x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Arab uprisings put to rest a hackneyed theory of democracy

Democracy requires persistence and courage, and on that front no one can doubt that Arabs have a right to be taken seriously in any debate over its implementation.

As the Arab world passes through a period of tremendous upheaval, it is worth recalling a discussion that surfaced during the years of President George W Bush. His administration argued that the Middle East needed more democracy, and purported to be pursuing this in Iraq. While one could question Mr Bush's motivations, there was no question that more democracy was precisely what the region needed.

From Tunisia to Egypt, from Libya to Syria, Arabs have revolted not just against economic conditions, but against their impossible relationship with the state. The Arab malady in the postcolonial period has been dysfunctional states, where freedom and aspiration have been undermined by regimes for decades.

States became instruments of total control, exacerbated by the their failure to offer citizens anything but fear. The Arab state was characterised by intimidation and violence, usually unstated. This was accompanied by limited economic opportunities, corruption, favouritism and political-military elites who were never subject to the rule of law.

Some in the Bush administration sensed that the September 11 attacks were a consequence of this reality. Young people, unable to thrive in stifling environments, facing absolute leaderships, turned against their political systems by embracing the one ideology that was more or less allowed to remain untouched: Islam. This Islam was of an altogether different variety than that sanctioned by regimes. It was radical, and promoted the use of violence against allies of the Middle East regimes, in particular the United States.

The Bush administration's conclusion was not without its critics. The Iraq war was widely regarded as a power bid that, only after it turned sour, was conveniently explained away as a war for democracy. The prevailing mood in the United States was that Arabs were incapable of embracing democracy, since it was not in their culture. Not surprisingly, two prominent sceptical voices on the topic happened to be former government officials.

The first was Francis Fukuyama, who wrote in his 2006 book America at the Crossroads, that democracy was not the "default regime" to which societies naturally reverted once dictatorships were removed. In the Middle East in particular, he contended, societies did not have the institutions to "move from an amorphous longing for freedom to a well-functioning consolidated democratic system with a modern economy".

Certainly, the difficult democratic transitions in the Arab world would seem to prove Mr Fukuyama right, and yet his conditions were so onerous that you wondered if any state could satisfy them. After all, the United States went through a long period of institutional readjustment to function properly as a democracy, and even then it was only during the civil war of 1861-1865 that an agrarian economy propelled itself into the modern industrial age.

The second official was also a political realist, Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to Mr Bush's father. In an interview with The New York Observer in 2004, he remarked, "It's not that I don't believe Iraq is capable of democracy. But the notion that within every human being beats this primaeval instinct for democracy has not ever been demonstrated to me." Again, Mr Scowcroft may have been right, but nothing adequately explains the revolts in the Arab world in the last two years better than a "primaeval instinct" for democracy.

One should not over-idealise the purity of democratic impulses in the Middle East. Everywhere, there remains a danger of a slide backwards into authoritarianism. But this is not solely an Arab problem; western states with notable democratic traditions, including France and Germany, once reverted to authoritarian, even totalitarian, systems, after being democracies.

One would not expect Mr Fukuyama or Mr Scowcroft to mention these examples, which complicate their overly simplistic conclusions. A retreat from democracy is more common than is acknowledged. As Arabs aspire to build more democratic orders, such retreats - countered by populations protecting their recently won freedoms - are to be expected as part of the institution-building process.

Indeed, in the past decade Arabs have fought hard, and with great loss of life, to establish open and accountable systems. In Iraq in 2005, millions of voters braved death threats to vote for a transitional assembly. And in Lebanon the same year, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to defy Syria and the pro-Syrian Lebanese government after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister. Voting and demonstrating may not be democracy as such, but those who participated certainly saw their endeavours as a way of advancing democracy.

In some 21 months of fighting, over 40,000 Syrians appear to have been killed to overthrow the regime of Bashar Al Assad. In Libya, several thousand perished to get rid of Muammar Qaddafi. On we can go. Ideal democracies may not emerge from these maelstroms, but only dreams of democracy explain why people can confront the near certainty of death or injury for so long. Against the homicidal inclinations of dictators, people will risk everything only for an ideal.

And Arabs have taken risks, more so than has America, with its doubts about the suitability of democracy among other peoples. It is true that democracy cannot be ushered in overnight, and that it requires vigilance to survive. But it also requires persistence and courage, and on that front no one can doubt that Arabs have a right to be taken seriously in the debate over democracy.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling.