Democracy, Uncle Sam and the future of Arab world

DESPITE the breathless sensationalism of the international media and the self-serving propaganda of Arab dictatorships, there is no real democratic revolution sweeping the Middle East. Fear of George Bush and the American war machines, not the Cedar Revolution, compelled the Syrian Army and intelligence agencies to end their thirty-year occupation.

By Matein Khalid

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Published: Wed 27 Apr 2005, 10:19 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:11 PM

The municipal elections in Saudi Arabia only provided a fake veneer of political participation to the theocratic — royal alliance that manages the power equation in the kingdom. President Mubarak’s modest concessions to new opposition candidates do not change the fact that he will win the next election.

Mubarak is only the third military officer to rule Egypt since the coup that overthrew King Farouk more than a half century ago and is the quintessential US allied secular Arab autocrat.

Iraq is the only exception to the democratic deficit in the Arab world but Baghdad’s embryonic democracy, born amid invasion and war and Saddam’s torture chambers, is besieged by a violent insurgency and rivalries among Arabs, Shia and Kurds.

Democracy cannot be legislated into existence in the Middle East by kings and dictators, let alone the White House, Downing Street or the EU. It is the end result of complex historical processes, ideals of social freedom and individual supremacy, that seem have no provenance in Arab culture or history.

Even Lebanon, the only successful democratic experiment in Middle East, fell victim to the nightmare of civil war, confessional politics, warlords, invasion by Israel and Syria, a fragile and schizophrenic state whose Presidents and Prime Ministers either fell victim to the assassin’s bullet and bomb or fled to exile in Paris. The recent Algerian elections led to the re-emergence of veteran Abdelaziz Boutlefika as the President after a nightmarish civil war that claimed 100,000 lives but ultimate power in Algiers is still wielded by a cabal of generals allied to the Elysee Palace who have ruled the state since independence from Charles de Gaulles’ France. Confessional politics in Lebanon, the Islamist threat in Algeria, the violence in Iraq all distort and inhibit the emerging democracies in three Arab nations whose modern history is written in the blood and tragedy of civil war.

The democratic experiment in the Arab world is just the latest in a succession of imported political concepts that have failed to create viable successful nation states.

Soviet communism led to predictable disaster in tribal South Yemen, once the only Marxist Leninist regime in the Middle East. Baathism degenerated into an ideology of terror and dynastic dictatorship in Syria and Iraq. Pan-Arab nationalism died with President Nasser, snuffed out in the battlefields of the Sinai desert during the Six Day War and the bitterness of Egypt’s intervention in the Yemeni civil war. Colonel Gaddafi’s Libyan Jamariyah squandered billions of petrodollars to fund extremists from the Provo IRA and Abu Nidal, from the Red Brigades to Carlos the Jackal.

When Libya sent combat troops to support Tripoli’s friends in bloody African civil wars from Chad to Uganda to Sierra Leone, it symbolised Libya’s estrangement from the Arab political epicentre it had once so passionately courted. Failure was the only theme that united the crackpot political ideologies inflicted by dictators on their hapless people in the Middle East since World War II and regime survival, not democracy, economic development or the Palestinian cause, the sole arbiter of state policy.

Of course, George Bush and the American foreign policy elite now believe that the dismal Arab democratic failure led to the culture of hatred and repression that spawned the horror of 9/11. It is, of course, natural and self-serving for the Americans to prescribe democracy and free market capitalism for the myriad problems that afflict the modern Arab world.

The historical experience of the United States, from the anti-colonial revolution of 1776 to its current status as the richest, strongest society in the history of mankind, the imperial superpower par excellence, is anchored in its democratic, capitalist DNA. But the tribal cultures of the Middle East, where even the nation state itself is a dubious, imported Western concept, are not fertile grounds for democracy. Paranoid elites that control patronage networks based on tribal ties of kinship last seen in Europe in its medieval Middle Ages, military regimes whose guns oppress their own people under the illusions of the anti-Zionist struggle, theocracies and kingdoms and ‘people’s republics’ whose only common denominator is that governments cannot be voted out of office all proliferate in the Middle East.

Nation states have fallen apart across tribal fault lines such as Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon. Even oil has been a curse for the Arab world because petrodollars just made the dictators more powerful as gendarmes of the West or financiers of welfare states and high tech armies. Yet the old Arab protocols of fear and submission cannot stay the same. George Bush will not disappear nor will Al Jazeera, the Internet, satellite TV and a new consciousness in both the Arab street and Arab palaces.

The Arab world is no longer a Cold War battleground or a gigantic oil well for the West. It faces a demographic time bomb that, if ignored, may explode into outright revolution. Democracy is a novel, possibly dangerous concept for the Arab world. But the White House now agrees with Guy Fawkes’ view that desperate problems require desperate solutions. As Japan, Taiwan, Turkey, South Korea and the major Latin American dictatorships prove, even the most ruthless dictatorship can evolve into a democracy if the right conditions prevail. Why should the Arab and Islamic world be any different?

Matein Khalid is a Dubai based investment banker

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