A Tale of Three Cities

A Tale of Three Cities

Mini Teaser: Despite the obvious obstacles, the signs of democracy are encouraging in Kabul, Beirut and Cairo.

by Author(s): John R. Thomson

All analysts agree there is scant chance Mubarak will not be re-elected. "If there were an honest, fully open election", said one, "Nour might have a chance. As it is, he'll probably receive about 20 percent of the vote and the government might have to stuff the boxes in his favor to achieve that. . . . [T]he people just aren't interested because everyone knows what the outcome will be."

This is not the case for the parliamentary elections scheduled for November. Analysts predict hotly contested races across the country from political parties and independents and that opposition candidates could well win a majority of seats. If that happens, and especially if Hosni Mubarak heeds Taher Helmy's advice respecting his place in history, Egypt could at last be governed by a functioning democratic government.

Dr. Kamal Aboulmagd, vice president of the government's National Council on Human Rights, distinguished professor of law at Cairo University, respected practicing attorney and leading Islamic scholar, is straightforward about the situation: "Rulers do not give up power unless they must. We all must beware, beware, beware. . . . Things are changing."

Major challenges face residents and rulers alike in Kabul, Beirut and Cairo, as the search for democracy proceeds in each. Although success is by no means assured, the signs are encouraging, and not just in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Egypt. Besides developments in Iraq and Palestine that are so far encouraging, efforts to further liberalize constitutional monarchies continue in Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, as do first steps in Pakistan for the military to turn political life back to civilians. Even in Iran's confrontational and potentially violent climate, the unyielding theocratic regime is opposed, by its own estimate, by 70 percent of the population.

The U.S. role in all this has been to encourage, to offer technical guidance, but not to attempt to direct the form each country's democracy takes. In fact, it can be argued that Washington is not paying enough attention to assuring that, whatever the democratic solution, sufficient institutional strength exists to break the follow-the-leader hierarchical pattern and, above all, to avoid a "one man, one vote, one time" outcome.

The march of democracy presents an enormous challenge to each country involved in the process, including the United States as the foremost proponent and motivator. As far as the Middle East and Central Asia are concerned, the challenges are eminently worth it, for the citizens of each country, for regional security and for the rest of the world.

As each society breathes the fresh air of democratic freedom and enjoys the material benefits of the free market, popular craving for something better will progressively abate from desperation to subsistence to satisfaction and with it become a steadily less fertile recruiting ground for terrorists. That is why a successful outcome in each of the three cities, different as they are, is so important.

Throughout their long struggles, Egypt, Lebanon and Afghanistan have maintained dynamic intellectual lives. Egypt has continued as the center of Islamic thought, including a number of religious and legal scholars, working on the challenge of defining a Muslim reformation. Lebanon, teeming with political intrigue, has churned out more books on political life and philosophy per capita than any country on earth. Afghanistan, the least developed of the three countries, has turned to its time-honored tradition, poetry. Dr. Whitney Azoy, director of the American Institute for Afghan Studies, honored me with the gift of one of his four copies of "An Assembly of Moths", a collection of the poetry of Khalilullah Khalili. Khalilullah's heart shines through every page, as in "What's Necessary":

"Grant me, God,

The pain that starts men weeping,

The burning zeal

Required to sing love's song,

The eye that opens

Toward my inner being,

So that my long-lost self can be called home."

Such contemplative fervor, honed by the sheer travail of existing in countries where nothing comes easily, reflects the unquenchable desire for something better, fuels today's drive for political, economic and religious freedom, and gives observers, resident and foreigner alike, hope for the future.

Essay Types: Essay