Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Representative Democracy -- Alien to the Arab World

I don't want to sound glib, but the notion of bringing democracy to the Arab world is more noble than realistic. Again today I have come across two unrelated sources that underscore the same idea, that the Arab world (whatever that is, by the way...there seem to be more allusions to the amorphous "Arab World" than the geopolitical names we find on maps) values social stability over what much of the world calls "freedom."

Consider these two observations from that part of the world. Remember, both of these writers know their subjects. They are not "outsiders" trying to stir up trouble. They are commentators trying to make people around them come to terms with what they see as a large challenge that needs to be met.

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...the problem with the Arabs is their submission to dictators and their refusal to break away from their sway. It is as if they have become addicted to oppressive and tyrannical rule to the point of not being able to live without a dictator.

What has happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein has clearly shown this. Some Iraqis are fighting one another as a result of the tyranny they had become accustomed to, when they would come into the streets shouting the dictator’s name and cheering him even when he had led them into defeat time and time again.The Arab mentality that has become addicted to submitting to tyrants requires international treatment in which all freedom-loving people all over the world should participate so that a solution can be found for a nation that should not go into the twenty-second century under the whip of tyranny.
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Mohamed Saleh, a freelance writer, opens his essay with the harshest of terms...

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The relationship between any Arab people and their dictatorial ruler is that of the slave and the master; the shepherd and the flock.
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A slave before his master is meek, subservient and obedient, seeking his pleasure and love. When he is away from his master, he is indignant and critical, never ceasing to castigate the master and condemn his ruthlessness, cruelty and voracious desires, regardless of how many wives or mistresses or feasts or millions of stolen dollars he has in his possession. The flock follows the shepherd – mere numbers with heads bowed, walking behind their shepherd as if treading on their minds, even as he leads them to the slaughter.
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The submissive Arab peoples were meant to be like that by their dictators. Their consciousness is so controlled as to remain always dependent, ignorant, subservient and frightened.


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Sayyed Wild Abah is less barbed but every bit as critical in his column in Asharq Alawsat, Democracy and the Fear of the Unknown.
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It is credible that the Yemeni public called upon President Ali Abdullah Saleh to stay in power, not because of the official propaganda that deemed him an irreplaceable sacred symbol and their widely loved ruler, but by virtue of an established truth that is practically tangible in the Arab arena – which is the fear of the unknown in the absence of an effective institutional infrastructure able to protect the country from instability and sedition.
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He continues with several examples from Algeria, Egypt and other parts of the Arab world. He also mentions Gaza in this uncomfortable assessment...
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...how can you achieve democracy in the Arab world without the presence of democrats?
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This exceptional situation caused people to cling to the dominating status quo, adhering to what is required to maintain stability after the requirements for a peaceful democratic change proved to be unfeasible. The large masses that congregated behind Abbas Madani and Ali Belhadj in Algeria in the early 1990s returned to rally behind the presiding President Bouteflika in hopes of saving the country from discord and discontent. Perhaps this scene will be repeated in the near future of the self-ruled Palestinians after the democratic equation suffered a terrible aftermath, especially in light of the Israeli aggression, which has succeeded in impeding all prospects and solutions on the internal political horizon.
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Lots to consider in these two pieces. I take away the lesson that the challenges of bringing about political change in that part of the world are best left up to those who live there. Outside military forces, whether from the United States, the United Nations or any other part of the world, should only be there at the invitation of the host country.
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The seeds of freedom grow very slowly. They are nurtured not by the absence of constraints but the internal resources of those who want to be free. We have in the West a large population that has been cared for, some would say manipulated or led, by benevolent leaders who appear to have the public good at heart. It is no accident that our own leadership rarely suffer the everyday pains that afflict their constituencies. Oh, they have problems enough with their health, their personal lives, their human struggles with unanswered questions about life and the universe. But by and large, most people, given the option, would trade the problems of money and security for the problems of poverty and insecurity. That is what we have in common with the Arab world.
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I have seen it for years. I have spent my life living and working among the working poor in America. And I can assure the reader that without benevolent leadership their lot is often, in fact, "nasty, brutish and short." But as long as they can get good deals at WalMart, make payments on an outsized personal debt and leave work in time to watch their favorite television program, most ordinary people live in a world every bit as small as that of the Arabs at whom we are prone to look down our noses.
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The evening after the election I listened to a popular talk show host who wanted to illustrate how stupid the voters (or non-voters) were who had just expressed their pupulist ignorance at the polls. I can think of no clearer national statement at the polls in my adult life to compare with what we witnessed last week. The landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater might be another case in point, but most elections are decided with razor-thin margins. But I digress...
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The talk show host had an assistant on the streets of New York who was asking random passers-by to name four people by their pictures. Donald Rumsfeld, Nancy Pelosi, Britney Spears and Harry Reid. Out of four or five random interviews linked to the host in his sudio, those being quizzed illustrated to the happy delight of the host how utterly uninformed and downright stupid they were about politics and the election that had just happened.
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As I listened I wondered how the ignorance of the masses had somehow been discovered overnight by this man. Prior to the election I heard lots of insulting and degrading remarks hurled at anyone who dared question the monolithic course that the country has been taking for the last several years. Overnight we discover that when the people speak by voting, as they did last week, all they do is express...what?...ignorance?...stupidity?....bad judgement?
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All this talk about Democracy rings hollow here at home in the mouths of those who have been prating about it. The best way to "defend democracy" and "protect out way of life" is to practice a little more respect for those with whom we disagree. Anybody got a recipe for crow?
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Thanks to John Burgess for both of these links. He's too much a gentleman to take sides and too much a diplomat to speak openly of domestic party politics. But I'm not.

2 comments:

John said...

I'd only note that when democracy came to Europe, plenty of people who are now utterly democratic in their beliefs were utterly terrified.

In fact, they called that first attempt the "Reign of Terror". Take a look at British reaction for a refresher.

And note, too, how the French had to call in a "bully boy" named Napoleon to save them from themselves, at least for a while. He was followed by a brief series of ever-weaker monarchs.

Both countries learned--as did the rest of Europe, eventually--that democracy could be something other than a ravening beast and that the strong hand of a monarch wasn't entirely necessary for good governance or for social stability.

Then look at Germany and Italy, both relatively new countries at the turn of the 20th C., established on a democratic, even federal basis. The newly united states that comprised those two countries still had a lot of stuff to work out. Things weren't quite settled before WWI, when both suffered extensively, one on the losing side, one on the winning. Both, however, found it necessary for some reason to go with the thug when they got the chance: Mussolini first, then Hitler. And both did it through things that looked a lot like elections.

But today, both are considered thoroughly democratic states. It only took something close to 100 years to get there.

I think the Middle East is entirely capable of becoming democratic. It's going to take time for people to realize that new times and new problems require new solutions. But people get there, eventually....

Hoots said...

Right. Taking the long view, I can be as optimistic as you. I regard these two writers (and a swelling number of others carrying the same message) as gadflies bringing about change in the right direction. Everything I see tells me that it is no more possible to stop the tide of democracy in the region than stopping the birth of a baby.

My complaint at the moment is not with the Tom Paines, Minutemen and, yes, Napoleons of the Middle East. At some level they are discharging their patriotic duty. My problem is with those in America who seem unable to sort out the difference between regional developments and global threats. They are not the same.

Several countries are seeking hegemony but US policy seems to be speaking only one language. It's one thing to curry favor with this or that group. It is quite another to push whole populations around with the world's most powerful military machine.

I don't think it is an exagerration to say most people in Iraq, including many who are sympathetic, are ready to end the US presence. Even if there is a "pullout" there will remain in Baghdad an island of power tougher to crack than any nut that has ever been grown.