Friday, December 6, 2013
By DAN PERRY Associated Press
(Continued from page 1)
Police officers celebrate the ouster of their president as they demonstrate in Tunis on Jan. 22, 2011. Almost a quarter-century ago, a young American political scientist achieved global academic celebrity by proclaiming that the collapse of communism had ended the discussion on how to run societies, leaving "Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." In Egypt and around the Middle East, after a summer of violence and upheaval, the discussion, however, is still going strong. And almost three years into the Arab Spring revolts, profound uncertainties remain.
AP file photo
"For too long, many nations, including my own, tolerated, even excused, oppression in the Middle East in the name of stability... We must help the reformers of the Middle East as they work for freedom, and strive to build a community of peaceful, democratic nations."
— President George W. Bush in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 21, 2004
The region's experiment with democracy in recent years actually precedes the Arab Spring. The Palestinians, under the framework of their interim accords with Israel, held a number of parliamentary and presidential elections beginning in the late 1990s. Iraq has had several democratic elections since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein — part of then-U.S. President George W. Bush's vision for democratizing the region.
Few in the region today seem willing to credit that "Bush Doctrine" in the least with the Arab Spring that erupted in December 2010. More often cited are the explosion of satellite TV news stations, social media and mounting anger at decades of authoritarian rule. In swift succession governments fell in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya's dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, was toppled — and killed by a mob — in a civil war. All three countries have tried to set up democracies, with elected governments.
The results offer some cautionary tales.
Sectarianism and tribalism often override political debate — such as in Iraq, where Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites generally vote for their own parties. The violence-wracked country has ended up plagued by partisanship and political gridlock, its leader Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused by many of having authoritarian tendencies.
Existing parties in Jordan are even more granular, with some representing tribes. Critics say a healthy democracy needs a contest of ideas instead.
Another challenge is the level of education in some countries. All over the world voters face a challenge in grasping the increasingly complex issues of the day — but the problem is on a different scale in a place like Egypt, where about a third of the almost 90 million people are illiterate.
That provided a major opening to Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which successfully convinced many in Egypt's impoverished rural population that a vote for them was a vote for Islam. Critics saw an irony: Islamists, they argued, were great at using democracy for the ultimate goal of theocracy, non-democratic to the core.
In the Palestinian areas elections have been delayed for years and a split has set in between the West Bank's autonomy zones, run by an elected Mahmoud Abbas whose mandate has long expired, and the Gaza Strip, which was seized by the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas, who make no democratic pretense today, although they did win parliamentary elections in 2006.
"Our Arab societies largely lack a democratic culture," said Majed Sweilem, a political scientist in the West Bank. "The democratic movements are weak and can't get to power. The only ones that can get to power are the undemocratic forces that don't believe in real democracy."
Once in power, they can rule more or less at will, elections having lent legitimacy to an executive unencumbered by the basic infrastructure of democracy — the institutions, checks and balances that prevent a tyranny of the majority. That prospect terrified the elites in Egypt, where people are less traditional and many feared their lifestyle was under clerical attack.
Mohammed Magdy, a 27-year-old Egyptian, said the path to democracy would be long.
"The ballot box is one of the means of democracy . but (it is) not everything. At a time when there is popular action, it is not the strongest tool for change, because there are other ways," he said — such as protests and public monitoring of officials.
There have been some calls for denying illiterate people the right to vote, although they have not gained traction.
In Syria, of course, an Arab Spring-like revolt has morphed into a civil war whose rebel side is sufficiently dominated by Islamic extremists that it has been unable to muster effective Western support against authoritarian President Bashar Assad, despite more than 100,000 people killed.
(Continued on page 3)