Democratization in the Broader Middle East - illusion or opportunity?

Posted in Other | 13-Sep-04 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Burj al Arab - a flagship of the 21st-century.
Burj al Arab - a flagship of the 21st-century.
“Democracy, and the hope and progress it brings, [are] the alternative to instability and to hatred and terror. We cannot rely exclusively on military power to assure our long term security. Lasting peace is gained as justice and democracy advance. In democratic and successful societies, men and women do not swear allegiance to malcontents and murderers; they turn their hearts and labor to building better lives. And democratic governments do not shelter terrorist camps.” (George Bush, London's Whitehall Palace in November 2003, speech)

After the 9/11 tragedy the world has changed. The United States changed its priorities and its foreign policy. The enemy of the modern society was closer than we have anticipated. It took us by surprise and won the first round. From that point on, we have looked with suspicion at the world around us. Our culture, traditions and faith in democracy were challenged. The next move should be ours.

The United States finally took a serious look at the Arab/Muslim world. The issue was not anymore, only about the economic interests; it was a more deeper conflict that involved religion, the way of thinking and living of the Arab muslims.

The central challenge that America faces in its relation with the Islamic world is that of credibility.While the U.S. power is at its greatest historic heights, global esteem for the United States is at its depths. Anti-American feelings are particularly strong in muslim countries and communities across the world, while the continuing violence in the Middle East has only further hardened these attitudes. Thus, rather than being viewed as a victim of terrorism, the United States has become widely perceived as arrogant and anti-muslim. Perhaps the best example is the fact that U.S war on terrorism is broadly interpreted as a war on Islam. This credibility gap is worrisome. Whether America is able to reverse this trend and better convey its policies and values abroad could be a critical determinant in winning the war on terrorism. The image is that United States foreign policy makes the Middle East less stable. The way that Washington will communicate its foreign and domestic policies will dramatically affect how the world view the country. Given the realities of the September 11th attacks, America needs a broad coalition to protect itself. In order to build and sustain the necessary alliances they have to communicate with their allies and potential allies more effectively.

The long time Arab countries allies of the U.S, like Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait and even Saudi Arabia acknowledged the need to bring refom and at least a sense of democratization in their respective countries. Some acknowledged this need sooner than others. The Middle East region did not live after our rules and they certainly look determined not to change their habits now. After all, what is that terrorists hate? The American values and culture, or the American insistence on imposing those on others?

Washinghton decided on the basis of not very well reasoned informations to invade Iraq and as President Bush said more than once, to liberate the Iraqi people and to bring democracy. His intentions were questionable, but some may say that at least he removed Saddam from power. True, Saddam is out. Anarchy and more violence took the place of Saddam’s cruel regime. Since democracy means self rule, it would seem that this is something people must do for themselves, not something that can be introduced by outsiders. But history contradicts this intuition. America, the first modern democracy, has been a powerful engine spreading democracy elsewhere. At its most active, America has done this by force of arms; at its most passive, simply by setting an example from which others have borrowed. In between these two extremes, the United States has intervened on behalf of democracy by nonviolent means: diplomacy, foreign aid, international broadcasting, and even covert political manipulations.

To bring change in the Middle East, overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein seemed as a good start. However, the present situation from Iraq pointed out a feature of the Arab world: they reject West’s political advises and military presence. It is the Pax Americana voice they reject and fear. Many people thought that a democratical Iraq will have a favourable influence on the other Arab countries and on neighbouring Iran, which is not an Arab country, but has a great influence on its Arab neighbours. The replacement of Iran's theocracy by a genuine democracy would also reverberate loudly across the region.

The terrorists use the presence of the U.S military troops inside Iraq and in the region to excuse their violent acts against the West. This should not take anyone by surprise, since some of them are also using the Qu’ran (their Holy Bible) to justitify some outrageous acts. It seems that reform must come from within, otherwise it can create chaos and terror. What the U.S, EU and UN can do - is to continue to use non-military means, such as diplomatic pressure, direct assistance to the Arab muslim NGO’s, etc. to lobby the need to democratize the Middle East.

The Middle East region is one of the few parts of the world as yet untouched by the wave of democratization that eventually swept away the Soviet empire and numerous other dictatorships. The liberation of Iraq provides the opportunity to open the entire Arab world to the concept of democracy. It is important to show that democracy is not an allien concept to Islam. If the West will succeed in Iraq, then democracy might have a chance in the region. Winning the military war against Iraq's insurgents may prove to have been the easy part. The hardest battle remain to be fought on the field of ideas. If this battle is to be won, then we should understand the core of the Arab/muslim society and that is – its tribal characteristic.

In the Arab society, the tribal culture is integrated right into the base of the state political system. We have the example of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and even Lebanon which can be considered one of the most modern Arab country in the region. The West’s efforts should concentrate around the issue of harmonizing the tribal law/Islamic law with the model of democracy. Turkey is an example in this regard, nevertheless even in Turkey the voice of Islam can be heard. Islam already foresees a democratic model with an eternal dimension – it will not be an easy task for a tribal society to adapt to a free, democratic and pragmatical structure.

Is Arab anti-Americanism just an irrational phenomenon manufactured by presidents, kings, and military dictators who rule their countries without legitimate political authority? It might - but there are also really bad U.S. policies in the Arab world - none of which seem to trouble most Arabs. For example, the United States gives $2 billion a year to Egypt. While U.S. policymakers should definitely tie aid to democratic reforms, it is clear that Egypt would be less oppressive or corrupt without that money. After all, Syria and Iran oppress their populations without U.S. assistance. Also, U.S supported Saddam Hussein regime for many years, until they decided to switch the policy. Syria has occupied Lebanon since 1990, but until last year, U.S. officials did not even use the word – occupation - for fear of offending Damascus. Among other reasons for this position, the United States hoped that in this way Syria will go back to the negotiating table with Israel. Meantime, Washington sacrificed Lebanese self-determination. It is true that now the U.S Congress has adopted the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSRA) which is a bill that condemn Syria and its proxy government in Lebanon, but it may be too little, too late for Lebanon. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah has openly criticised Washington’s policy in the region. Without its Syrian patron running the affairs of Lebanon, Hezbollah would have neither the freedom, nor the cover to have such a strong presence on the Lebanese political stage. Another important factor of anti-U.S feelings is the support for Israel. This has made Washington deeply hated in the region. On the other hand, Arab anti-American feelings are easy to get used to - it's been around for close to half a century. What's hard is living up to the Arabs' best expectations of America.

Since the fall of the Otoman Empire, no external power has been able to impose its policies on the local actors of the Middle East; in the region, everything is related to everything else; the boundaries between local, national, regional and international issues are blurred. The Middle East elites use outside powers, including the U.S to advance their domestic and regional interests; supporting a local elite makes an outside power such as the U.S a symbol of evil in the eyes of the opposition force. The more the U.S will try to impose a Pax Americana, the more it will become involved in issues that have nothing to do with its original interests. Actually, none of this would matter if the U.S had not declared the peace and the stability of the Middle East region to be a vital national interest. Trying to stabilize one of the world’s most politically turbulent regions has proven to be a frustrating objective. Even if Iraq will have sort of a democratical regime, there are other crises, too: an Iranian bid for regional preeminence, a possible radical revolution against the Saudi monarchy, the influence of Hezbollah’s policy on Lebanon political future, etc. etc.

The experiences from the region show that neither peace, nor democracy are products that can be exported from Washington. People and nations should find their own path to democracy and to a peaceful coexistence.