There's an old joke Arabs like to tell that illustrates the
condition of democracy in the Arab world. A flunky to an Arab
dictator breathlessly informs his leader that 99.9 percent of the
population reelected him in a nationwide poll in which he was the
"That means only 0.1 percent of the people didn't vote for you,
Mr. President," he says. "What more could you want?"
"Their names," comes the cold reply.
President Bush says one of the justifications for unseating
Saddam Hussein is to bring democracy to Iraq, which, it is hoped in
Washington, will spread to the rest of the Arab world.
That is no easy task, however, in a region with few democratic
traditions. The phrase "tribes with flags" has been used to describe
the Arab world, where the concept of the modern state, imposed by
European powers in the 20th century, has sat uncomfortably with Arab
traditions of loyalty to one's sect, feudal overlord, or religious
Many ordinary Arabs, while appreciative of democratic values,
have little faith that democracy is feasible in the Arab world.
"It's not a good idea for an Arab country to become democratic. I
am against it," says Rima Zeitoun, a teacher here. "Arabs tend to be
tribal and feudal. If you don't have a strong leader forced on them,
to keep them living in harmony, they will fight against each other
That line of thought, however, wins little sympathy from some
Arab intellectuals and academics who maintain that democracy can be
successfully introduced to the Middle East as it has been elsewhere
in the world.
"It's a grave mistake to assume that Arab democracy is simply
something that Arabs cannot have when everyone else can have it,"
says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst and commentator in
Beirut. "Democracy can work, free markets can work. I don't think
you are destined in the Arab world to either have a Saddam [Hussein]
or a Bashar [al-Assad, president of Syria]."
The trappings of democracy do exist in many Arab countries with
parliaments, political parties, elections, and a relatively free
press. Some Gulf countries, most of which are ruled by single
powerful families, have introduced tentative reforms - Bahrain
allowed women the vote for the first time last year, and Qatar has
introduced municipal elections. But the fledgling democratic systems
in the Arab world are far removed from the Anglo-American model.
"I call it 'Oriental democracy,' " says Rami Khouri, a Jordanian-
Palestinian and executive editor of Beirut's English-language Daily
Star. "You have a demo-cratic system on the ground, but decisions
are made according to old Oriental rules of power relationships in
society based on ethnicity, religion, control of money, and control
of the Army."
Analysts agree that the democratic systems found in the US and
Europe cannot simply be transplanted onto Arab society. Mr. Khouri
argues that the transition to Western-style democracies will be a
natural process of evolution, citing the experience of the US as an