Democracy in the Middle East: The Missing Link
- Mohammed Al-Asaadi
August , 2007
The transition toward democracy in the Middle East is being watched closely by the international community with the hope that it will ultimately become a reality. Democracy is thought to be a vital cure for the region’s instability, chaos and violence. It is very clear that democracy advocates in the American government and in the European Union associate democracy with security.
According to this theory, security will bring about stability and development in the region and it will ultimately help maintain the economic and political independence of Middle Eastern countries. Once security is achieved, a democratic system of governance will easily be imported with minimum costs into the Middle East—a region with complex histories, traditions, dreadful economies, and tragic conflicts.
Professor Mehrzad Boroujerdi of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University ironically asked fellows from the Middle East during a presentation, whether democracy is the final goal, in and of itself, or is it a means of finding a way out of the complicated situation in the region? Naturally, another question arises. Are the Middle Eastern countries, which share the same culture, language and religion ready for democracy at all?
The United States of America, which presents itself as the world’s foremost advocate of democracy, has failed in many situations to be a role model. It promised its people and the rest of the world to bring democracy to third world countries blighted by oppressive regimes. It failed to do so in Afghanistan and Iraq alike. Moreover, the United States actively sabotaged its own ideal of democracy and freedom after the landslide victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections of 2006. Arab masses concluded that the United States does not actually respect the will of people; rather it sponsors any kind of regime that is willing to protect U.S. interests.
Democracy as a system of governance should enable citizens to choose their rulers and live equally within a state of law and order. This means that citizens are the key factor in the process. Arab governments are not subject to the will of the people. In fact, as authoritarian governments, they dominate and control their subjects.
Granted, one must acknowledge that democratization is a process that takes a long time to take effect. The region is still suffering from internal disputes over wealth and power as a result of the colonial era. Moreover, democracy is a new concept in the traditional political dictionary of Arabs, which effectively demands a total alteration of traditional political systems. Naturally, a major change to a political system or to social values faces fierce resistance from factions with deeply rooted interests in maintaining the current state.
Some religious extremists go so far as to argue that Arab and Islamic cultures are incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy. Why? They simply prefer to maintain the status quo, and to institutionalize gender and minority inequality. Though this attitude remains high among the challenges facing democratization in the Middle East, the liberal movement is slowly but steadily gaining a foothold in the social and political arenas.
Political and civil society activists, the media, democracy foundations and schools educate people about democratization as a process to expand political participation of citizens, saying that democracy will provide the people with real and meaningful collective control over public policy. When people learn that democracy encourages silenced mouths to speak out and animates dead hopes for a better future, the people will fight for it. The key to democratization is inspiring the masses to believe in it and fight for it. But democratization that is not based at the grassroots level is bound to remain a pipedream.
Consider the Middle Eastern political map. No one interested in democratization is encouraged by the current situation. None of the above-mentioned basic values that the transition to democracy requires exists in any of the Arab countries; even those that claim to be democracies.
We are talking about a region that shares a religion, culture and language, but also shares violence, instability and the dominance of authoritarian regimes. The situations in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, and so on, scare people too much and make them unwilling to accept unpredictable change.
The majority of people in the Arab world are not interested in or permitted to learn that they have a certain amount of freedom and rights. According to Amr Hamzawi, a senior researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the concept of citizenship is new to our region. It remains a donation that rulers give to some and deny to others.
School textbooks, government-controlled mass media and jingoistic national celebrations tend to glorify the head of state and present him as the savior of his people. As heads of states in our part of the world remain in power for decades, they tend to believe that they have been divinely appointed to rule their countries and they act accordingly.
Ultimately, those rulers behave like they own the country and its people and they pass on that ownership to their sons as if the country were a family heirloom. Syria, as a republican regime, is a prime example. When Hafez Al-Assad died, his power went directly to his son, Bashar. The same is feared to occur in Libya, Egypt and Yemen, even though Egypt and Yemen consider themselves to be “emerging democracies.”
Focusing on the specific situations of some countries of the region with experiences in democratization makes it difficult to feel optimistic about the possibility of a real democracy emerging, even a decade from now. Most governments can be seen as authoritarian regimes that seek legitimacy in the eyes of the international community by playing a game in which the incumbents use formal democratic practices like elections. In Yemen, for instance, the government continues to present itself as a leading democracy in the Middle East with a real opposition and competitive elections, even at the level of the head of state.
Theoretically, Yemen became a democracy in 1990 after both parts of the country were re-united. That year, North Yemen and South Yemen—two different regimes with diametrically opposing ideologies—came together, both making compromises for the sake a national unity. There really was a serious move towards democracy with federal state system, which put Yemen in the lead in the region’s “race” toward democracy.
But lingering issues between the two regimes, such as the distribution of power and wealth, the negotiation of tribalism and nationalism, and external interference in Yemeni affairs led to a civil war in 1994. The pro-unity party, led by the old regime in the north, defeated the anti-unity party in what is known as the 70-Day War.
The result of that war was that the ruling party based in the north had no counterpart to provide political balance because the southerners had been defeated and punished into submission for their part in the war. Despite the fact that the country has so far witnessed two local council elections, two parliamentary elections and two presidential elections, it remains under the grip of the General People’s Congress – the ruling party.
The one-man authoritarianism and the absence of the rule of law and good governance make hopes of democracy seem very far away. But idealistic individuals in weak opposition parties and civil society activists continue to work with the few resources and limited political freedom to achieve a breakthrough. The ever-escalating volume of corruption in finance, politics, health, education, judicial weakness, inequality among citizens, and unfair distribution of wealth make the struggle of idealists harder and longer.
In Yemen, there is a certain amount of press freedom, but the government tightens its control on the media through the violent harassment of journalists, trials against publications and the imprisonment of outspoken critics. The psychological and physical harassments and intimidation by authorities promotes self-censorship by journalists, killing the essence of independence and freedom.
Though many people in Yemen and other Arab countries believe that they need to be entirely free of autocratic regimes, they act differently when opportunities for change, such as elections, come into their hands. The deteriorating economies, poverty, security issue and sponsored ignorance practiced by regimes against people continue to maintain the traditional public attitude towards change.
Arab regimes tend to occasionally promote “democracy,” but only the one that secures their power forever.