Close, but No Democracy

Close, but No Democracy

Mini Teaser: Washington must realize that unless Arab regimes allow pluralism, power-sharing and judicial independence, liberal autocracy--not democracy--will be the result.

by Author(s): Ray Takeyh

As with most ideological tendencies, the complexion of Islamismis changing, as more temperate forces are assuming the leadershipof this movement. In states as varied as Turkey, Morocco andBahrain, moderate Islamist parties are coming to the forefront,calling for participation in the political process as opposed towaging violent campaigns against the state. Indeed, beyond theglare of Western media, a subtle intellectual transformation isunderway in many Islamist circles, with leading figures such asIran's Muhammad Khatami or Egypt's Hassan Hanafi calling forharmonization of Islamic injunctions with democratic precepts. Tobe sure, given the retaliatory power of the state and the inabilityof radical Islamists to dislodge the regimes through violence inthe early 1990s, such reconsiderations may seem a tacticalconcession to an altered balance of power. Nonetheless, theinclination of many Islamists to reconsider their ideologicalstrategies should not be discounted. De-radicalization is not a newtrend, as leftist forces in Latin America moderated theirobjectives once presented with the opportunity to participate inthe political process. Once part of the governing order, theimperative of getting re-elected led many leftists to actuallyabandon their disruptive and costly utopian schemes in search ofmore practical solutions to their societies' conundrums. It is timeto test the premise of "moderate Islam" and not continuously invokethe Algerian trauma as a justification for prolonging a deficientautocratic rule.

Whatever success Islamists may have in revitalizing their creed,it is important to appreciate how Islamism is proving a fadingideology in today's Middle East. Given the Islamists' inability tocraft viable solutions to problems such as economic inequality andlack of political representation, they are proving a pooralternative to the prevailing regimes. The best manner of furthermarginalizing Islamism is to expand the marketplace of ideas andenhance competitive politics. Islamism has succeeded only becauseit has managed to survive in an authoritarian political landscapeand thus assumes the mantle of opposition. The reality remains thatover the past three decades, the Arab populace has gradually grownweary of radical ideologies and their self-proclaimed truths. Frompan-Arabism and its promise of Arab renaissance to Islamism and itsquest for salvation, the beleaguered populace has come toappreciate that the primary effect of such ideologies is repressionand stagnation. After much experimentation, the Arab masses mayfinally be ready for democracy with all its burdens andrewards.

As the strong bastions of authoritarian rule in eastern Europeand Latin America have been overwhelmed by democratic forces, theMiddle East remains in the trenches of despotism. However, the Arabpredicament is not only inconsistent with the global trends, butwith the region's own history. During the first half of the 20thcentury, Arab states such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq did have vibrantcivil societies, lively presses and assertive parliaments. To besure, this was elite politics, with Western-educated landowners andmerchants interacting easily with the colonial powers. Nonetheless,the Arab world did have its own fleeting "liberal age", with checksand balances and power-sharing arrangements. The rise of militarystrongmen and dictatorships is a relatively new phenomenon, belyingthe notion that the region lacks its own pluralistictraditions.

Even more anomalous is the embrace of democracy as the foremostregional objective of the United States. In the contest betweenAmerican values and interests, the latter has historically beenpredominant. The centrality of the oil economy, the imperative ofresolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and the need for allies in theWar on Terror have pushed U.S. administrations toward unsavoryallies who pledged stability and cooperation. Last year, PresidentBush called for the end to the usual compacts and the need for afundamental reformation of the Arab order. However, a crestfallenAmerica entangled in the Iraqi quagmire seems to have abandoned itsown idealistic aspirations in favor of returning to the old statusquo.

Essay Types: Essay