Democracy and Stability in the Arab World
Revolutions, it has been said, are hard to predict, and although autocratic regimes are fertile grounds for fundamental change, history shows that most attempts at it often fail or go unnoticed. An incident as commonplace as a young Tunisian being beaten and robbed by corrupt authorities should have remained, strictly speaking, a domestic incident. But the uprising his ultimately tragic response of self- immolation has sparked across the Arab world caught even the most astute middle-east analysts off guard, and is having greater regional and international consequences. From North Africa to the Persian Gulf and even as far as China, demonstrators inspired by the results similar protests have had first in Tunisia and then Egypt, are taking to the streets demanding democratic reforms and a freer society.
But Revolutions, at least in the modern age, cannot happen without the encouragement and support of outside forces. In Egypt, the Obama administration not wanting to repeat the mistakes it made in 2009 by not supporting democratic protests in Iran, called for the immediate departure of President Hosni Mubarak. Unlike Iran, Mubarak’s Egypt had been a staunch U.S. ally for three decades in a region less than hospitable to American ideals and fundamentally opposed to its friendship with Israel. The marked lack of support for Egypt’s leader and the public way it was expressed was seen by many Arab leaders including Israel as an undeniable mistake and absolute betrayal, whose consequence may usher in extremism and worse in the ensuing power void. As one diplomat recently put it “in the middle east stability is more important than democracy”. Ultimately the U.S. will bear as much responsibility for the success or failure of Egypt’s transition as the protesters themselves, but are the two hallmarks of an open society mutually exclusive in the middle-east?
For decades, the United States has been coddling corrupt Arab regimes at the expense of human and civil rights, pushing the masses as it were into the arms of extremists who preach hate against the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. may have bought itself durable leaders that could control the Arab street, but those same strongmen, while suppressing most other forms of dissent, paid little attention to the fundamentalists within their own borders, undermining American efforts to curb the spread of Islamic extremism in the war on terror. With such groups as Hamas and Hezbollah having already manipulated the democratic process to gain power in Gaza and Lebanon, the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a threat all must take seriously. For the time being though, the Egyptian army will most likely control state affairs for longer than initially anticipated, until which time it feels confident that either one of its own can win the promised elections, or that a secularist democracy can take hold.
Given the popularity of Islamic fundamentalism and the Jihad doctrine, what can the free world, led by the United States, do to promote democratic values while maintaining stability in evolving Arab societies? Firstly, providing financial, moral, and instructional support for emerging liberal democratic movements will produce contemporary forums for expression and reveal a new generation of leaders needed to travail the arduous and lengthy process in search of a renewed identity. Our own western democracy, we must remember, did not develop immediately, but was cultivated over centuries through periods of Renaissance, Reformation, and even wanton violence that we hope can now be avoided.
Another important avenue for western powers to consider is legislative action. In 2005 a few colleagues and I worked on a congressional resolution which later became known as the “Egyptian Accountability Act”. In it we detailed human and other rights violations, torture, and discrimination committed and condoned by Egyptian authorities against its own citizens, specifically minorities. The goal of the legislation was not as opponents had feared then to stop all funding for Egypt, but would have tied American foreign aid to much needed reforms. Though the resolution passed, it was non-binding. had it become law, life for all Egyptians would have improved immediately, and in due course ushered in the gradual democracy with stability we can only now hope for.
Ultimately it will be up to Egyptians and other Arab citizens to choose their own form of governance. If they are ready to emerge from their own dark ages to a secular or so-called modernist Islam, the West will welcome and work with them to advance not our Judeo-Christian values, but their own Arab, democratic and Islamic ideals. Should they choose a theocracy however, the U.S. and allies will have harder choices to make but will still seek a limited engagement in the hope that the “Jasmine Revolutions” have not traded one evil dictatorship for another. The process for change has begun with both much hope and mindful trepidation, but in the words of the great 19th century political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, “in a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end”.