The Magazine

Democracy in Arabia?

Liberal scoffers underestimate its prospects.

Jun 28, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 40 • By AMIR TAHERI
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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.