How Iraqi Democracy Might Look ; Some Arab Countries Blend Monarchies with Parliaments and Elections to Form 'Oriental Democracy.'

By Blanford, Nicholas | The Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 2003 | Go to article overview

How Iraqi Democracy Might Look ; Some Arab Countries Blend Monarchies with Parliaments and Elections to Form 'Oriental Democracy.'


Blanford, Nicholas, The Christian Science Monitor


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 only candidate.

"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 leader.

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 continuously."

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 example. …

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