And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: The World's Last Holdout against Democracy-The Middle East-Is Experiencing a Wave of Nascent Freedom
Muravchik, Joshua, The American Enterprise
That creaking sound in January may have been the hinge of fate in the Middle East. Gates that have long barred democracy from the region began to swing ajar. Dramatic elections held in Iraq and the embryonic state of Palestine (following a gripping vote a few months earlier in nearby Afghanistan) may have unfrozen the locks that sealed this region off from the democratizing trend that has swept the rest of the globe over the past 30 years.
Beginning in Portugal in 1974, a democracy wave rippled over southern Europe, then Latin America, large parts of East Asia, eventually the former Soviet bloc, and even sub-Saharan Africa. Today, as a result, some 61 percent of the world's governments have been chosen by their citizens in open, competitive elections.
By 2004, according to the authoritative count by Freedom House, 32 out of 35 states in Latin America and the Caribbean had elected governments, as did 23 out of 39 in Asia and the Pacific. In the states of the former Soviet Union and its satellites, the democratic proportion was 17 out of 27. And in sub-Saharan Africa, despite the poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, tribalism, and artificial borders drawn by colonizers, 19 out of 48 (40 percent) of the governments have been elected by their people.
The Middle East has been the stark exception. In all of the Middle East and North Africa there has been but one elected government: Israel. The 17 states encompassing the Arab and Persian world included not a single government that had been chosen in a fair election.
This gloomy history has reinforced skepticism toward President Bush's announced goal of bringing freedom to the Middle East to serve as an antidote to terrorism. People have pointed to the dearth of freedom in the region and suggested that there must be something in Arab culture that is incompatible with representative governance. Adherents of the "realist" school of foreign policy wonder aloud whether the President is leading our country on a fool's errand.
The democracy virus spreads
The doubts expressed today about the possibilities of democracy in the Middle East are similar to things that were said in the past about other countries and cultures. In the 1920s, when democracy collapsed in Roman Catholic countries across southern and eastern Europe, the notion took hold that free government was congruent only with Protestantism. The historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that democracy is a "peculiar institution of the medieval kingdom of England and its political offspring."
Preparing for our occupation of Japan, President Harry Truman received a briefing from the State Department's leading expert on that country who told him, "the best we can hope for is a constitutional monarchy, experience having shown that democracy in Japan would never work." Much the same was said about India's capacity for democratic self government prior to its independence, and about democracy's supposed dissonance with Confucian culture in the days before Taiwan and South Korea became democratic.
Each time, the skeptics claimed to speak from a sense of historical perspective. It took some 570 years from the Magna Carta until the American colonists rebelled against the crown. It was roughly another 90 years until democracy took hold in the mother country. Anglo-American democracy was built on a gradual accretion of rights and of parliamentary practice.
How can countries without such traditions leap to democratic practice overnight? The answer is simple: Societies learn from the others that precede them. Each does not have to follow the long, slow curve of the pioneers.
Two hundred and thirty years ago, the United States was the only country on the globe with an elected government; now there are 117. This spread of democracy has gained momentum in recent decades. Thirty years ago, only about one third of all nations practiced democracy; the present proportion is nearly double that.
Once a rarity, democracy is now the norm. The governments that continue to hold out against democracy are the ones out of step, and it will be increasingly hard for them to justify their recalcitrance. In such a context, it is not those who envision democracy in the Middle East who are naive, but those who believe that the Middle East must remain a bastion of autocracy.
Opening the last frontier
A second point of skepticism focuses not on the abstract chances of democracy reaching the Middle East, but on America's ability to help it take root there. There are strong signs, though, that President Bush's insistent calls for liberty in the region have had an impact. Some Arabs may not be happy that the two pioneering bursts of representative governance in their lands--in Iraq and Palestine--are coming at the instigation of outsiders.
But sensible Arabs will not be too proud to accept the benefits. As one Egyptian puts it: "If the Americans say they are against corruption, should I say I am in favor of it?"
The reality is, it is American pressure that has opened breathing space for democracy in the Middle East. Reformers feel emboldened, and governments are slower to lift a hand against them. Signs of intensified ferment abound.
The first independent daily newspaper in Egypt began publication in 2004. Next May, Democracy Television, a new Middle Eastern network owned and run by Arab democrats, will begin broadcasting. Important gatherings of businessmen, intellectuals, and community leaders in favor of political reform were held during 2004 in Sanaa, Doha, Beirut, Aqaba, Alexandria, and other Arab cities.
The Alexandria conference in March brought together 165 figures from 18 Arab countries, and their concluding "Alexandria Statement" was remarkable. Although it speaks of the need for reform throughout the Arab world in four different realms-political, economic, educational, and cultural--it emphatically places political reform first. The statement doesn't just call loosely for democracy but asserts:
When we talk of democratic systems, we mean, without ambiguity, genuine democracy. This may differ in form and shape from one country to another due to cultural and historical variations; but the essence of democracy remains the same. Democracy refers to a system where freedom is the paramount value that ensures actual sovereignty of the people, and government by the people through political pluralism, leading to transfer of power. Democracy is based in respect of ... freedom of thought and expression, and the right to organize under the umbrella of effective political institutions, with an elected legislature, an independent judiciary, a government that is subject to both constitutional and public accountability, and political parties of different intellectual and ideological orientations.
Slamming the door on any notion that Arab culture requires some special variation of democracy, the manifesto adds that, "All this is in keeping with accepted practices in those societies that have preceded us on the road to democratic development." Another pan-Arab conference held later in 2004 in Doha, Qatar pointedly refuted another favorite excuse of Arab rulers for preserving the status quo: "Hiding behind the necessity of resolving the Palestinian question before implementing reform is obstructive and unacceptable," the gathering declared.
Several organizations and networks have sprung up to try to translate these sorts of declarations into practice. The Alexandria conference launched the Arab Reform Forum, and scheduled a second Alexandria conference in the fall. Also in the fall in Jordan, democracy advocates from a handful of countries led by the Egyptian former political prisoner Saad Edin Ibrahim announced the formation of an Arab Democracy Forum. Another group of activists set up the Blue Umbrella, an organization designed to offer mutual aid when any of its members faces government persecution.
Another notable 2004 event was a March declaration by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the mother of all Islamist groups, advocating a "republican, constitutional, parliamentary, democratic state in conformity with the principles of Islam." The statement even endorsed the rights of women, and of Egypt's substantial non-Muslim minorities. It is not clear that the Brothers have turned their backs on theocracy, but the fact that they chose to proclaim their devotion to democracy reflects its growing appeal.
2005 the year of the Arab election
As 2004 was the year of the declaration, 2005 is becoming the year of the election. The process began in January when the embryonic state of Palestine elected a president to replace the deceased Arafat. Mahmoud Abbas won handily in a reasonably fair contest. The Palestinian presidential election was preceded and accompanied by the first of several waves of municipal elections, the authenticity of which was affirmed not only by international observers but also by the results: the Hamas opposition defeated candidates of the ruling Fatah party in many races.
Then came the January 30 national election in Iraq. Much of the world was surprised and thrilled by the dramatic efforts of Iraqis to vote even in the face of terrible threats. January 30 demonstrated clearly that most Iraqis want democracy, and are willing to sacrifice to implement it.
In both Iraq and Palestine, the rest of the year promises to be a time of exciting democratic politicking punctuated by still more voting. The Palestinians will hold elections in the balance of their municipalities, and in July they will elect their parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council. The Iraqis, meanwhile, will dicker over forming a new government, then set to work on hammering out a new constitution which will be put to a referendum in October. Finally, a new government will be voted in via an election scheduled for December.
All of this negotiating and voting is bound to have a pro-found impact on the other states of the region. Iraq and Palestine are the current twin obsessions of the Arab world, providing the lead stories most every evening on al-Jazeera. Will scenes of democracy in action in those places now fuel regional questions of "Why can't I vote, too?"
And while the Iraqi and Palestinian elections will be the most meaningful, because they will choose national governments, they won't be the only Arab elections in 2005. Lebanon's parliamentary elections this spring may be a landmark on the road to renewed self-rule in that country. This is the one Arab country that previously practiced democracy--from 1945 to 1975. Since then Lebanon's sovereignty has been compromised by foreign intervention, especially that of Syria, which has controlled Lebanese politics for decades. This year a multi-ethnic coalition opposed to Syria's occupation seems poised to make significant gains.
A leading Lebanese democrat told me in January that Syria was running out of cards to play in Lebanon. "The question now," he said, "is whether they will resort to political assassination." The murder in February of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri seems to have been a grim fullfilment of that prophecy--and a measure of panic by the foes of democracy.
Late in 2005, Egypt will also hold elections. The Egyptian system has allowed a carefully circumscribed amount of competition for legislative seats. Then the parliament nominates a single candidate for president whose name is put to a yes-or-no referendum. The incumbent, 76-year-old Hosni Mubarak, has held office for 24 years, and has announced he will seek another five-year term. But Saad Edin Ibrahim and several other Egyptian figures have announced that they will seek to run against Mubarak, presumably by working to amend the constitution.
Mubarak has groomed his son, Gamal, as his successor, but Gamal has positioned himself as the leader of the reform faction within the ruling National Democratic Party. It is hard to see how he could be the beneficiary of a dynastic succession without becoming a laughingstock. Hosni seems to have realized that even if he succeeded in securing his own "reelection" in 2005, he has to pay a price: In February, he surprised the world by announcing future multi-candidate elections with secret balloting.
Saudi Arabia is also in the midst of a wave of elections. From February through April, a number of municipal assemblies are being elected for the very first time. Only half the seats are up for vote; the other half will continue to be appointed by the king. And women will not be allowed to cast ballots. Nonetheless, these votes represent a break with that country's stark tradition of monarchical absolutism. Until recently, advocating any sort of election in Saudi Arabia would land you in prison. As one Riyadh voter recently told the New York Times, "You can call this Democracy 101, but we are hoping it will lead to Democracy 106."
Other votes, again for bodies with limited power, have been announced in Yemen and Oman. To be sure, many of these ballotings have been scheduled grudgingly by regimes with little interest in actually handing over power. Some are intended to stave off demands for more far-reaching change. Nonetheless these are signs that today's rulers realize they have no choice but to begin to yield ground to popular participation. Arab bosses are on the defensive, while dissidents and reformers are gaining heart. Citizens throughout the region will increasingly demand that their votes carry weight, and that elected representatives be given real authority.
The Middle East today remains far from full-fledged freedom. But democracy has generally arrived in unexpected spurts. In Latin America, eastern Europe, East Asia, and Africa, representative government erupted quickly and then gained momentum. Change in one or two countries soon had an impact on others nearby. A similar phenomenon could occur in the Middle East.
Without doubt, democracy in Iraq will make a strong impression on its neighbor Iran. Hardliners are expected to retake the Iranian presidency this summer, as they did the parliament last year by electoral manipulation. They are likely to overplay their hand. Iran seems quiet at present, but the status quo is unstable and could combust suddenly, as it did in the 1970s under the Shah.
Or consider Lebanon. Restoration of that country's sovereignty would lead willy-nilly to the arrival of democracy there. This in turn would generate new pressures for change in Syria. (Palestinian democracy may have the same effect.) Syrian leaders have described both Lebanon and Palestine as nothing more than "southern Syria." If the "southern Syrians" are governing themselves, why not "northern" ones?
The new U.S. policies instituted by George Bush have created today's promising atmosphere in the Middle East. Continuing, insistent U.S. calls for democratic change will keep pressure on the existing regimes. Of course, such rhetoric always bumps up against other diplomatic priorities. American governments need cooperation from Arab governments on terrorism, Israeli-Palestinian peace, nuclear non-proliferation, energy production, and other issues. Inevitably we will pull some punches--as we do with China, Russia, and any other state where we want to see internal liberalization but also have other interests to pursue.
The key to minimizing our hypocrisy and maximizing our impact is to focus our efforts on supporting indigenous democrats. We ought to be vigorous in defending them against persecution--even if we ruffle some official feathers. And we ought to give them as much moral and material support as they feel comfortable accepting.
Because they will be sensitive to charges of being U.S. "puppets," it would help if other Western democracies would join us in providing such support. It will be harder to anathematize Middle Eastern reformers for accepting outside aid if it comes from a consortium of democracies rather than just Washington. This is an ideal project for renewed transatlantic cooperation. Euro-American aid could dramatically strengthen the organizations and networks of democrats in various Arab countries, building a critical mass of demands for greater liberty across the region.
Eventually those demands are sure to prevail. The meaning of the dramatic events of this winter is clear: Freedom is coming to the Middle East--and it might arrive sooner than most people think.
Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at AEI.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: The World's Last Holdout against Democracy-The Middle East-Is Experiencing a Wave of Nascent Freedom. Contributors: Muravchik, Joshua - Author. Magazine title: The American Enterprise. Volume: 16. Issue: 3 Publication date: April-May 2005. Page number: 28+. © 1999 American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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