Can Democracy be the Main Feature of the Middle East? [Archives:2004/758/Opinion]

July 26 2004

Manuela Paraipan
[email protected]

In the light of the latest events from Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, etc. etc. people often ask: is it possible to see democracy flourishing in the Middle East?
Some say that modernization will come, but it needs time, other say that democracy is not likley to blossom there.
The gulf war pointed out the long term problems of the region – the lack of the military power and the political will to form an independent regional security structure, the incapability of the Arab League to establish dialogue between the Arab leaders, are not the least important factors of instability in the region.
One of the main features of the region is the ruling political, social, ethnic and religious elites who fight for their survival by creating or dissolving shifting alliances with domestic, regional and external players.
Most of the region's states are superficial entities that were produced by British and French imperialism. So, in addition to lacking political legitimacy, they do not have a viable economic system experience or liberal, democratic traditions. In these societies, various ethnic and religious groups are engaged in a fierce competition for power. (eg. in Lebanon the political struggle between Shia, Sunni and Christians).
In this globalized era the Arab states can not afford to isolate themselves. Their leaders realize that this is the right time to change their policy. At the same time, they strongly reject the external attempt to democratize their respective countries. We have in the example of Iraq a demonstration of how the attempt to democratize the country from outside produces a political and social instability, creating a vacuum that entices the domestic and external fundamentalist militants to take action.
The Arab leaders recognize the need to reform, but they want to do it in their own way. I do not deny the fact that each culture has its own path of development – fast or slow – and its own set of rules and philosophies to guide its growth and progress. But, they should speed up the modernization process and make the region what it once was – a cosmopolitan and flourishing place where diversity was praised, economic development encouraged, cultural and academic advancement promoted.
Foreign intervention may aggravate the region's shaky stability and reinforce the tendency to resist to the West's call of reform and democracy. When US is asking its Arab allies to implement democracy they refrain from reforming their political systems and they reject practical solutions to end the hostility with Israel.
If, for example the ruling elites of Saudi Arabia were to suddenly implement democratic rule, then they would lose power. And, they do not want that.
Instead, they agree with all of the 'small steps' policy, hoping that the US and the EU will somehow get tired, or concentrate on other issues (like the war on terrorism) and will forget their case.
The goals from President Bush's speeches: establishing democracy in the Middle East, forming regional security arrangements, moving towards arms control agreements, peace between Israel and the Arab states – have only created unfulfilled expectations that will probably lead to new American commitments and entanglements. But, a commitment to the region means military presence and direct intervention – and this is one of the reason's why anti-US feelings are still very much alive in the Arab and Muslim world; the other reason may be the US's almost unconditional support for Israel.
However, Israel and the Arab states are not just nation states striving for security, democracy and modernization; they represent powerful ideologies, such as Pan Arabism, Islamic fundamentalism and Zionism – ideologies used by the ruling elites to mobilize domestic and external support.
Only if a reasonable solution can be found for the Israeli Arab conflict with some sort of ideological accommodation between these opposite views, only then will stability and economical development be possible. If Israel and the Arab states will be partners in the economic process, then the Middle East is most likely to move towards reform, democracy and even peace.