Blending Democracy

Blending Democracy

Mini Teaser: The political soil of the Middle East has not been tilled by the Western Enlightenment. Growing democracy there must take this into account.

by Author(s): Dov S. Zakheim

May 16 marked a major watershed in Kuwait's political history. By a margin of 35 to 23, that country's Assembly extended the franchise to women, making it the fourth Gulf country to do so. Yet the impetus for the legislation did not stem from advocates within the Assembly itself. Instead, it came from the oft-criticized government, still ruled by the Al-Sabah clan. Indeed, the franchise law was passed on a snap vote, intended to surprise and outfox the Islamists who dominate Assembly proceedings and who, six years earlier, had overturned the government's decree extending the franchise to women.1 Such are the meanderings of democracy in the Middle East, where hereditary authoritarian rulers outwit elected legislatures in order to advance the cause of democracy and liberalization.

Democracy may be elbowing its way into the region, but not exactly in the manner that some of its more strident American advocates would necessarily prefer. Euphoria over events that seem to be historical watersheds often fades into disillusionment after the passage of a few years or even a few months. All too often, Western pundits assume, at least implicitly, that if elections are held the "reformers" will always win, but that is not the case. After all, in Iran, in a result that shocked his nation's elite as much as it did the West, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the ultra-conservative mayor of Tehran, crushed his establishment opponent, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in the second round of Iran's presidential campaign, which drew a voter turnout of over 60 percent. Ahmadinejad, who drew his support from the poorer classes as well as the lower ranks of the clergy, has close ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Jerusalem Force (which is linked to various terrorist groups), and the Basij militia. He also is a close associate of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Although the Iranian mullahs had rigged the electoral process, Ahmadinejad's final margin of victory was so large as to indicate that his views certainly resonate with a plurality, if not a majority, of the population. And he has made no bones about where he stands on the issue of democracy and freedom. As he has bluntly put it, "we did not have a revolution to have a democracy."

Nor was Hizballah's electoral sweep of southern Lebanon in that country's legislative elections a particularly ideal outcome for American policymakers who rejoiced in what may have been prematurely dubbed the "Cedar Revolution." The anti-Syrian opposition mustered a 58-seat majority in the legislature. Nevertheless, that total fell short of the two-thirds required to ensure the removal of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, who could count on not only Hizballah's support, but also that of General Michel Aoun's Maronite Christian faction.

Moreover, Hizballah's electoral triumph in Lebanon was equally bad news for Washington, which considers it to be a terrorist organization. Like its counterparts in Iraq, Hizballah has refused to disarm its powerful militia. The elections have strengthened its hand; it can continue to play in the political arena without handing over its guns.

Hizballah's success may also serve as an example to various Palestinian terrorist organizations, notably Hamas, which has already won nearly half the municipal councils it competed for earlier this year. It eagerly anticipates competing in the legislative elections, which were originally scheduled for July, but which Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has postponed out of fear of a Hamas victory. There is considerable concern in Israeli government circles that a strong Hamas presence in the legislature will allow it to ape Hizballah by claiming "mainstream" status without in any way committing to disarm or end its murderous activities. In fact, not only is this Hamas's publicly stated position, it has been echoed by Nasser Kidwa, the Palestinian Authority's foreign minister.

As a result of Hamas's showing in the municipal elections, many American and European observers--and, not so privately, some officials as well--have already intensified their call for it to be treated as a integral participant in the peace process. Indeed, the European Union has authorized diplomatic contacts with Hamas, while British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw acknowledged that UK officials had already met with Hamas politicians.

Israel continues bitterly to oppose such contacts, while the Bush Administration likewise continues to view Hamas as a terrorist organization. Nevertheless, it is significant that the case for dealing with Hamas is being argued in some quarters on the basis of bringing democracy to the Middle East. As one columnist put it, "as the U.S. and many governments allied with it consider the challenges posed by Islamist parties, they should similarly not let the rhetoric of counterterrorism get in the way of encouraging the entry into the democratic process of politically effective, mass parties with whose policies they happen to disagree."2 One can only conclude from this argument that the United States should accept the results of the ballot box in the name of "democracy", regardless of long-term consequences for American interests and regional stability.

At best, democracy has made halting strides in the rest of the region. Only a month after the Iraqi vote, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced electoral changes in late February that, he asserted, arose "out of my full conviction of the need to consolidate efforts for more freedom and democracy." But the heralded reforms instituted in Egypt's electoral system have neither satisfied nor quieted critics of the Mubarak regime. They point to the street thuggery against opposition supporters that has actually intensified since the electoral reforms were announced. Most observers have concluded that there really is little change taking place in the Egyptian political system and that democracy remains out of the reach of Egyptian society.

Iraq's January elections have been succeeded by months of political stalemate and increasingly sectarian bloodshed. Indeed, less than six months after the elections, the government that finally took office announced on June 8 that it would take no steps to dismantle the country's militias, notably the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shi'a Badr Brigade. Naturally, the embittered Sunni viewed the announcement by the Shi'a- and Kurd-dominated government as yet another indication that the new Iraq had no place for them. Equally important, the decision to retain these heavily armed militias intact guarantees a constant threat of civil war--precisely the nightmare scenario that American planners have sought to avoid.

Syria's highly publicized withdrawal from Lebanon encouraged many analysts to believe that winds of change would blow through Damascus as well. Various unofficial emissaries from the Syrian regime attempted to deliver the same message, pointing to the upcoming Ba'ath Congress as a venue for new efforts at political reform. Even prior to the congress, Syria had already recognized as legitimate the long-outlawed Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and at the congress itself the regime indicated that other parties might be able to compete electorally.

Yet change in Syria appears to be even more of a chimera than its purported expulsion from Lebanese politics. There is absolutely no evidence that the Syrian leadership is prepared to truly open the Syrian political system. The Social Nationalist Party "opposition" is both small and enfeebled. The Ba'ath remains constitutionally enshrined as Syria's leading party. And both President Bashar al-Asad's opening remarks to the congress and its final manifesto made clear that no changes would be undertaken as a result of what Asad termed "outside pressures."

Why Culture Matters

The United States has every reason to trumpet the benefits of democracy, and there is much to commend the efforts of those who would press for a more straightforward march to democracy in the Middle East. In particular, the use of the bully pulpit is essential for creating an atmosphere of international impatience with the snail-like pace that characterizes what usually passes for political reform in the region. Nevertheless, the practicalities of achieving thoroughgoing political and social reforms of societies that often function as they did a millennium ago dictate an understanding of the region's cultural dynamics that often seems absent from the most strident advocates of those reforms.

The Middle East marches to a cultural beat that is simply different from that which motivates modern Western societies. This does not mean that Middle Easterners, and Arabs in particular, are inherently incapable of organizing representative forms of government. One hundred years ago, Persia had a constitutional government with an elected parliament. Lebanon's parliamentary government flourished for three decades in the aftermath of World War II; Iraq had a short-lived parliament as well. Muslims participate actively in the democratic politics of countries across the globe--from India, to Indonesia, to America, to Australia. The concepts of democracy are not alien to Muslims nor to the Middle East. But with the exception of Israel, democracy has never flourished in the region without interruption and has not been able to sustain itself.

This is why the legacy bequeathed by Islam must be directly addressed. Islam is not merely a religion but a way of life that influences the thought processes of its adherents, no matter whether they are very strict in their practice or merely loosely traditional. As a result, a reluctance to question decisions from "on high" is far more ingrained among the populace. This phenomenon is quite independent of any tendencies towards extremism and affects all but the most Westernized secularists.

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