Middle East Democracy

Middle East Democracy

A little over ten years ago, several Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa experienced the breeze of democracy that blew across our globe. Unlike Eastern Europe and Central America, in the Arab and Muslim regions the breeze soon gave way to scorching winds of turmoil that only consolidated existing dictatorships across the region.

Democracy in as much as it entails free elections, accountability, transparency, the rule of law and protection of fundamental human rights is a forbidden fruit. Nevertheless, almost every single occupier of a seat of power throughout the twenty two Arab ‘territorial’ entities has come under pressure to liberalize and democratize. Pressures, both internal and external, prompted several of these despots to stage a form of elections that made little difference if at all. Usually no credible contestants are allowed to run and sometimes, as in the recent case of Saddam Hussein, it is a question of voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the sole ‘legitimate’ candidate. In this particular instance, the authorities saved the people the trouble of having to go the polling stations. All eligible voters ended up voting ‘yes.’ In ‘republican’ regimes, a one hundred per cent result is not always the case. But it is quite close to that, say 99.99 per cent or the worst case scenario 99.98 per cent.

Five Arab countries in particular, where a tangible degree of liberalization has been allowed, limited features of democratization are inevitable. In Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait and Yemen political parties do exist, parliaments do convene and elements of constitutionalism are found. The press in these countries is relatively freer and, occasionally, political opposition is granted permission to assemble and protest. After several years of bloodshed and destruction, Algeria has chosen to join this club of Arab ‘semi-democracies’.

However, what impedes genuine democratization even in those relatively ‘liberal’ states is that the top executive enjoys absolute powers, usually provided and protected by the armed forces and other paramilitary agencies – such as the intelligence services – so much so that the rule of law and the public’s freedoms to choose, assemble and speak are easily undermined. A point in case is the fact that in almost every one of these countries the judiciary is quite independent and vocal but suspected opponents of the regime – and for that matter all those alleged to pose a threat to the ‘state’ – are arbitrarily arrested, detained without trial for as long as the state wishes and then brought before military courts. Emergency laws dating from colonial times are enacted in order to intimidate, terrorize and brutalize critics while deterring potential ones.

Of course there are other problems facing democratization in the Arab region. Some of these problems emanate from certain local cultural norms. However, the most formidable obstacles derive from the limitations imposed on the modern Arab post-colonial ‘territorial’ state. In other words, it is former, as well as current, colonial powers that have never been interested in allowing, let alone seeing, the emergence of liberal democracies similar to those the colonialists enjoy back home. According to a leading article published in the Economist a couple of years ago, the United States sees only two prerequisites for a regime to qualify to be democratic: market economy and posing no threat to U.S. interests. In other words it does not bother the Americans what sort of regime rules in Iraq or Libya or Saudi Arabia provided U.S. interests are guaranteed and U.S. economic needs are fulfilled. It is no wonder that we are only now told that Saddam Hussein’s regime came to power through a coup orchestrated by the CIA. It is not wonder either that this regime’s brutality and abuse of every single human right in the book were tolerated by the United States and Western European allies so long as Saddam danced to their tune. 

Democratic forces in the region even believe that some of the democratization measures put in place toward the latter years of the 1980’s had to be withdrawn under U.S. pressure in order to give the peace process between the Arabs and Israel a chance. The signs of the failure of the peace making process appeared quite early on when the democratic governments of the West proved unperturbed about the undemocratic way in which the Palestinian Authority was being designed. Yassir Arafat was their man, and they wanted him, together with his Tunisian-Palestinian entourage – the most corrupt and most disrespectful of human rights within any Palestinian community anywhere – to take charge of the Palestinians under occupation. The election of Yassir Arafat was no more credible or honourable than the election of any of the other dictators in the region. Only an ageing lady, whom very few people know inside and outside Palestine knew, was allowed to run against him.  The election of Palestinian representatives to the Osolo-created Legislative Council was equally laughable.

Israelis alone in the region enjoy the right to elect their governments and even to bring them down. It must be an odd position for a liberal democracy that is in every respect European, or let’s say Western, to exist in an ocean of despotism and tyranny. But while boasting of being the sole democracy in the region, Israelis believe that democracy in the countries around them can be very dangerous. Like their American backers and sponsors, the Israelis are under the impression that undemocratic Arab elites in power are less likely to cause headache for them. The early nineties saw repeated warnings by prominent Israeli officials, all the way from the head of state to junior ministers and media commentators, who were alarmed by the sweeping successes of Islamists in elections held in various parts of the Middle East and North Africa.  The Jordanian Islamic movement together with a number of independent Islamists reaped up to one third of the seats of Jordan’s parliament while the Tunisia Ennahda Movement, had it not been for the rapid intervention of President BenAli, were heading toward a majority win. While similar successes were seen in Egypt and Yemen, and Kuwait, the most alarming was Algeria. France put its entire weight behind the Algerian army as it sent its tanks to crush the ballot boxes and submerge the country in a blood bath.  Advised by their Israeli friends, the Americans soon withdrew even the mild protestation they made and seemed to express ‘understanding’ why the army had to intervene, allegedly to ‘protect democracy from its real enemies.’

What is more ironic about Israel’s democracy is that it is identical to the white man’s democracy in Apartheid South Africa. Only a legitimate member of Israel’s ‘democratic club’ is eligible to take part in the process and enjoy its fruits. Any Jew or Jewess anywhere around the world is qualified to become a member whenever he or she desires while the Palestinians, the rightful oppressed and dispossessed owners of the land, are treated the way the Apartheid regime treated the majority black population of South Africa. The privileges enjoyed by the Jews in Israel are denied to the non-Jews and the law applied to the Palestinians is that of occupation. Palestinian lives, properties and dignities are of a much lower value compared to those of their oppressors. But even among Jews themselves, racism is rampant. Jews of Ashkenazi descent are first class citizens, followed by those of Sephardic descent then by those whose skin colour is brown or black. The scandal of the ‘black blood’ is just one of many examples of the endemic racism in Israeli society. As politicians and observers struggle to understand, and perhaps explain, why the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians has failed miserably, few, if any, deem it appropriate to look into the Apartheid nature of Israel and consider it as a likely explanation.

Yes, Israel is a liberal democracy. But its democracy is changing its very nature. The founder of the state and its leaders throughout the fifties and the sixties of the twentieth century would be alarmed to see the kind of governments that are being delivered to power by the Israeli electorates. Israel is being transformed from a secular pragmatic Zionist entity into an ultra Orthodox dogmatic Zionist one. The desire to be recognized by the neighbouring nations and be allowed to live and let live is rapidly eroding. For the past two decades, Israeli voters have increasingly been sending to the Knesset politicians that want war and not peace. Blinded by power and comfortably confident in U.S. support, Israel’s elected politicians are leading their people toward an abyss. Competing for power, and wanting to stay on once there, Israeli leaders will swing and make others swing toward the extreme right. Sharon promised to do what his predecessor, Barak, failed to accomplish, namely crush the Palestinian intifada (uprising). Sharon’s term is approaching its end and the intifada is far from over. Before he took charge the ratio of Palestinians to Israelis killed in the conflict was around 100 to 1, today the ratio is around 4 to 1. Proving to be tough has been extremely costly and while the Palestinians, who are dehumanized and brutalized day and night, feel they have nothing more to lose, it is the Israelis who will have everything to lose.

The time may come when the Israelis will regret ever having a democracy.