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Democracy in the Arab World

Sami Alrabaa

During his last tour in the Middle East, George W. Bush urged the Arab states to introduce democracy and its “ingredients”: freedom of speech and the rule of law.

In fact, the Arab world has never practiced democracy over its history of 1500 years. For centuries now it has been ruled by dictatorships. America and the West have been more interested the Arab oil, arms sales, and consumer markets.

Bush, however, and his administration failed to name things by their real names. His demand for democracy was selective, timid and soft on Arab dictators. The Americans have always divided the Arab world and the Middle East into two camps: pro-Western regimes [moderate dictatorships] and radical ones. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Arab Gulf states, Arafat’s Palestine, Tunisia, and Morocco are regarded moderate dictatorships, and Syria, Iran, Algeria, Saddam’s Iraq, Gaza, and Tliban’s Afghanistan as “axis of the evil”.

The governments of both camps have survived largely through oppression and censorship. Since 9/11 they have used radical Islamists as a “bogeyman”. If these governments introduced democracy, the Islamists, like Hamas might take over.

All the American administrations have pursued their economic and geopolitical interests regardless if the Arab states are democratic or not. They turned a blind eye to oppression and lack of the rule of law practiced daily by those pro-American regimes.

The state-controlled media of both moderate and extremist governments are riding the tidal wave of resentment towards the West and especially America for demanding democracy in an effort to divert the attention of the restless population to the “bogeyman of the West”. And the Arab masses hate the West for not pressing enough for free elections, free speech, and public audit of government finances.

For many Arabs, Bush’s demand, democracy must prevail in the Middle East and the Arab world is worthless and lacks verifiable credibility on the ground. According to a survey by Bielefeld University/ Germany, over 70% of the Arab population believes that the West is not interested in democracy as much as it is interested in Arab oil. Hassan says, “Hamas won fair, free elections. But the West has ignored all this and is even boycotting a democratically elected government. This is not what America and the West are preaching. Or does democracy mean, you elect what I want, otherwise you are not democratic. What kind of democratic understanding is this?” Hassan’s friend Omar says, “America talks to North Korea although it is not democratic. Why? Because it is strong. America and the West support the independence of the Albanian ethnic minority in Serbia, i.e. in Kosovo [2 million people], but ignore the demands of the 14 million Kurds, in Turkey for an independent state or at least autonomy. Why? Because Serbia is an enemy and Turkey is an ally. America and the West respect the strong and tread on the weak. America and the West support their allies regardless how repressively they treat their minorities. Democracy is the last thing the Americans and the West are interested in.” The list of double standards is long.

Bush has not mentioned Saudi Arabia during his “preaches” about democracy as a country among the world’s most undemocratic and despotic. It is a country that lacks basic human rights and freedom of speech and the rule of law. It is an absolute monarchy worse than those reining in the Middle Ages. According to all international human rights organizations, the state of human rights and lack of meaningful political reform is worst in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, ruled by an absolute monarchy, and a close ally of the USA, has been and is still a breeding machine of terrorists and fanatic Muslims. Its rigid archaic brand of Islam, Wahabism, teaches at school violence and hatred against followers of other religions, in particular Christians and Jews. 15 of the 19 September hijackers were Saudis. According to various reports, most suicide-murderers in Iraq are Saudis.

A letter by Representative Anthony Weiner [D-NY] signed by a bipartisan group of 114 members of Congress, argues, Saudi Arabia has not behaved like an ally of the United States. They have exported fighters and suicide bombers to the war in Iraq. They have provided funding for terrorist activities throughout the world.”

In their recent study [2007], Princeton’s Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova come to the conclusion “In the war on terror, our closest allies in the Middle East are among the most repressive countries in the world. They also harbor the birthplace of international terrorists.”

The Baathists in Damascus were branded by Bush as totalitarian. He also highlighted their dismal human rights record. Granted! How about the Saudi monarchy which he did not mention in his speeches? Women in Syria enjoy all the rights assigned to men. They can leave their house without any restrictions, they are allowed to drive their own cars, there is no gender-segregation, and they must not cover their faces when they leave their home. They are allowed to travel all alone. Women in Syria have full suffrage rights. Many of them work as judges. Even the Vice-president is a woman: Najat Al Attar. All these things are long-term investments on the road to democracy.

On the other hand, women in Saudi Arabia are forbidden to enjoy all the above. Hence, if Saudi Arabia is a heaven of stability, then Syria is paradise for women.

Furthermore, in Syria there is a functioning modern legal system. Syrian women have full inheritance rights. They get as much as their male relatives. In Saudi Arabia, women get half of what the males get, and the testimony of two women in the court is equal to that of one man. Theocrats are appointed as judges. They rule in the name of the Koran whose verses are either obsolete or incompatible with modern life, more often than not they are interpreted in different ways depending on the whims of the “judge”.

After the invasion of Iraq, Condoleezza Rice justified the lack of democracy in Saudi Arabia by referring to the country’s long tribal traditions. How long can American politicians tolerate an oppressive and intolerant regime like the Saudi which day in day out is cultivating fanaticism and breeding terrorists? How long would the American friends of Saudi Arabia continue defending lack of political reforms in Saudi Arabia by referring to “cultural impediments”?

An exasperated America has tried everything in the Arab world, from appeasement to confrontation, everything except systematic, sustained, and indiscriminate support for democratic reform in the Arab world.

The world is not static. The “realpolitik” of the Cold War is no longer working. The concern for oil that an anti-Western regime might take over and blackmail Western industrialized countries, and profits from weapons sales, no longer justify supporting dictators who can scarcely feed their own population in a region awash of petroleum. Autocratic regimes profess stability but are volatile under the surface. History has shown that democratically elected governments never launch wars against other countries. Besides, empirical studies point out that lack of democracy is a key cause of terrorism.

The USA can no longer continue to treat the symptoms rather than the etiology of the disease. A brand new strategy is needed towards ending the entire rule of autocracy and replacing it with conditions for future political legitimacy and economic growth in the Arab world. It is a worthwhile investment to the fear of uncertainty and maybe chaos for a while. Temporary chaos is sometimes better than enduring stasis. Establishing democratic societies entails real costs and danger. Modern Germany, Japan, and South Korea, for instance, were born after chaos and uncertainty.

The tanks and planes of America can obliterate whole armies, but they can not stop suicide-murderers. The root causes of terrorism have got to be out rooted fostered directly or indirectly by the Arab illegitimate regimes. It is a tedious process, but worth going through.

It is far better, not only for America and the West, but also for the whole world to suffer the chastisements of democratically elected Saudi Arabia than to stand by while the Saudi royal family bankrolls the spread of extremism around the world. The appeasement/confrontation policy of the White House towards the Arab countries is generating more suffering, poverty, terrorism, and hatred towards the America and the West. The Arab masses deserve real democracy, peace, and prosperity.