Democracy under siege

Democracy under siege

Democracy in the Arab world is in a bind. It is taking one step forward and two steps back. Although the silent majority is growing more active and increasingly restive, its yearning for democratic change has no sense of direction except, perhaps, the Islamist way. It has been tantalised by two examples of democratic and peaceful change, first in Mauritania and more recently in secular Turkey. However, it does not have the institutional power structure to emulate these experiences. For the past decade, conditioned political parties, opposition movements, factory workers and professional unions have staged demonstrations, protests and strikes, clashed with government troops and filed lawsuits in courts, but have been skilfully outmanoeuvred and contained by the regimes in power. Government-licensed political parties have little to no access to genuine power sharing leading to peaceful change.

The ruling elite, especially in impoverished Arab countries, has framed the challenge of the agitated masses as a showdown of physical power. In the uneven test of wills, the masses have no clubs, riot gear, electric shock batons, teargas canisters, rubber bullets or water canons. They only have the dubious power of the ballot box that, they claim, is often stuffed in favour of government-approved candidates. So their chances of promoting peaceful change through elections are virtually non-existent. In this confrontational environment the elite does condescendingly engage, from time to time, in selective discourse with the tame opposition while it reserves a great deal of ammunition for suppressing more powerful factions like the Muslim Brotherhood. Both the elite and the people invariably agree on the definition of endemic problems that plague beleaguered countries: poverty, unemployment, high-priced costs of living, epidemic-scale diseases, poor health services and quality of education, institutional corruption, political repression and the trampling of human rights. All agree on the need for reform but differ about the need for change. The elite is all for reform that would go only as far as maintaining the status quo. It has to secure its status, privileges and control and does not consider change, especially the rotation of power, as a legitimate choice of the people. Meanwhile, the people are caught between a rock and a hard place, between the vicious circle of polemics and the temptation of uprising.

Not all Arab countries share the same sense of helplessness, although they may share part of the political discontent. In Arab monarchies, rotation of power is not a matter for the people to decide. In the more affluent, oil- rich states the drive for democratic change is tempered by the de facto spread of oil wealth. In some monarchies, the exercise of liberal democracy is regarded as anathema in societies best controlled by traditional value systems. Self-inflicted wounds or simply distrust of the electoral system are sometimes part of the problem. It was quite an eye-opener that in parliamentary elections in Kuwait this summer not a single female candidate was elected in a country where eligible women voters represent 57 per cent of the electorate. Parliamentary elections in Morocco last week were marked by a historic low turnout (estimated at 37 per cent of the electorate) and a surprising tilt towards the conservative and waning Istiqlal Party as opposed to the rising Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party. The final results gave the Istiqlal Party a majority of 52 seats over its rival that cried foul play. In Egypt, reports of heavy-handed police interference with the 2005 parliamentary elections marred the process and discredited the government”s proclaimed agenda for reform.

It would seem that the concept and practice of liberal democracy in the Arab world is in tatters and that, in the prevailing turbulent political environment, the region is heading for the unknown. For one thing, the US has given democracy a bad name. By invading Iraq and instigating sectarian division, the Bush administration has etched on the table of history the indelible lesson of how to destroy a country in the name of democracy. The role model, if it ever was, has become disreputable.

A case in point was demonstrated at a press conference in St Petersburg, where the G-8 leaders were holding their summit meeting in July 2006. US President George W Bush made yet another monumental gaffe by lecturing his host, President Vladimir Putin, about the virtues of democracy. Commenting on his pre- conference talks with the Russian president, Bush said “I talked about my desire to promote institutional change in parts of the world like Iraq, where there”s a free press and free religion and I told him (Putin) that a lot of people in our country, you know, would hope that Russia would do the same thing.” Putin was quick to retort, “We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I will tell you quite honestly.” It is not that Russia is exactly a democracy. But the fact that the outcome of the 2000 US presidential elections were decided by the courts, with some strong hints that electronic ballot fraud in Florida lent a helping hand, does not make the US a role model either.

Adding to the failure of the socialist system, which few Arab countries embraced during the heyday of the former Soviet Union, globalisation and its associated market economy offer little hope for impoverished masses. This has given rise to political Islam as the panacea for all problems. “Islam is the solution” was the slogan of the 1990s campaign of the Muslim Brotherhood. But which brand of Islam would be the guiding standard is a matter of controversy, ranging from the violent edicts of Osama Bin Laden to the veiled strategy of the Brotherhood.

If Islamic theocracy is the answer to all the woes of the Arabs, as many Islamists would claim, then it could also lend legitimacy to the concept of benign dictatorship. After all, some of the most autocratic Arab theocracies claim they are not political rulers, but only guardians of the faith. However, benign dictatorship has historically and miserably failed, as was the case in Generalissimo Franco”s right-wing military rule in Spain and in the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has been tried for decades and continues to be tried in several Arab countries since the early 1950s, with a dismal record of failure so far. Theocracy and benign dictatorship in the transitional Arab world now, whatever name they may assume, is as good as it was for mediaeval Europe before the Renaissance.

It may be possible that constitutional monarchy is in the works for some traditional Arab kingdoms or emirates. But for republican regimes the choice is more difficult. The central problem is how to introduce the principle of the rotation of power as a prerogative of the people and the acceptable norm of change for the party in power. This would require unambiguous constitutional amendments and a genuine separation of powers, which have so far failed to materialise in any Arab country, including Egypt.

Restive populations in several parts of the Arab world are demanding change as a way of improving their social, economic and political status. The regimes in power are promising reform, by employing the best and most ambitious technocrats, but not change. Seventeen years after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and its one-party political system, the concept of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is still a far-fetched dream for those who need it most in the Arab world. The promise of improved standards of living is not enough and its success is in doubt. It is not by bread alone that man survives, the preamble to the UN Charter, framed more than 60 years ago, calling for “Better standards of life in larger freedom”.

Regimes in most countries of the Arab world distrust their people because they have not been the true choice of the people. Most people in the same countries are wary of the brutality of their rulers who control every aspect of their lives. An historic gap of confidence, and of political thinking, is ever more widening. But the lessons of history, for whatever they are worth, are writing on the wall for those who may wish to read them.

* The writer is a former correspondent for Al-Ahram in Washington DC. He also served as director of the UN Radio and Television in New York.