‘Arabs are not ready for democracy’: the orientalist cravings of Arab ruling elites

Scrambling to adjust to the new reality of the Arab revolts, Arab regimes have fallen back on Orientalist stereotypes. Portraying the Arab peoples as unready for democracy, the sole goal of these remaining regimes is to prolong their people's subjugation.

Hasan Tariq Al Hasan
7 May 2012

It is ironic that scarcely more than a year prior to announcing his candidacy to the presidential elections on Saturday the 7th of April, former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman had confidently declared that, “Egypt is not ready for democracy”. Suleiman’s last-minute application for candidacy in Egypt’s presidential elections, handed in only half an hour before the 2pm deadline on Saturday, is perhaps a reminder of the fact that Arab anciens régimes and Western governments are, themselves, the ones not ready for democracy in the Arab world.

Scrambling to adjust to the new reality of the Arab revolts which they rightly deem threatening to their own hegemony, these Arab regimes, Israel and their Orientalist chums advising Western governments have dug once again into their vast repertoire of nonsensical Orientalist stereotypes to portray the Arab populations in a fashion similar to that in which their former British and French colonizers had portrayed them in the past; all this for the sole purpose of prolonging their subjugation. To the colonizer, quoting Edward Said, “subject races did not have it in them to know what was good for them.” (Orientalism, p. 37)[i] Clearly, this very same tautological, performative belief that Arabs – for some occult, essentialist reason - are not ready for democracy is perhaps one of the greatest barriers standing in their way to emancipation and self-government.

Suleiman merely echoed a discourse characteristic of most of his Arab counterparts in other countries struck by last year’s protests. Explicitly or implicitly, Arab rulers and their apparatchicks have employed a discourse according to which the Arab people somehow were not prepared for democracy. Despite their struggle against despotism, Arab populations were deemed unfit for self-government by the same despots they were trying to overthrow. The assumption underlying the discourse is that almost despite themselves Arabs were predisposed to extremism and tyranny. As such, the naïve, passionate Arab has to be disciplined and tamed; his anger is to be vented. Although it is quite unclear how the Americans and the French were ‘prepared’ for democracy before overthrowing their despots in 1783 and 1789 respectively, Arab populations are almost automatically compared to their Western counterparts seen as better disposed to governing themselves.

Reminiscent of the colonialist era, Arab regimes have consistently made use of orientalist discourses of subjugation and otherification to rationalize and legitimize the iron fist hold they exercise against their populations particularly vis-à-vis the Western public. Said paints a tableau of the Orientalist view of the prospect for democracy in the Orient: the Orientalist holds that, almost incapable of rational thought, the Oriental whose existence is overshadowed by an Islam immune to reform, “never understood the meaning of self-government the way “we” do.” (Orientalism, p. 107)

Up until protests erupted in Tunisia in December 2010, keeping a lid on terrorism seemed to be Arab regimes’ raison d’être. In the 2003 preface to his famous book Orientalism, Said notes that ‘experts’ like Bernard Lewis and Foud Ajami played a considerable role in shaping US understanding of and policy toward Arab and Muslim countries.  On the American so-called ‘war on terror’ he writes, “Without a well-organized sense that these people [i.e. Arabs and Muslims] over there were not like “us” and didn’t appreciate “our” values – the very core of traditional Orientalist dogma as I describe its creation and circulation in this book – there would have been no war.” (p. XV) In large part, Arab regimes reappropriated US neo-colonialist, foreign policy discourse to justify their own war against their own peoples. Craftily, they portrayed themselves as the West’s best guarantee against terrorism. Even as protests erupted across the Arab world, some crumbling apparatus failed to shift their discourse and cope with the changing tides. When the world sneered at Gaddafi’s claim that the revolutionaries were merely AlQaeda minions and the revolt masterly orchestrated by Bin Laden, it became clear that a shift has occurred, whether Arab regimes recognized it or not.

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post on 25th of February 2011 Bernard Lewis, noting democracy as, “a political concept that has no history, no record whatever in the Arab, Islamic world,” felt compelled to conclude that, “They [i.e. the Arab masses] are simply not ready for free and fair elections.” Arab regimes were quick to recycle the message. When confronted with the question by the BBC interviewer as to whether Jordan was not ready for democracy, King Abdulla II replied, “No, Jordan is ready for democracy,”…just not now, the rest of his response seemed to suggest. A year on after protests erupted, the notion seemed to resonate to some extent even with Arab populations themselves. A pre-debate poll at the New Arab Debates on 31st of January 2012 revealed that only a little over half the respondents opposed the notion that Egypt was not ready for democracy, with the percentage falling from 54.8% to 51.6% after the debate.

Sure enough, the idea that Arab populations are not ready for democracy is not a new one. It predates the 2011 wave of protests and has received some prominence, in my view, thanks to the so-called democratic experiment in Iraq following US invasion. However, seldom has it been so conspicuously elevated to the level of official discourse by the majority of Arab regimes.

Israel, which has always attempted to justify its intransigence by asserting its position as an “oasis of democracy in a sea of despotism”, has unsurprisingly employed such Orientalist discourse when its deputy prime minister Moshe Yaalon proudly proclaimed – he too – that “Arabs were not ready for democracy”. Israel, which has consistently sought to portray the Arabs as the ‘savage other’, the ‘barbarian at the gate’, will undoubtedly go to lengths to maintain its illusionary regional exceptionalism and its impunity vis-à-vis the international community. What is most disconcerting about Yaalon’s statement is the light it sheds on the fact that today the Israeli government shares with many Arab rulers the same perception and discourse with regards to Arab populations. Paradoxically, the aspiring Arab becomes the other in his own home country. Ironically, it represents a rare occasion of its kind wherein the Israeli government and Arab rulers can all be said to agree on something.

Needless to say, though, that democracy is not the only virtue and that it surely does not single-handedly represent a panacea to the Middle East’s various maladies. Moreover, clearly not all groups active on the political scene in the Arab world today are motivated by aspirations for democracy. At the same time, unquestionably, democracy – particularly with a liberal temperament – does indeed require considerable institutional building and civic culture.

Yet, the suggestion that some Arab autocrats appear to make, namely that they intend to preside over and supervise a democratic process whose end goal is to weaken, if not abolish, their rule is to say the least ludicrous. When interrogated on the intended pace of reform, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad replied in unintelligible gibberish during an interview for the Wall Street Journal by saying that, “So, it is not about being faster or slower. I think faster could be good but it could be bad; faster could mean more side-effects, slower could not be good but could mean less side-effects. So, each one has advantages and disadvantages. We have to be realistic; both are good.”


[i] Penguin Books edition, 2003. 

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