Friday, March 4, 2011
Democracy is possible in the Arab World
The last six weeks have been a time of unprecedented domestic upheaval in the Arab World. Two regimes have fallen, another is falling and violent unrest appears to be happening in at least five other nations. So I want to examine in this post what it all really means. This latest turmoil has come out of nowhere and took everybody by surprise. From the US State Department to Mossad intelligence, and every plethora of human rights organisations and NGO's in between nobody saw this coming. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Al Quaeda and Iran have been slow to take advantage of the situation. And the reason for this is because what is happening today in the Middle east is a genuine unrehearsed grassroots uprising by normal people against authoritarianism. There has been a population explosion in the Middle East over the last 30 years. In massive countries like Iran and Egypt 60% of the population are under 30 years of age. And in the communications era, these people cannot be controlled. With the help of Facebook and Twitter they have made it clear that they have had enough of the old ways.
The Western Approach
So how should we in the west react. The far left are looking lost. While they despised Mubarak for being too pro western they always looked on Gadaffi as a Che Guevarra type who managed to last the test of time. The right too have displayed a deer in the headlights response. In fact the two American right wing blogs I read daily, Seraphic Secret and Wolf Howling are avoiding the topic altogether. Even prominent conservative commentators like John Bolton and Charles Krauthammer appear more concerned that the unrest might send the global economy back into recession than they are with exploring the opportunities that exist for spreading democracy across the region. This may be understandable but it is short sighted. I have never been one to believe as many do that the Russians need a strong man or that the Arabs crave stability. I think it is offensive to argue that only we in the west are good enough for democracy. The people in the Middle East are entitled to their shot at freedom and democracy and that effort should be encouraged by the west.
We know that many are cynical. Most on the right believe that any overthrow of a dictator will result in a short period (2 to 3 years) of unstable and unsuccessful multi party government followed by the reemergence of a new strong man or worse, an Islamist movement. This is very possible. Furthermore, many are arguing that democracy cannot take hold until there is an Islamic reformation. Again, its a fair point. It is no coincidence that there are no democracies among the forty or so Muslim countries world wide. The problem as I see it is that Islam is inseparable from politics. Politics is about governing people. But Islam is the same because the Islamic faith is about the well being of society as a whole. Unlike the Christan and Jewish faiths Islam is not about personal salvation. It is about the collective morality of the community. According to Islam if one individual fails to comply with conservative ideals of Islam then the wider community have failed in their duty to nourish a pure and pious society. Nations where extremism has prevailed such as Iran and Saudi Arabia have adopted this Islamic system as their form of government. In other Arab dictatorships the arrangement appears to be that Islamic leaders will support nationalist dictators so long as they agree to uphold basic Islamic principles under domestic law. It is a toxic mix that has prevented the rule of law, separation of powers and free elections from emerging throughout the region.
Having said all that, human history is not predictable. Nobody predicted this might happen so who is to say where it might end up. Washington and London should not play God with this. I have always argued that an Arab form of democracy that accommodates for the unique cultural and religious characteristics of the region should be the objective. Surely it is in the national interest of the US to see this happen. If the US were to act in a way that prevented the overthrow of a dictatorship, just to keep the oil flowing then it would once and for all find itself utterly without moral authority to confront any threat. I personally will continue to cheer when tyranny falls. I do not have the burden of responsibility of being in the White House so I accept that I can afford to be romantic where as others cannot. But the opportunity to replace tyranny with democracy on such a large scale does not come around often. If the opportunity is wasted, we will regret it for generations.