Why Should the Autocrats Choose Democracy?
The political discourse of President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, the European Union as well as United Nations representatives is that of obsessively repeating the need to reform and democratize the Arab and Muslim world. What makes democracy so desirable for some and completely unwanted for others? What is the core of the concept of democracy? It is the majority’s rule while the minority’s rights are recognized and respected; it is the rule of law and the presence of an active civil society. Democracy is when there are elections and voters can choose the candidates who best suit their interests. In a democracy, the mass media also enjoys the right to free speech and the powers within a state are separated and no one is above the law.
This sounds great, but what is left then for a king, dictator or autocrat to do? Democracy seems to be taking away all the joy of their power monopoly. Really, no corruption? No manipulation? No oppressing the people? Share the political power and its benefits with others? Why should one do this when the situation is just perfect the way it is?
Here is the moment when the Bush administration interferes and says: Do it yourself, or we will do it for you. What was not too long ago a difficult decision to take is now a piece of cake. Suddenly, Arab and Muslim leaders realize the importance of democracy and (in theory) they are ready to give up power and wealth monopoly for the sake of others. No kidding!
Furthermore, as if the challenge to bring democracy and social reform to the Arab and Muslim world is not difficult enough, the US must deal with Bin Laden’s transnational network of terrorists, the opium trading warlords that shape contemporary Afghanistan, Iraq’s insurgents, the Palestinian refugees and the private militias or freedom fighters - as they enjoy being called - that are spreading through the region. All these puzzle pieces test the determination, interest and strength of the US and the EU to support democratization and humanization in the Arab and Muslim world.
In his last tape, Bin Laden threatened the Saudi Royal family. He accused them of being pro-American, corrupt and disrespectful of the Qu’ran. Imagine that - the Wahhabi Muslims do not respect the Qu’ran or Sharia law! Nevertheless, we now know what the reality is because Bin Laden, a true believer in the peaceful message of the Qu’ran, a man who planned and ordered the killings of thousands of innocent people - is sharing his thoughts with us. How ironic!
It is not only the West that is threatened by Bin Laden and his kind, but also the Muslim and Arab world. The threat of terrorism is not making a difference between Christians, Muslims, Arabs or Westerners. The fight against terrorism is finally seen as a common goal to all parties. The only effective way of combating terrorism is to encourage political, social and economic reform. Fighting terrorism should be a strong reason to favor democracy over any autocracy.
A first step toward a global reform in the region could be civic rule rather than a full democracy, mainly because a civic culture is brings together modernity and tradition. The outcome is a pluralistic society based on communication. It is a political reform that welcomes diversity and allows change, but it does moderate it. The solution is to adopt more participatory politics, allowing people to work together for their political benefit. The right way to do this is to maintain elections for municipal councils and have a parliament that is elected by the people. Councils and parliament should be entrusted with genuine power and a budget for helping communities in need. When people see that autocratic leaders have taken some real actions, then the message of the terrorists and extremists will be less attractive. Arab leaders should not let extremists make decisions for them.
From a moral perspective, all Arab and Muslim autocrats are seen as corrupted and probably most of them are. However, things can change. Let the people know where the funds go and engage in discussion with the civil society when deciding where the money should be spent. There is also pressure to encourage private investment, both domestic and foreign. Adapt the fiscal policy and the country’s laws to the challenges of today’s open market society.
Educational reform is a must. All youth - both male and female - need access to quality education. A skilled worker will have an easier time finding employment than an unskilled worker. Also, education keeps young people far away from the mirage of terrorists’ messages.
If there are so many positive aspects of democracy, why are Arab leaders so reluctant and evasive when the international community asks for results? The reason can be easily perceived. A complete and successful political reform of their societies cannot be accomplished without their own disappearance. Thus, they choose to protect their own interests rather than serve their people. The lesson here is that the path to democracy is a difficult one. Some leaders will have to relinquish their political and economic monopolies and the rewards may not be tangible until the process is completed. However, only economic modernization and political reform will prevent the total decline of the region.