Middle eastern democracy

Is the middle east ill-suited to democracy? Can America impose it? Or are home-grown models already showing signs of life?
April 19, 2003

by Adam Garfinkle

Any mission to impose democracy would fail, and stoke further Arab resentment

The debate in the US over the nature of a post-Saddam Iraq pits democratisers (most often those of "neoconservative" views) against pragmatists (usually "realist" by school). Many realists, like Henry Kissinger, support the removal of Saddam's regime but oppose a protracted high-profile US-led occupation of an Arab capital and an attempt to impose democracy on peoples who do not know or want it. They believe that pressing autocratic regimes in Muslim-majority countries towards better government, if not genuine democracy, can be wise if done prudently, but that too much pressure and haste would lead to a disastrous backlash against the US.

In particular, many point to the history of modernisation in the west, and to what we know of contemporary Muslim societies, to show that terrorism tends to arise from those rudely uprooted from rapidly changing societies. The biographies of contemporary Islamist terrorists show the majority to be well-educated, semi-westernised young men on the periphery of traditional societies. Force rapid change on such societies with revolutionary ideas like liberal democracy and globe-spanning market economics, and the result will be an accelerated dislocation that will produce more terrorists, not fewer.

Realists favour improving Iraqi political life, even if the result is still short of democracy-and if a good example there spreads, so much the better. They recognise, too, that a US-led international presence may be necessary for months; no one proposes to bomb, inspect for weapons of mass destruction and then leave others holding the nation-building bag. But realists seek the minimum necessary American symbolic profile, lest the US inherit the heavy baggage of the European colonial legacy, and centuries of Christian-Muslim conflict before that.

Democratisers, by contrast, believe that the US should promote, even impose, liberal democracy in the middle east, certainly on its adversaries and, some say, even on its authoritarian "friends." This we must do to eliminate the sources of rage and frustration that give rise to mass-casualty terrorism. (Poverty elimination alone, they argue, is futile, for the sources of poverty lie in the economic logic of autocracy.)

They further believe that there is good precedent for America's so doing: the post-second world war occupations of Japan and Germany. Based on those examples, they think that the democratisation of Iraq will spread to other Arab countries and to Iran. Many democratisers also believe that democracy promotion has been America's mission since 1776, one which has grown steadily with US power.

This latter impulse is by no means new. The most significant early American contact with the Arab world came not from the US government but from Christian missionaries. Their intentions were noble and some of their accomplishments, like the American universities in Cairo and Beirut, stand to this day. But they made few converts, and their Muslim targets resented the premise of their zeal: that Islam was a false faith, and that the civilisation to which it gave rise was inferior to that of the Christian west.

Today's democratisers are replaying the impulses of those 19th-century missionaries; everything, indeed, is more or less the same-except for two things. First, the gospel is now the "social gospel," a heavily-armed secularised liberal evangelism, America's manifest destiny globalised. The second difference is that the resentment of insulted Muslims could not reach across the ocean in the 19th century; today it can.

Where does the Bush administration stand in this debate? The president seemed to embrace the democratisation position in his 1st June 2002 speech at West Point. More recently, however, the State department has taken a more judicious approach. And the president, in remarks on 26th February, promised a US exit from Iraq at the earliest possible time-not the determination of someone resolved to reform an entire political culture down to its roots.

If the administration does proceed with a broad and rapid democratisation, it is likely to produce the worst possible result: failing to produce Arab democracy, yet reaping untold resentment for trying.

There are many problems with the democratisation approach to the war on terrorism, but the most serious of these concerns its very great difficulty. Muslim, and particularly Arab, political cultures are simply not so malleable that within a generation or two we can transform most of them into liberal democracies. There are few genuine democracies in the Muslim world (Turkey's is the most mature), and none in the Arab world. This is no coincidence. In different degrees, Arab societies lack three prerequisites for democracy: the belief that the source of political authority is intrinsic to society; a concept of majority rule; and the acceptance of all citizens' equality before the law. Without the first, the idea of pluralism-and the legitimacy of a "loyal opposition"-cannot exist. Without the second, the idea of elections as a means to form a government is incomprehensible. Without the third, a polity can be neither free nor liberal as those terms are understood in the west.

There are only two ways to conceive of political authority: either it is intrinsic-"of the people, by the people, for the people"-or extrinsic (coming from God, or from some accepted imperial source outside the society). The 17th-century concept of the social contract epitomises the former, but Islamic civilisation has never recognised any intrinsic source of political authority. Islam is a radically monadic religion of divine revelation, and Islamic political culture has developed over more than 1,300 years wholly true to that principle. Since divine, extrinsic authority cannot be disputed there is no logic to political pluralism as a permanent or ideal condition. Tolerance for any other set of social and political principles amounts to heresy; tolerance of other private religious beliefs is conceived as virtuous forbearance, not as a recognition that truth might really be in dispute.

A concept of political leadership flows from these predicates. A leader enunciates and spreads God's law, and since there is only one God and only one law, it follows that there should only be one political structure and one leader of it. Accountability is not democratic in the western procedural sense, but organic in a religious communal will. Even in our more secular times, Arab government is legitimate when it accords with a priori truth, whether Wahhabi Islam in Saudi Arabia or a Jamahiriya socialist mishmash in Libya. Oppositions denying that a priori truth by definition cannot be "loyal." The typical Arab conceives an ideal single community of belief that contrasts sharply with the western emphasis on competing but mutually adjusting political factions. Western politics has a flavour of controlled conflict, but Arabs tend to regard that conflict as destructive to community-which brings us to majority rule.

If political truth is intrinsic to society and people are fallible, then political life must amount to trial and error attempts at governing. If no one can invoke the authority of unquestioned a priori truth, it follows that the majority should decide which path to follow. Westerners regard this as common sense but, for entirely understandable reasons, most Arabs do not.

For millennia, most middle easterners lived in moderately-sized villages whose organising principle was usually that of the clan or tribe. They also lived in an insecure world of many dangers, putting a huge premium on preventing rifts within tribal society. Governance invariably revolved around a form of consensus-building. Leadership, usually centralised and hereditary, engaged in open-ended negotiation with the dominant males representing the main branches of the clan; problems were discussed, compromises and understandings reached, and in return all swore personal loyalty to the leader. This methodology was absorbed into and sanctified by Islam, wherein a leader comes to his position through a consensus of elders (ijma) and remains in power through the acquiescence of the community (umma).

Now consider in this light the idea that someone who wins 54 per cent of the vote in an election should get 100 per cent of the power, while the person who wins 46 per cent should get none. This strikes those used to consensus decision-making as not only illogical but dangerous-an invitation to civil strife. This is why when Hafez Assad used to win 98.5 per cent of the vote-which we saw as perverse-it did not strike a typical Syrian as very odd. Historically speaking, too, it is worth noting that consensus forms of decision-making have been far more prevalent than democratic ones. Nor do consensus forms of decision-making equate to tyranny or despotism. Traditional Arab and Muslim governance has been patriarchal and authoritarian, but it has been law-based, participatory at some level, and viewed as legitimate by most of the ruled most of the time.

Finally, there is the matter of equality before the law. The idea of the legal equality of all citizens conflicts with nearly all traditional authority. In Islamic civilisation, men are "more equal" than women, the educated more than the illiterate, the noble or Sherifian more than the commoner, the pious more than the reprobate, and the elder more than the youth. Most Arabs find absurd the idea that the vote of a 22-year-old illiterate peasant woman should be equal to that of a 70-year-old qadi. The presumption of natural hierarchy in society is neither parochial nor ridiculous, and it was, after all, true of typical westerners only a historically short time ago.

So is "Arab democracy" an oxymoron? Of course not. Things change. Other cultures need not become western in order to become democratic; it is vapid historicism to point to the cultural particularity of the Reformation and the Renaissance and then proclaim the authoritarian fate of others. There is nothing "wrong" with Arabs cognitively or morally, and there certainly are theological and cultural predicates for democracy within Islam-and they are neither minor nor obscure should anyone wish to use them. Some do: there are genuine Arab democrats, and they deserve support. Certainly, given the manifest dangers to the west of the status quo in the Arab world, we cannot do nothing. The problem is that, for a variety of historical reasons, there are few democrats there and, in the end, there must be widespread indigenous interest in democracy for help from abroad to "take." To push democracy onto the Arabs before they want it and are ready for it is to stoke precisely their fears of failure, and their resentment of the west, that we should wish to minimise. Dealing with the pathologies of the Arab world is one of the great challenges of our time. But there are no quick fixes, and ultimately, the solution must arise from among the Arabs themselves. The west can help; it cannot mandate.


by Fouad Ajami

The ambition is risky, but US action may indeed spark wider Arab democracy

It has often seemed in recent years that the Arab political tradition is immune to democratic stirrings. The sacking of a terrible regime with such a pervasive cult of terror may offer Iraqis and Arabs a break with the false gifts of despotism.

The remarkable rehabilitation of Japan between its surrender in 1945 and the restoration of its sovereignty in 1952 offers a historical precedent. Granted, no analogy is perfect: Iraq, with its heterogeneity, differs from Japan. America, too, is a very different society than it was in 1945-more diverse, more given to doubt, lacking the sense of righteous mission that drove it through the war years and just after.

Yet for all these differences, the Japanese precedent is an important one. In the space of a decade, imperial Japan gave way to a more egalitarian, modern society. A country poisoned by militarism emerged with a pacifist worldview. The victors tinkered with the media, the educational system, and the textbooks. Those are some of the things that will have to be done again in Iraq. The theatrics and megalomania of Douglas MacArthur may belong to a bygone age, but Iraq could do worse than the interim stewardship of a modern-day high commissioner.

At a minimum, Iraq would be lucky to have the semi-democratic politics of its neighbours. Turkey and Jordan come to mind, and even Iran is a more merciful land than the large prison that Iraq has become under its terrifying warden. The very brutality that Iraq has endured under Saddam may be its saving grace if redemption comes. There may be relief after liberation-and a measure of realism.

Deference to Arab phobias about the Shi'ites or the Kurds coming into power in Iraq should be cast aside. A liberal power cannot shore up ethnic imperiums of minority groups. The rule of a Sunni minority, now well below 20 per cent of Iraq's population, cannot be a US goal. The Arabs around Iraq are not owed that kind of indulgence. Instead, they should reflect on the rage that is summoned on behalf of the Palestinians while the pain of the Kurds, or the Berbers in north Africa, or the Christians in southern Sudan, is passed over in silence. This righteous sense of Arab victimhood-which overlooks what Arab rulers do to others while lamenting its own condition-emanates from a political tradition of belligerent self-pity.

From the Kurds, there are now proposals for a federal, decentralised polity that would keep the country intact while granting that minority the measure of autonomy they were promised when they were herded into a Baghdad-based Arab government in the early 1920s. Federalism would be a departure from the command states dominant in the Arab world, and in the centralised oil states in particular. In their modern history, the Kurds have been repeatedly betrayed, and that history has bred in them habits of fratricide and sedition. But the Kurds ought to be given credit for what they have built over the last decade in their ancestral land in northern Iraq, albeit under the protection of Anglo-American air power.

Kurdistan has thrived, and the perennial struggle between its dominant warlords, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, appears to have subsided. An attempt is being made at parliamentary life. This achievement could crack, but under the gaze of two watchful and hostile powers, Iran and Turkey, the Kurds appear to control the zone they rule, which consists of under 10 per cent of Iraq's land and 15 per cent of its population. Arabs are not given to charitable views of the Kurds, but the Kurds could bring to the debate about a new Iraq the experience and poise gained during self-rule.

It is not decreed that the Kurds, or the Shi'ites for that matter, will want their own sectarian republics. The "ownership" of a new Iraq would have to be shared; its vocation would have to be a new social and political contract among the principal communities.

But Iraq will also provide a mirror for American power. A new American primacy in Iraq would play out under watchful eyes. There will be pan-Arabists sure that Iraq has been recolonised; taken out of "Arab hands," given over to the minorities within, and so made more vulnerable to Turkey and Iran, the two non-Arab powers nearby. There will be Europeans looking for cracks in the conduct of the distant great power. The judgement that matters will be made at home, in the US itself, as to the costs and returns of imperial burden. The British empire's moment in Iraq came when it was exhausted; on the eve of its occupation of Iraq, British GDP was 8 per cent of the world total-the comparable figure for America today is at least three times as large. America can afford a big role in Iraq, and beyond. Whether the will and the interest are there is a different matter.

The Arab world could whittle down, even devour, an American victory. This is a difficult, perhaps impossible, political landscape. There are endless escapes available to the Arab world. It can call up the fury of the Israeli-Palestinian violence and use it as an alibi for yet more self-pity and rage. It can shout down its own reformers, write them off as accomplices of a foreign assault. It can throw up its defences and wait for the US to weary of its task. It is with sober caution, then, that a war will have to be waged.

Fouad Ajami is professor of middle eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University. Excerpted with permission from Foreign Affairs, January/February 2003

by Robin Banerji

Authoritarianism is deeply rooted and there is little demand for democracy

Looking at the Arab states from Morocco to Iraq, we see variations on the theme of autocracy: military, monarchical or pseudo-socialist; some fiercer, some gentler. There are elections to parliaments and assemblies of various kinds, but these elections don't change who rules. Egypt, Iraq, and Syria have long been one-party states. And although minor parties are tolerated (the handful of Wafd MPs in Egypt, for example, or more significantly the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan), they cannot vie for power. In Syria, the constitution gives the Ba'ath party two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Throughout the Arab middle east the press is censored.

Yet things are not black and white. People in Jordan and Egypt, for example, are not living in fear of Stalinist purges. Some opposition opinion is tolerated: 'Al-Ahram', the Egyptian government newspaper, publishes columnists with Islamist views. Satellite television and the internet are increasingly entering people's lives: in Jordan, 212,000 people (out of a population of 4.5m) were online in 2001.

Given that most of the existing middle east regimes have been unable to bring victory on the battlefield or jobs in the cities, why haven't popular uprisings swept them away? Certainly the "mukhabarat" (secret police) and the army play a crucial role. But acquiescence is achieved in other ways too. The large armies and bureaucracies help to ensure that there are enough people who have a stake in the continued existence of a regime. The regime is the fountain of power; from it all good things flow. The access to that flow is summed up in the Arabic word "wasta". As Hisham Sharabi argues in 'Neopatriarchy', patronage relations are embedded in Arab society. Sharabi suggests that subordination and the need for mediation are learned within the family and then come to characterise public relationships, including those with the state. To have wasta is to have a mediator, someone who will find you, for example, a secure and undemanding civil service job. Of course, in all societies networking counts, but in the middle east states, with their low long-term growth rates and their large public sectors, connections count for a lot more.

Jordan is a young society surrounded by hostile states. It is important for the government to find places for its supporters. Where I worked, even the man who made cups of sweet tea had "wasta". And for his help, the patron will want something back. The client will be drawn closer into the network of extended family, clan and tribe that defines his place in society and focuses his allegiance. In northern Jordan, I attended gatherings of tribesmen at which the local sheikh would serve tea and sweets under an awning and people would have a chance to grumble about their troubles. The villagers got a chance to influence the local government, the sheikh to increase his standing in the area. This is not democracy as we know it, but there is "voice" of a kind.

Moreover, most Jordanians have lower expectations of the state than do people in Britain. East Bank Jordanians prefer the Hashemite dynasty to control by people of Palestinian origin, the country's majority. Refugees from Israeli occupation, or the Lebanese civil war, or Kuwait, or Iraq feel the chance to vote is less important than peace or living without fear of torture. And many prefer the status quo to Islamism. So Jordan is a refuge; one to be grateful for.

Authors such as Bernard Lewis in 'What went Wrong?' argue that the roots of Arab authoritarianism go back a very long way, perhaps to the Islamic golden age. According to classical Islam, the legitimate ruler was the man who ruled in conformity with the Shari'a, the law of God. So long as the Shari'a was observed, he could be a foreigner (an Ottoman Caliph) or even a slave (as were the Mamelukes in Egypt). Thus, it was more important to uphold the law than the will of the people that lived under it. Given that the law could only be administered in co-operation with the urban elite, a degree of consensus was built into the system. However, authoritarianism increased from the late 19th century, as Arab leaders sought to propel their populations out of backwardness. Furthermore, given the multi-ethnic, multi-religious populations of the middle east, nation states-the incubators of democracy in western Europe-could not easily develop.

A state like Egypt, with its relatively homogeneous population, settled frontiers, and mercantile base could, perhaps, have democratised. Most others lacked legitimacy. Their borders were artificial; they did not refer to ethnic realities or historical precedent. Their rulers were seen as the west's puppets. The first test of their legitimacy came with the creation of Israel. They failed it. The way was opened for Arab nationalist coups in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

Whatever steps towards representative government are made in, say, Morocco, democracy in the middle east will need peace between the Palestinians and Israel. Without peace, the treaties Egypt and Jordan have signed with Israel will not bear fruit. And without security for both the Palestinians and the Israelis, insecure regimes will be impelled to maintain large armies. Only with peace can the armies and bureaucracies begin to be disbanded and an efficient modern state emerge. Today, none of this seems very likely.

Robin Banerji worked as a speechwriter and researcher for Prince Hassan of Jordan from 1993-4

by Ahmad Samih Khalidi

If middle eastern democracies are to emerge, it will not be along western lines

Aglance at the political map of the middle east today would seem to confirm the view that Arab democracy is, indeed, an oxymoron. But the Arab political system is neither as uniformly despotic or as democratically challenged as it may seem. Lebanon's shaky but enduring democratic traditions have survived largely intact after 16 years of civil war. In the Gulf, Kuwait has a similar democratic tradition that has persisted-albeit battered-since the trauma of 1991. Elsewhere, Bahrain has led the way to constitutional monarchy, and has even taken the step of prosecuting one of its former police officials accused of torture. Qatar, meanwhile, has instituted its own constitutional reform process. The Palestinians, despite everything, still cling to open public debate, and have a leader who is one of the few to have been popularly elected in the region. Morocco-once an absolute monarchy-has had vibrant parliamentary elections. Freedoms of varying degrees sprout and splutter in Syria, and despite the heavy hand of the regime, Egypt's civil society remains an active presence in the country's polity. While much of the Arab press echoes the turgid official line, there is none the less a vigorous debate in the Lebanese, Jordanian, Palestinian and Gulf media, and satellite television is bypassing state censorship.

The Arabs are hardly unique in the developing world in needing better governance. But in seeking to remedy this situation, those who have suddenly discovered in liberal democracy a panacea for middle eastern ills need to look not only at the more nuanced picture above but at some of the more complex realities that underpin it. There are two current arguments about Arab democracy. One posits that the Arabs (often the Muslims too) are congenitally immune to the contagion of democratic practice. The other presumes that the Arabs are no more than a ready-made and willing receptacle for western-style democracy. Neither proposition is right.

Middle-eastern nation states were imposed on the peoples of the area by western colonialism and 20th-century Arab modernist movements. At their heart remains the issue of legitimacy and authenticity, and the ability of a political system to reflect the aspirations of its people. Legitimacy in the Arab world has rarely been bestowed by the ballot box, nor will that change in the foreseeable future. Rather, it has sprung from the more enduring and primeval structures of clan, tribe, and the deep-rooted sense that leaders emerge via a process of trial, struggle and public consensus. This is often nourished by different tributaries: by sectarian bases, by a subtle consultative process, and by the personalities of the leaders themselves. This explains in part why someone like Yasser Arafat can still credibly maintain his claim to Palestinian leadership, regardless of his poor record of governance or his standing in the opinion polls and the ballot box.

There is no doubt that the traditional Arab system opens the door to dreadful abuse, not least from those seized with modern ideas of change, such as the Ba'athists in Syria and Iraq. But there must be a way to introduce a new democratic standard that avoids the excesses of the past. The most relevant model here is Iran. Iran's experiment combines change at the ballot box with a truly authentic system that responds to the ethos and aspirations of its people. The Iranian experiment is still subject to multiple countervailing forces (not least the hostility of the US) but it is a historic development that is more likely to attract those who seek meaningful democratisation in the area than any of the available alternatives.

Whatever their competing notions of change, few Arabs believe that democracy of any kind can be thrust upon the Arab world via the barrel of a gun. And it does not help at all to know that the ideological roots of the would-be democratisers are deeply intertwined with a Likudnik vision that posits "Arab democracy" as a substitute for a meaningful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The truly fatal assumption, for those who think that Saddam's demise will provide the opportunity for liberal democracy to spread across the area, is that the forces that such a process will unleash will be more moderate (read "more accommodating towards Israel") and pro-western than those in power today. If there is one thing in common to the many pro-democracy movements across the middle east, it is that they are uniformly hostile to US policies, and deeply disturbed not by the failure of their regimes to make peace with Israel, but at their unwillingness to take a harder line in confronting it. Moreover, in almost every Arab state, the only viable alternative to those in power are the organised and driven forces of the Islamists.

However democracy comes to the middle east, it will need moral support from the outside and a consistent and fair stand on the vital Palestinian issue. It also needs unwavering criticism of all those who abuse power in the area, whether friendly to the west or not. Certainly, any democracy that is imposed upon the Arabs by the unholy union of US power and Likudnik ambition will ultimately be rejected as the alien implant that it is. Meanwhile, those who seek meaningful change and truly representative forms of government will be looking to their roots.

Ahmad Samih Khalidi is a former Palestinian negotiator and writer on middle east affairs

by Kenneth Pollack and Daniel Byman

Iraq's status quo is not an option. Nor is a new dictator. Only democracy can work

It would be foolish to expect democracy to sweep across the middle east, transforming the political landscape in a matter of years. But it would be equally foolish to suggest that democracy could never take hold in this arid land.

The first cautionary note is that such claims made about other societies in other parts of the world have not fared well over time. In the 1960s and 1970s, the common wisdom was that the "Confucian societies" of east Asia were bred only to conformity and autocracy. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines have proved that wrong. If the aspirations of Chinese youth are any indication, the largest of these Confucian societies may eventually follow.

Similar claims have been made and disproven for other regions. During the second world war, it was received wisdom that the German character was genetically or culturally incompatible with democracy. In the 1980s, white South Africans regularly claimed that their black compatriots were educationally, economically and culturally unprepared for democracy, yet it is taking hold there and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout the cold war, western Europeans declared that eastern Europe was poor soil for democracy-yet Poland, Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic and others are coming along smartly.

The Arab world itself is not without democratic precedents. Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria all had pluralist constitutions during the period of French and British colonial rule, even if these were more honoured only in the breach. Before the civil war of 1975-1990, Lebanon had a limited democratic system. Even today, within the parameters of Syrian control, Lebanon has a fairly vibrant democracy.

The shoots and buds of democracy are increasingly visible elsewhere too-perhaps most remarkably under Saddam's nose in Kurdistan. But within the last 12 years, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain have all inaugurated parliaments which, while less than sovereign, have become more than mere debating societies. In every one of those cases, the government has shown itself to be reluctant to cross parliament after it has reached a conclusion on an issue. Crown Prince Abdullah has long advocated pluralist political reforms for Saudi Arabia. It is said that he intends to push many of these measures through the al Saud family councils after war with Iraq, when he can safely ask US forces to leave the kingdom and use that as leverage to gain the acquiescence of the more conservative princes. Abdullah does not use the term "democracy" to describe his plans because in the Arab world that term has become a codeword for hip-hugger blue jeans, sex on television, dysfunctional family life and all of the other aspects of western culture the Arabs find objectionable. However, the steps Abdullah has proposed-greater accountability and transparency in government, greater government responsiveness to the will of the people, and greater participation by the people in their rule-mark important moves toward democracy.

It is true that, in many cases, regimes have enacted limited democratic reforms as a way of buying off demands for more. However, what is important is that the popular demands exist and have enough support to force the regimes to take some action. Even Gamal Mubarak, unacknowledged heir to his father Hosni, has taken to advocating democratic political reform. He may just be doing this to win popular support, but he recognises that advocating such change is popular.

What are the alternatives to democracy? The status quo is a disaster. The region is economically and politically stagnant, with endemic poverty and little expectation of progress. These problems have led to mass emigration and terrorism, and conjure the spectre of revolution and civil war to