Addicted to Oil

So far the democracy wave the Bush team has helped to unleash in the
Arab-Muslim world since 9/11 has brought to power hard-line Islamic
fundamentalists in Iraq, Palestine and Iran, and paved the way for a record
showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. If we keep this up, in a few
years Muslim clerics will be in power from Morocco to the border of India.
God bless America.

But is this all America’s doing? Not really. It’s actually the product of 50
years of petrolism – or petroleum-based politics – in the Arab-Muslim world.
The Bush team’s fault was believing that it could change that – that it
could break the Middle East’s addiction to authoritarianism without also
breaking America’s addiction to oil. That’s the illusion here. In the Arab
world, oil and authoritarianism are inextricably linked.

How so? Let’s start with Iron Rule No. 1 of Arab-Muslim political life
today: You cannot go from Saddam to Jefferson without going through
Khomeini – without going through a phase of mosque-led politics.

Why? Because once you sweep away the dictator or king at the top of any
Middle East state, you go into free fall until you hit the mosque – as the
U.S. discovered in Iraq. There is nothing between the ruling palace and the
mosque. The secular autocratic regimes, like those in Egypt, Libya, Syria
and Iraq, never allowed anything to grow under their feet. They never
allowed the emergence of any truly independent judiciary, media, progressive
secular parties or civil society groups – from women’s organizations to
trade associations.

The mosque became an alternative power center because it was the only place
the government’s iron fist could not fully penetrate. As such, it became a
place where people were able to associate freely, incubate local leaders and
generate a shared opposition ideology.

That is why the minute any of these Arab countries hold free and fair
elections, the Islamists burst ahead. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won
20 percent of the seats; Hamas went from nowhere to a governing majority. In
both societies the ruling secular parties – the N.D.P. in the case of Egypt
and Fatah in the case of Palestine – were spurned as corrupt appendages of
the authoritarian state, which they were.

Why are there not more independent, secular, progressive opposition parties
running in these places? Because the Arab leaders won’t allow them to
sprout. They prefer that the only choice their people have is between the
state parties and religious extremists, so as to always make the
authoritarian state look indispensable. When Ayman Nour, a liberal
independent in Egypt, ran against President Hosni Mubarak, he was thrown in
prison as soon as the election was over. Thanks for playing “Democracy” –
now go to jail.

It is not this way everywhere. In East Asia, when the military regimes in
countries like Taiwan and South Korea broke up, these countries quickly
moved toward civilian democracies. Why? Because they had vibrant free
markets, with independent economic centers of power, and no oil. Whoever
ruled had to nurture a society that would empower its men and women to get
educated and start companies to compete globally, because that was the only
way they could thrive.

In the Arab-Muslim world, however, the mullah dictators in Iran and the
secular dictators elsewhere have been able to sustain themselves in power
much longer, without ever empowering their people, without ever allowing
progressive parties to emerge, because they had oil or its equivalent –
massive foreign aid.

Hence Iron Rule No. 2: Removing authoritarian leaders in the Arab-Muslim
world, either by revolution, invasion or election, is necessary for the
emergence of stable democracies there – but it is not sufficient. The only
way the new leaders will allow for real political parties, institutions,
free press, competitive free markets and proper education – a civil
society – is if we also bring down the price of oil and make internal reform
the only way for these societies to sustain themselves. People change when
they have to, not when we tell them to.

If you just remove the dictators, and don’t also bring down the price of
oil, you end up with Iran – with mullah dictators replacing military
dictators and using the same oil wealth to keep their people quiet and
themselves in power. Only when oil is back down to $20 a barrel will the
transition from Saddam to Jefferson not get stuck in “Khomeini Land.”

In the Middle East, oil and democracy do not mix. It’s not an accident that
the Arab world’s first and only true democracy – Lebanon – never had a drop
of oil.