[VIEWPOINT]Democracy spreads to Arab world

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[VIEWPOINT]Democracy spreads to Arab world

They said it could not be done in the Arab world. They said that the idea of democracy was profoundly alien to Arab culture, where the principle of “one man, one vote” has to take a back seat to clan, tribe and mosque. And they thought that they could prove the point by arguing that the Arab Middle East had remained a bastion of despotism in a world swept by the storms of change after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism.
This is all true, and yet not the whole truth. We are suddenly treated to the crack up of seemingly eternal certainties. One such cliche was the belief that if you let them vote, they will vote for the wrong guys. Yet hardly had Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat died when the Palestinians organized the freest election they ever had and then chose a president, Mahmoud Abbas, who stood not for terrorism but accommodation with Israel.
The bravest people in the world have been the Iraqis. While terrorists shot up polling places, almost 60 percent of the people risked their lives to vote. That is a higher voting participation figure than in most U.S. presidential elections where the biggest risk is not finding a nearby parking place.
Finally, take the Lebanese who have been following in the footsteps of the Ukrainians and, 15 years earlier, the Czechs, Poles and East Germans who achieved their “velvet revolutions” just by peacefully assembling in the streets day after day. The Lebanese, in conscious imitation of the East Europeans, now call theirs a “cedar revolution” in honor of the country’s national tree. And it worked, too, as the speedy resignation of the pro-Syrian government in Beirut demonstrated.
This much is familiar by now. Less familiar but just as important are the experiments in democracy that are sweeping smaller countries in the Arab world. Kuwait used to be one of the most closed political systems in the world; it is about to let women vote. Unknown to many in the West, a trio of Gulf states ― Qatar, Oman and Bahrain ― already grant the franchise to women.
Even in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, democracy is stirring. Saudi Arabia, which has never had any real elections, now allows them at least on the local level. Egypt, infamous for its meaningless trappings of democracy, is at last talking about freeish elections. Its “president for life,” Hosni Mubarak, has called for constitutional changes that would allow rivals to run for president.
What might explain this strange, but heartening turn of events? Quite clearly, the most important trigger factor was the American war in Iraq. It was massive violence that displaced the worst dictator of the Arab world. But that is not the whole explanation. Normally, political change in places like Iraq is done by coup, with one despot replacing another.
In this case, the American military presence facilitated a very different outcome. It allowed Iraqis to prove that Arabs are not immune to the most basic of human desires, which is self-government. And that created a powerful demonstration effect that is now rippling through the rest of the Arab world.
Was Bush right when he went for regime change in Iraq while proclaiming democracy as a universal principle of American foreign policy? For the time being, he seems to have been vindicated, and all those who ridiculed him for being either naive or cynical should now have second thoughts.
On the other hand, let’s not expect Western-style democracy to conquer the Arab Middle East anytime soon. A lot of factors that make for stable, liberal democracy are absent in that part of the world.
There is no middle class, there is no separation of mosque and state, there are no functioning economies that will draw millions of unemployed and bored young men into the labor market rather than pushing them into the arms of the terrorists. And let’s not count out the despots too soon. They will resist the challenge to autocratic rule as long as they can.
But once people have had a glimpse of self-determination, they will no longer be so easily cowed as they were in the past.
Once they taste even a small chunk of freedom, they will want more. And this is precisely the reason why the sheiks, princes and potentates have begun to yield.
They would love to go back to the old days, but the task of repression has become so much harder when millions of people have seen another world ― one where they can be masters of their own fate.
Can the rest of the world help? It can help economically by making sure that democracy is quickly followed by economic growth in Iraq and Palestine. It can help politically by extending expertise on how to build independent judiciaries and secure property rights.
Above all, the West can help by no longer supporting any strongman as long as he is “our” dictator. No, we don’t want to topple the Egyptian or Saudi regime.
But we must never stop telling them that their best guarantee of survival consists of two words: “political participation.”

* The writer is the publisher-editor of Die Zeit.

by Josef Joffe
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