Democracy in the Middle East – Why This is a Frightening Prospect For Its Rulers

To The Editor:
It’s no secret that today the Middle East lacks the democratic political past, high literacy rates and high standards of living to claim democracy as its main political system. The political and economic reforms that occurred in Central and Eastern Europe or in East Asia and stimulated democratic change cannot be compared to the authoritarian Arab leaders in the majority of the Arab countries. Besides, the Arab nations have been persistently resistant to economic modernization and democratization, a concept that has been known as ‘Arab exceptionalism’. Also, by being fundamentally religious rather than secular states, Arab nations believe in individual choice as promoted by Islamic fundamentalism.

Many Arabs in the Middle East are dissatisfied with their autocratic leaders who had promised heaven but delivered filth and tyranny. And possibly this demonstrates that democratic governance in the eyes of lay people in the Middle East is a possibility that has nothing to do with their Arab and Islamic culture. Like their counterparts elsewhere, Arabs have strived for liberating themselves from political totalitarianism, for the most part unsuccessfully because their powerful dictators were supported by the West. Yet, the lay people in Iraq viewed the US troops as liberators from the oppressive ruling of Saddam and his autocracy.

Indeed, Islam complicates democracy. Even after its defective elections, Iran, a long-standing theocracy, demonstrates an extraordinary democratic vigor. Some of the toughest Arab elections have been held by Palestinians under Israeli ruling and by Iraqis after the US invasion. So, in a way, Islam has allowed democracy to its territories. On the other hand, Arab leaders hold on to their power through a distrustful combination of bullying and intimidation. Occasionally, they allow hollow parties organize counterfeit elections, which then return them to power. When they are given the chance to participate in genuine elections, they know what is at stake and what is going to be possibly split between Islamist movements and secular movements that are scared of Islam. Most of the cosmetic reforms that were made under the ‘freedom agenda’ of Bush administration after the September 11, 2001 attacks have been rolled back. So, in a way, Islam chooses when to prevent and when to allow democracy.

One of the most common obstacles in democratic transformation in the Middle East is religious freedom. Islam emphasizes that people are free to choose to believe or not. Muslim history documented many debates in mosques about the existence of God, particularly in the first three centuries. Besides, Qur’an emphasizes on justice and consultation (shura). According to many political analysts, in the absence of clear institutions to identify how consultation should take place in the Muslim culture, many Arabs failed to interpret the message. Hence, the interpretation of some elements of Islam as liberal is rather unfortunate.

Another element that should be taken into consideration is the fact that in many Arab countries regimes are quite permanent. Hosni Mubarak is the President of Egypt over the last 28 years; Muammar al-Gaddafi is the de facto leader of Libya since 1969; Hafez Assad was the President of Syria for 30 years. After his death, his son Bashar rose to power. After the failure of Bush administration to promote democracy, president Obama promotes respect in his talks with the Arab world. No matter what that means to the Muslims, democracy is a long shot for the Arab nations because Arab leaders won’t be able to control the masses like they do now.

For the Arab world, democracy implies education, institutions, free press and tolerance. Like in the Western countries, in the Arab nations, women are becoming educated, fertility declines, businessmen participate in the economy and the media have shifted from the state-run media to the revolution of the satellite television that forces leaders to explain and justify and explain themselves in public. All this transformation is not enough to cause a big change and it’s definitely not welcome from the rulers. However, it creates an agitation that alters the setting of corruption and totalitarianism of the old Arab governments.

In reality, it appears that the Arabs want to maintain the status quo because a free media that will awake the Arab people to the brutality of the regional governments won’t be to the best national interests of the Arab nations.

Christina Pomoni


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