Is Arab Democracy an Oxymoron?

February 23rd, 2011 at 6:45 pm | 17 Comments |

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When Natan Sharansky published The Case for Democracy a year after the US-led invasion of Iraq, view he ignited a debate about the likeliness of democracy in the Arab world.  President Bush loved the book (The Economist said he was having an intellectual affair with Sharansky) and he recommended it to his aides.  The idea that democracy was not incompatible with Arab culture and that its promotion would generate peace in the Middle East neatly fit the attempt to justify invading a country where no weapons of mass destruction could be found.  But the question of whether democracy can flourish in an Arab country was both tricky and relevant at the time.  With the recent upheavals in the Arab world, the answer to this question is critical.

As Israel’s Prime Minister recently observed with a well-deserved dosage of scorn, even New York Times’ editorialists do not know what will be the outcome of the Arab revolts.  Are we witnessing a repetition of 1989 Eastern Europe or of 1979 Iran?  How strong is the Muslim Brotherhood?  Can democracy take hold in societies with no real middle class to speak of?

Because the answer to these questions is partly speculative, the debate is mostly ideological.  Liberals call upon the Google workers of the world to unite, and they accuse skeptics of being party-poopers.  Conservatives roll their eyes at a déjà-vu situation and accuse the Obama Administration of not having learned from Carter’s betrayal of the Shah.

While neither Sharansky, nor The New York Times or Middle East scholars can know for sure whether democracy will spread in the Arab world, lessons can be drawn from the past and reasonable guesses can be made about the future.

First, signing peace deals with autocrats is indeed a gamble.  Since the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Israel’s academics and journalists have dismissed with corporatist consistency the idea that true peace can only prevail between democracies.  Although the “democratic peace” theory was originally spelled out by the liberal Immanuel Kant, our know-it-all academics would have us believe that it is actually a cheap excuse made up by the Right to prevent the otherwise inevitable advent of peace.

Second, no previous anti-autocratic revolt in Arab societies has so far ended-up in democracy.  The Nassers and Gaddafis of the post-colonial era overthrew monarchs only to break records of longevity and ruthlessness.  The Lebanese, who in 2005 revolted against their Iranian-backed Syrian masters, are now ruled by Hezbollah.

Third, the rare (and one-time) free elections held in Arab countries and societies have generally been won by Islamists.  The Front islamique de salut (FIS) won the 1991 elections in Algeria, and Hamas won the 2006 elections in the Palestinian Authority.  The same way that the European Commission considers referenda to be a type of exam with a correct and a wrong answer, the State Department seems to assume that free elections simply must be the prelude to free societies.

Fourth, the United States will not let the Egyptian army cut-and-run with the $50 billion of aid invested over three decades.  It will do its utmost to keep the Egyptian army in charge while paying lip service to democratic reform.  If America is too vocal in its support for democracy in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will use this to depict liberal parties as pro-Western traitors.  If America keeps a low profile while the army pushes off elections, the military regime will be accused of stealing the revolution for the sake of US interests.  In both cases, the Islamists will benefit and America will be blamed.

Israel’s detractors claim that a country cannot be both Jewish and democratic.  But do they think that a country can be Arab and democratic?  Theoretically, it could: if national identity and the rights of minorities can be reconciled in democratic nation-states such as Japan, Sweden or Israel, why can’t they be reconciled in an Arab nation-state?  It is hard to answer this question, since history has yet to produce one example of a truly democratic Arab state.  Meanwhile, the Arab contention that a country cannot be both Jewish and democratic looks more like a manifestation of what psychologists call “projection.”

Sharansky concludes his book on democracy by saying that all peoples, and not only all people, are created equal.  Fair enough.  But both his native Russia and his adopted Middle-East strongly suggest that not all cultures have the same attitude toward democracy.

Joseph de Maistre famously dismissed the French concept of the “rights of man” with his typically aristocratic wit: “I have met in my life Frenchmen, Britons, and Russians.  I have even heard, thanks to Montesquieu, about Persians.  But for Man, I confess that I have never met him, and if he exists it is without my knowledge.”  All people, and peoples, are and should be equal.  But they are also different. The same way that the Arabs are “projecting” when they accuse Israel of not being democratic, the Americans are “projecting” when they expect the Arabs to give the “correct” answer at the ballot box.

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17 Comments so far ↓

  • sparse

    “Israel’s detractors claim that a country cannot be both Jewish and democratic. But do they think that a country can be Arab and democratic?”

    not if they don’t overthrow their undemocratic governments first.

    nobody expects this to be all rosy, but if this process does not happen, then it will be just all that much longer before a stable, democratic middle east can happen.

    many things can, and will go badly with this process (and some things might even go well), but it is still how progress happens.

    jewish and arab has nothing whatsoever to do with it. unless you harbor some sense that arabs are incapable of democratic self-rule.

  • valkayec

    We shall see. I keep thinking back to the democratically elected government in Iran prior to its being overthrown for the Shah. What could have occurred in the Middle East, with regards to democracy had not England begged the U.S. to support that overthrow so British Petroleum could maintain control of Iran’s oil fields.

  • Tempest in a Frumpot

    nonsense, what Arabs are somehow not human? They said the same thing about Latin America and Asia. England enforced its rule over India because they claimed Indians were incapable of self rule, yet they have had the worlds largest Democracy for generations.

    And what is the alternative? Need you be reminded of Churchill’s famous admonition about Democracy?

    So by all means express your reservations, but they mean nothing. You have no say so in the matter and neither do I. In the end it will be the people of Egypt and Tunisia to find their way. (and what is it with lumping all Arabic speaking people as one?) We can offer our goodwill and assistance (by funding NGO’s which promote liberal Democracy) but not much else. Or we can be a cynical little turds stating “why bother” and support tyrants who are nice to us.

    • habsfan


      Perhaps you should consider that in that “glorious” era of forced decolonization (Roosevelt and Truman pushed hard for this) India was splintered resulting in the creation of Pakistan and the relocation of several million people. Most of Sub Sharan Africa was also decolonized resulting in the rise of tyrannies and sustained genocides. In India-Pakistan hundreds of thousands died, a state of defacto war has existed between India and Pakistan and the latter is essentially a failed state and the source of support for the Taliban. The world is a nasty place and sometimes you have to chose between the lesser of two evils. That is called Realpolitik. NGOs allow Western countries to recycle aid money back into their own political system. The billions that are dumped appear to have little to no impact. Hey HAITI is great example of NGO inefficacy…but man are those people on the ground well paid. Haiti is a case for re-instituting colonial rule…..At least then things may get done.

      Both Plato and Aristotle held very cynical views of democracy because they felt that crude uneducated unsophisticated individuals should not be entrusted with the very serious business of running the state. This is no endorsement of the tyrant whom they equally despised. Virtue seemed to have something to do with their understanding of government. Democracy in the Western tradition has evolved slowly and as a function of a literate and informed population where the classical Greek (throw in Christian if you wish) values of virtue have informed the ideal of government. Historically, Western democracy is a relatively recent phenomena less than 3 centuries. Furthemore, it has taken many different forms and also killed large numbers of people…..Hence why a healthy dose of realism should inform our analysis and not simply sideline cheer leading. Dubito ergo cogito

  • JonF

    At one time there were no Asian democracies, no Slavic democracies, no Roman Catholic democracies, heck, no democracies period anywhere.
    If we take it as Gospel that the non-existence of a democratic example for a given culture means that it’s foredoomed to despotism forever, well then, we have trouble explaining many countries on earth, including our own.
    So let’s can the ethno-determinism since the world obviously does not work that way. Will the process by which democracy comes to the Middle East be fraught with nastiness? Yes, that’s been true everwyhere. Will there be a body count? Probably, most other nations had one, including our own. But that’s the way the world works: let’s deal with it and let the future happen. It will regardless, you know

  • ottovbvs

    I seem to remember a lot of people thinking the German people would never accept Democratic principles. I don’t think we need to treat this too seriously since it’ s very obviously a bit of Zionist propaganda.

  • Raskolnik

    Israel is incapable of being Jewish and democratic because it was founded as a “Jewish nation”, on the back of military conquest and population transfer aided by traditional colonial powers (esp. the US and UK). It might have eventually become both, but its enablers in the US foreign policy establishment, as well as its myopic ideological supporters and those weapons dealers who personally profited from continuing the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, have now put the State of Israel in a position where it is literally impossible to succeed politically without violating international law and enforcing de facto apartheid on the Palestinian people.

    Comparing that to the situation in Egypt is apples to oranges. Is reasoned, dispassionate, sober analysis of Middle East issues with respect to Israel from FF contributors an oxymoron?

    Survey says…

  • jakester

    It may take some time for democracy to take root, but a secularized middle class and respect for universal human rights of all people would be a good start

  • PatrickQuint

    JonF: “So let’s can the ethno-determinism since the world obviously does not work that way.”

    Sing it, brother.

  • ggore

    There is no such thing as democracy if there is also an Muslim Theocracy in effect. Muslims will have their version of “freedom”, but non-Muslims will be persecuted or killed if they do not convert to Islam, if they are even allowed to be in the country or not, as it is in Saudi Arabia or Iran, etc. It’s just a fact. The only exceptions to this have been places like Dubai, which allows non-Muslims into the country but only as workers on their huge building booms. Those people have no other rights or prospects of living or moving up in the general population; they are merely worker drones to build buildings.


    Tagline: “The West is hopeful that democracy will flourish in Egypt, but so far history has yet to produce one example of a truly democratic Arab state.”

    How’s that “loyalty test to Jews” coming along? Every “democratic state” needs one, naturally.

    Clean up your own house before worrying about the Arabs.

  • Smargalicious

    Here is General George S. Patton’s view on Arabs and Muslims. Although politically incorrect by today’s standards, it is indeed accurate to the tee:

    “It took me a long time to realize just how much a student of medieval
    history could gain from observing the Arab.”

    “All of the animals are head shy and many are blind as a result of the
    ‘cheerful’ Arab custom of beating them on the head with a stick.”

    “It seems to me a certainty that the fatalistic teachings of Mohammed
    and the utter degradation of the Arab women are the outstanding causes
    for the arrested development of the Arab. He is exactly as he was
    around the year 700, while we have been developing.”

    “In Egypt, on a fresh water canal, I saw a man defecating in the
    water, while below him at a distance of not more than ten yards, women
    were washing clothes, and a short distance further downstream a
    village populace was drawing drinking water.”

  • Tempest in a Frumpot

    habsfan: India was splintered resulting in the creation of Pakistan and the relocation of several million people.

    This was due in large part by the British themselves stoking Muslim fears of persecution. Given the chance if Britain had been able they would have pitted slave states in America against free states but at the time of the revolution slavery was so common it likely never occurred to them to do so. And need I remind you that we had our own Civil war, one can only imagine what would have been the result had the South acquired independence, you would have said Democracy was a failed experiment in the States.

    And labeling something realism does not make it so. And it is not exactly realistic to assume the cheerleaders standing on the side of a basketball game are the determining factor in the final score, yet you are so afraid of them that you would have us sit on our hands because….our team might lose? Rubbish, if you wish root for the tyrants, support them even but I shall not.

    • Carney

      Actually, the British did try to arm slaves to suppress independence.

      Look up the Ethiopian Regiment, the Black Brigade, and Black Loyalists in general.


    Everything you need to know about Emmanuel Navon’s real views on Arab/Muslim democracy is conveyed by these five words: “Carter’s betrayal of the Shah.”

    He doesn’t give a shit about the freedom or political power or living conditions of Arabs or Muslims. He cares about what’s good for Israel, and if that means Western-backed tyrants keeping the people under their thumbs, so be it.

  • Carney

    “a country where no weapons of mass destruction could be found. ”

    A now-widespread, but false, belief.

    We actually found hundreds of chemical warheads in Iraq, kept there illegally and secretly, in direct violation of its ceasefire agreement with us, and numerous binding international agreements.

    The Bush Administration, beaten into a defensive crouch by its domestic and global enemies, decided not to make much mention of it, and no one else chose to.

    For those who mindlessly reject any fact reported by Fox, here’s a nice safe MSM outlet for you:

  • cdorsen

    It all sounds as simple as do we support dictators that support our interests, or do we support the people that want to overthrow them and have a more freely elected government. Obviously the latter sounds more righteous; however, it is not that simple.

    Mubarek stresses the complex nature of these foreign relations. Here is a leader that is friendly to us and our interests. He is autocratic at best. Even if we disagree with his form of government, is it our right to dictate that they change it? Until recently, how many Americans do you think even knew that their might be popular support to remove him and institute “democracy”. If I was an Egyptian supporter of Mubarek, I would be offended and indignant that some American leader was talking down to me and my country tell us our government needs to change.

    The other side of that is looking disingenuous when there is a popular uprising and you fail to support the individuals that share your values on at least the issue of elected government. If they elect a government you don’t like, do you support the new one? The easy answer is yes, of course. They were freely elected and should be respected. But, what if that government then begins attacking your interest or for that matter your people.

    When the governments are stable, the answer to all of this is clear. You don’t tell people how to run their country and support the countries leaders that share your interests. There is nothing wrong with allying with an authoritarian as long as the people they rule over are content with their leadership. The alternative is meddling and entangling yourself in their affairs. This can lead to large scale resentment by the very people you are trying to help. The problem is when these governments are subject to change, and not just a slogan, “change you can believe in”, but change that you can see, touch, and feel. Change from peace and stability to civil war.

    The question of whose side are you on is a difficult one, but I have a feeling before all is said and done with in the middle east, we will have an answer.