killing Americans, Israelis, and Anyone Who Currently Annoys Them is not exactly going to bring a shower of funds from us.

Posted by: Just John at November 21, 2006 2:02 AM

". . . Arab regimes guilty of human rights violations."

Just what are human rights violations in their lexicon? Here among our home-grown moonbats, a violation of human rights is homosexuals being denied the right to marry and/or serve in the military. For others of our fellow citizens, it's the right to have someone else's hard earned income redistributed into their pockets. In the Middle East, it's being forced to live on the same planet as Israel and Jews in general. In Europia, it's the right of Moslems to flout local laws in favor of their own atavistic life style. Plenty more examples like that.

A definition of terms would be helpful so we all know what we're talking about.

Posted by: erp at November 21, 2006 8:43 AM