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.