The Arab Democratic Dilemma
I have my doubts that the present riots in Egyptian will result in the overthrow of the regime of Hosni Mubarak. It might, which would be impressive. But it is just as likely to lead to an Egyptian version of Tiananmen which would be terrible.
But the Jasmine Revolution that led to the overthrow of the Ben Ali government in Tunisia has resurrected the prospect of Arab democracy – something once seen as an oxymoron. I am not optimistic however. The Arab world is a part of the world where democracy has flourished the least. Africa and Latin America are today dominated by elected regimes. There are endless theories as to why the Arab world faces such an affliction: constant US interference, Muslim domination and the influence of oil are among three that receive the most airtime.
This is extremely unfortunate. My experiences with Arabs at the individual level – whether Lebanese in secondary school, a Tunisian housemate and my visits to six Arab countries being among the highlights – have always impressed with the degree of generosity and intelligence I have seen. Yet, they can’t get their politics together.
The problem today is that there is only cautious support for the Arab world to democratize from the outside world. This is because Arab political reform has become entangled in the issue of Islamicist terrorism. Let the former flourish, goes the argument, and the latter will be the main beneficiary of the ballot box. Egypt, for example, would probably elect a Muslim Brotherhood government if free and unfettered elections were held. As would Syria, Jordan and possibly even Libya. The world cringes at the idea of a militant Islamicist government and therefore gives Arab democracy, at best, lip service.
This leads to another debate. If people elect an Islamicist government to power, would it necessarily become a state-sponsor of terrorism? I would argue no. Conservative, even radical Islam, is actually a dyke against Islamicist terror. Allow them to come to power and I suspect they will be as responsible about monitoring their borders and keeping law and order as any other government.
But it is a gamble that few are prepared to make, especially in Washington. George W. Bush was among those among them. During his reelection campaign he was asked how his dream of Arab democratization would work out if the Arabs elected Islamicist groups to power. Bush’s reply was a true Wilsonian reponse: namely, that the world would have to accept such results. His unsaid expectation would be that democracy would serve to moderate the hardline Islamicists.
Today there are very few in the West who believe that Arab democracy is a worthy cause in of itself. The likely results of such elections are too frightening in a post-9/11 world. That is a mistake in the long term. Democracy is the ultimate moderator of extremism. Arab democracy would throw up a lot of twisted regimes. But it how such twists are ironed out by the parliamentary process and the like is what needs to be focussed on.
Otherwise political reform will be left to the whims of the mob – as Tunis and now Cairo are finding out.