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What hope for Arab democracy?

Patrick Seale
6 June 2005

A striking feature of the Arab world today is a burning sense of impatience, bordering on revolt, with the existing state of affairs. The thirst for change is palpable. From one end of the region to the other – and with very few exceptions – the Arabs are unhappy with the way they are governed. In several countries there is a feeling that an explosion is near.

When the Egyptians cry kifaya! (enough!) – they are expressing a mood of defiance and insubordination which is to be found, in one form or another, in many different Arab centres of population.

Perhaps the main grievance feeding the movement is the repressive nature of most Arab regimes. Ruling elites cling to power and economic privilege, even at the risk of destroying their own country. Corruption is rampant. Wealth is unevenly distributed. Poverty is everywhere. Dissent is stifled, and even dialogue is barely tolerated. All this has created a huge reservoir of injustice which threatens to spill over into rebellion.

An obstacle to change is precisely the overlapping of political power with economic benefit. If losing power means losing wealth – and perhaps even losing one’s life – then few ruling elites will yield power willingly.

Another major source of dissatisfaction is the apparent inability of Arab states to defend themselves against their external enemies. In spite of huge oil revenues, the Arabs seem unable to create effective armed services. Israel continues to devastate Palestinian society with total impunity, while the United States has arrogantly invaded and smashed a leading Arab state without encountering the slightest opposition from the rest of the Arab family.

The Arab liberation struggle of the 1940s and 1950s sought to expel foreign military bases from the region. Today, foreign bases have returned to Arab soil in greater numbers than ever before. Welcomed by host governments, these bases have been used for the invasion of Iraq. And from these bases, the United States continues to threaten and intimidate regimes that refuse to bow the knee. In other words, Arab states have failed to ensure Arab security. The cause of national liberation has suffered a grave setback.

Observing this gloomy outlook, some Arab intellectuals speak of the failure of the post-colonial Arab state. Others go further and maintain that Arab decolonisation was never completed, and that the region remains deeply penetrated and manipulated by outside powers in pursuit of their own strategic and economic interests.

In these bleak circumstances, it is hardly surprising that a number of violent non-state actors have arisen, often proclaiming jihad of one sort or another, to take up the fight which Arab states seem incapable of waging.

These are some of the pessimistic conclusions I noted from a conference on Arab democracy organised in Paris on 30-31 May 2005 by the French Institute of International Relations.

Among the prominent personalities present were:

There appeared, of course, significant differences between these various speakers, but all seemed to agree that the Arab world was facing a deep crisis of identity, that the social contract between rulers and ruled had broken down, and that some bold new thinking was urgently required.

Bush and Arab democracy

United States President George W Bush has made the promotion of Arab democracy a central goal of his foreign policy, linking it to the requirements of American security. He has adopted the neo-conservative argument that American security from terrorist attack depends on converting the Arab world to democracy – if necessary by force. Before it sank into violence and chaos, Iraq was intended to be a model for the reform of the entire region.

Undeterred by this setback, Bush continues to point to elections in Iraq, in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon, as well as to modest moves towards participatory politics in Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as vindication of his policies. He identifies the Arabs’ impatience with their rulers with the “forward march of freedom” which he claims to lead.

The trouble is that few observers agree with him. For the vast majority of Arabs, the tragedy of Iraq is a model to be utterly rejected, rather than emulated. Bush’s promotion of democracy is seen as a crude screen for American strategic and economic interests.

In his critique of the “Bush doctrine”, Richard Falk, one of the American participants at the conference, said that the United States uses the rhetoric of democracy but practises hegemony. Until recently, the US believed that its interests were best served by supporting authoritarian governments. Its late conversion to the cause of Arab democracy is merely an instrument for regional domination, in partnership with Israel.

Worse still, in the opinion of several of the participants, America’s interventions in the region has weakened rather than strengthened Arab democratic forces. Such is the hatred of America that few, if any, Arab intellectuals or opposition movements wish to be identified with American aims or policies.

Indeed, the contradiction between America’s support for Israel and its occupation of Iraq on the one hand, and Arab aspirations for good governance and freedom on the other, is flagrant. All too often, the Arabs are tempted to react to this contradiction with fatalism, as if their destiny were no longer in their own hands, by pointing to foreign conspiracies, real or imaginary – or by recourse to violence.

The need for unity

Nevertheless, the outlook is not entirely bleak. Democracy has entered the Arab debate and can no longer be excluded. Even though Arab political structures remain fossilised, Arab society is undergoing radical change owing to education, urbanisation and the proliferation of satellite television. Arab opinion is no longer passive. Regimes can no longer control the flow of information. The Arab world is now widely politicised.

With civil-rights activists taking to the streets in several Arab cities, risking arrest or worse at the hands of the security services, the present stage should perhaps be seen as a period of Arab apprenticeship in democracy. The political horizon is not entirely blocked. Arab intellectuals are looking for new areas of innovation and creativity. Because democratic construction takes time, and is evolutionary, patience and the avoidance of violence is essential.

One controversial point raised by several speakers was the need for ruling groups to conclude a pact with Islamist forces, present in every Arab country. Whether in Egypt, North Africa or Syria, these forces cannot forever be excluded from the political process. After several decades of trial and error, Turkey has managed to strike an enviable balance between Islam and secularism. Is this a model for the Arabs?

Curiously enough, it was not an Arab nationalist but a Turkish participant, Kemal Derviş, who urged the Arabs to unite in order to confront the challenges facing them. To take their place in the world economy, to make their voice heard, to defend themselves, and to advance towards modern forms of democracy, the Arabs need to cooperate with each other. The more democratic the Arab states become, the easier it will be for them to share sovereignty with each other.

Further Links

French Institute of International Relations

Conference Webpage

Arab Politics

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