The Magazine

Democracy in Arabia?

Liberal scoffers underestimate its prospects.

Jun 28, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 40 • By AMIR TAHERI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

AT THE CLOSE of the recent G-8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia, sighs of relief could be heard in palaces across the Middle East where unelected leaders wield near-absolute power.

The summit had been expected to produce a clarion call for reform in the only part of the world still largely unaffected by changes that have reshaped global politics since the end of the Cold War. Instead, it settled for a string of bland admonitions.

Anxious to avoid fresh charges of unilateralism, and responding to demands from French president Jacques Chirac and German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, President Bush toned down his call for a democratic revolution in the greater Middle East.

But though the message from Sea Island has disappointed many moderates in the region, the process of change triggered by the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq shows no sign of coming to a close. In liberal circles in Europe and North America, the idea that George W. Bush could inspire any democratic revolution may provoke derision, but in the Middle East, U.S. action in Afghanistan and Iraq is seen as marking the end of an era--the era in which the region's politics was dominated by pan-Arabism and Islamism.

The Taliban was the epitome of Islamism: No one could claim to be more Islamist than Mullah Muhammad Omar. The Iraqi Baath represented the most radical version of Arab nationalism, inspired by Nazism and communism. If anybody could have created the pan-Arab Utopia, it was Saddam Hussein. The defeat of those two "models" has given democrats in the Muslim world a chance to get their message through to the masses previously captivated by Islamism and pan-Arabism.

"The genie will not return to the bottle," says Iraqi scholar Faleh Abdul-Jabbar. "There is a growing feeling in the region that the days of despotic regimes are numbered."

"The thing is, this is open debate that wasn't there three or four months ago," Jordan's King Abdullah told the Washington Post last week. "Once you open that door, it is very hard to shut it. So countries that are resistant to it are now having to look at the issues of reform."

One reason for this optimism is the belief that the Bush administration is determined to shift the United States from being a supporter of the status quo in the Middle East to being a champion of democratic change.

"The United States understands that its security is contingent on change in the Middle East," says Saudi novelist Turki al-Hamad. "The Americans have learned that as long as our societies are not reformed, they cannot be safe."

During the past few months the Muslim world has witnessed a series of conferences devoted to reform, change, and democratization.

Last month's Arab League Summit in Tunis, though it avoided the word democratization, approved a set of changes designed to broaden the base of political decision-making. A couple of weeks before that, the issue had topped the agenda of a major regional conference in Jordan. Similar conferences have been held in Kuala-Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, the Lebanese capital Beirut, Turkey's cultural capital Istanbul, and Alexandria in Egypt. All these conferences endorsed the clear message that for Muslim nations democratic reform is the only way out of "a historic quagmire."

To be sure, the debate on whether Islam is compatible with democracy is not over. But many in the region believe that the issue now is the necessity of democracy for Muslims rather than its compatibility with Islam.

The fact that almost no one in mainstream Islam regrets the demise of the Taliban and the Iraqi Baath shows that, contrary to claims by some "Islamologists," the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not love despots and are not prepared to fight for them.

Some countries in the region--among them Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman--are already moving towards the open-society model, albeit at widely different paces. All have held elections that, though not free and fair by Western standards, could be regarded as acceptable by the standards of the so-called developing world.

Other countries--notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt--have accepted the need for reform but are trying to limit the power that the ruling elites would have to relinquish to make change meaningful.