Peace and Democracy in the Middle East: The Constraints of Soft Budgets

By Anderson, Lisa | Journal of International Affairs, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Peace and Democracy in the Middle East: The Constraints of Soft Budgets


Anderson, Lisa, Journal of International Affairs


On 13 September 1993, life-long foes Yasir Arafat, Chairman of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, signed an agreement to "put an end to decades of confrontation and conflict ... and strive to live in peaceful coexistence and mutual dignity and security ...." To this end, they agreed to establish an "elected Council for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip" and declared that "in order that the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip may govern themselves according to democratic. principles, direct, free and general political elections will be held for the Council...."(1)

For political scientists no less than for political practitioners, peace and democracy often seem to be natural partners. We are told that democracies do not go to war with each other, and the prospects of armed conflicts are said to be further enhanced by the high profile of the military in many non-democratic regimes.(2) Skeptics were quick to question the commitment of both the Israeli and the Palestinian leadership to democratic government in Palestine, however, even after the conclusion of the agreement. As Edward Said, one-time member of the Palestine National Council (PNC), wrote:

Will there ever be truly representative institutions? One cannot be very sanguine, given Arafat's absolute refusal to share or delegate power, to say nothing of the financial assets he alone knows about and controls.... Alas one can already see in Palestine's potential statehood the lineaments of a marriage between the chaos of Lebanon and the tyranny of Iraq.(3)

These concerns were not allayed by the draft of the "provisional basic law" for the transitional period that was later envisioned in the Oslo Accords. The Palestinian human-rights lawyer Naseer Aruri noted "a serious question about whether the new constitution protects the Palestinian people against autocratic rule." There was also ample evidence that a concentrated, personalistic power structure was envisioned in which, as stated in the document, the basic law "must not infringe [upon] the tasks and responsibilities of the PLO."(4) Although the fate of democracy in Palestine was not sealed when the Israelis evacuated Jericho and the Gaza Strip in May 1994, its prospects appeared dim.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, advocates of democracy have been faced with similar challenges. In Algeria, for example, the government steadfastly refused to entertain calls for democratization or liberalization, and instead waged a war against its Islamist opponents that cost more than 40,000 lives in the 3 years after parliamentary elections were cancelled in 1992. The Tunisian government jailed the country's leading human-rights advocate when he declared his candidacy in the country's presidential race in 1994; the incumbent President, who had come to power in a palace coup 7 years earlier, preferred to run unopposed, and claimed 99 percent of the popular vote. Neither Syria nor Iraq, nor most of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, bothered with even the trappings of democracy, while a number of those that did - Lebanon, Algeria, Yemen and perhaps even Egypt - seemed to see their democratic experiments degenerate into uncontrolled violence.

Why have the Middle East and North Africa been so inhospitable to democratic change, when much of the rest of the world seems convulsed by liberal revolutions? Many observers attribute the region's reluctance to democratize to its culture and traditions, particularly Islam. As Elie Kedourie writes, "democracy is alien to the mind-set of Islam."(5) Yet the repeated demands for human rights, political liberalization and democratic government in the Arab world in the 1980s and 1990s - demands which actually yielded contested parliamentary elections in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen - belie uniform hostility to democracy. Clearly, a substantial number of Arab Muslims supports the adoption of democratic procedures and institutions. …

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