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.

The Saudi dynasty has launched a series of "national dialogue" sessions to assess public opinion on reform. The latest, held in Jeddah last week, focused on women's rights and produced 19 demands which, if implemented, could make Saudi women full citizens for the first time. Egypt and Iran are toying with the idea of emulating the so-called Chinese model, combining political repression with economic liberalization. A version of that model is already in place in Tunisia. Still frozen in their despotic ways are Libya, Sudan, and Syria.

Despite a public relations drive to improve his image abroad, Libya's dictator, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, continues to preside over one of the region's most repressive regimes. In Syria, however, pressure for change is on the rise. Last week a coalition of eight parties called on President Bashar Assad to end the monopoly of its Baath party on political power and accept pluralism "as a principle of national politics."

Most regimes in the region are committed to holding elections in one form or another, abandoning the claim that only informal consultation is acceptable in Islam.

Perhaps more important, words and phrases that denote democratization are being heard in conversations and read in newspapers: opening, dialogue, participation, consent, pluralism, separation of powers, rule of law, due process, free enterprise, civil society, good governance, human rights, gender equality, accountability, and transparency.

Cynics might suggest that all this is nothing but the tribute that vice pays to virtue. The despots may talk of democracy as a tactic to weather the storm created by the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq, but they will revert to their traditional methods of rule by violence and bribery. And there is, of course, no guarantee that any elections they hold will not be "fixed" to confirm the power of the rulers. Whether the cynics are right depends largely on what happens in Afghanistan and Iraq in the coming months.

The Afghans are scheduled to hold their first-ever free elections in September, followed by the Iraqis, who will go to the polls in January 2005. To be held under international supervision, the Afghan and Iraqi elections could produce the first accurate picture of opinion in two key Muslim countries. As things stand, there is every chance that both elections will be won by moderate conservatives who recognize the importance of power sharing and popular participation in decision-making.

Success in the Afghan and Iraqi elections could help bring Muslim politics out of the palaces, army barracks, mosques, and streets, and direct it into new channels such as political parties, parliaments, and law courts. The tepid message from Sea Island, then, is not the end of the story.

Transforming the greater Middle East from an area of despotism and darkness into one of democracy and development requires the same vision and determination that led the Free World to victory over the Soviet "Evil Empire" less than a generation ago.

The same people who laughed at Ronald Reagan for believing that communism could be defeated now dismiss Bush's call for democratization in the Middle East as another sign of American naiveté. Professional anti-Americans shudder at the thought that "someone like George W. Bush" might actually not only win the war on terror but also help the Muslim nations join the mainstream of global human development. President Bush should trust his instinct and remain committed to helping the Middle East take the path of democratic change.

Amir Taheri is the author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam.