THE ROAD TO ARAB DEMOCRACY
BY AMIR TAHERI
November 18, 2004 -- THE Arabs already call it "the democratic show," and don't quite know how to deal with it. Some hope it will just go away; others are suspending judgment until they see more. Still others hope to bury it under an avalanche of cynical jokes.
We are, of course, talking about President Bush's plan for the democratization of the Middle East and North Africa. Bush first launched the idea in a 2002 speech in Washington. He gave it greater flesh in a second speech in London a year later. Last June, he presented a more structured plan at the G-8 summit in Sea Island, Ga.
Next month the plan will be discussed at a joint meeting of G-8 foreign and finance ministers with their Arab counterparts in Morocco. The aim, according to the official agenda, is to examine ways of "consolidating the commitment of the Middle East and North Africa to fruitful co-development and the harmonious strengthening of the process of political, economic and social reform."
That is, of course, diplomatic code language. What Bush means is more straightforward: The Middle East/North Africa region is virtually the only part of the world still out of the post-Cold War mainstream of democratization — as well as the only part of the world where international terrorism still enjoys not only a popular base but also quite a bit of sympathy and support from the ruling elites.
During the presidential campaign, Sen. John Kerry ridiculed the idea that the War on Terror could end in a definitive victory. The most that one could do, he argued, was to reduce terrorism to the level of a nuisance like prostitution, the Mafia and the illicit-drug trade.
Bush, however, is offering something with which to measure success or failure in this war: the spread of democracy. If, when Bush leaves office in four years, the region holds more democracies, he could claim some success. If not, he'd have to admit failure.
This, of course, is a high-risk strategy: Democracy has powerful and well-entrenched enemies in the region. The Bush plan is opposed both by the ruling elites (who fear losing their often illegitimate privileges and powers) and a variety of oppositionists who use anti-Americanism as the key element of their political message.
Why would opponents of the despotic regimes be hostile to the Bush plan? In most of the Middle East, the Islamists dominate the opposition (at times in coalition with the remnants of the left). While these people work to overthrow the established order, the last thing they want is for it to be succeeded by a pluralist democratic system in which they would be unable to impose their brand of despotism. In some cases, they're even prepared to forge alliances with the current despots to prevent democratization.
In 1990s Algeria, for example, the Islamists fought ferociously to prevent presidential and parliamentary elections. The only acceptable elections to them were based on "one man, one vote, once." Their slogan was min al-sanduq il al-sanduq — "from the box to the box," meaning "from the ballot box to the coffin." They murdered thousands of candidates and voters, in most cases by slitting their throats. In one 1996 local election south of Algiers, a ballot box was filled with the severed parts of a candidate's corpse.
Today, the Islamists' fear of free elections is plain in both Iraq and the Palestinian territories. That same Algerian slogan is now scribbled on the walls of towns in the "Sunni Triangle." A statement issued by the self-styled Islamic Coalition of Iraq last Thursday put it plainly: "It is the sacred duty of all true believers to prevent the holding of any elections by using whatever means necessary."
The other day we also witnessed the same fear of elections as gunmen provoked a shootout in Gaza to prevent Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian presidential candidate, from starting his campaign.
The despots and the Islamists fear free elections as much as Dracula fears the sunshine. This is why there can be no progress in this "zone of darkness" until the holding of free and fair elections is recognized as a legitimate instrument of people's participation in decision-making at all levels.
Almost all the countries in the region now conduct some form of elections. But in most cases they manage to make them a plebiscite for present policies and policymakers. In Iran, for example, no one can stand as a candidate unless approved by the authorities. Other countries hold only single-candidate elections controlled by the ruling party. In still others, elections are reasonably free — but the powers of the councils or parliaments that result are negligible. And one or two nations pervert elections by preventing women from standing for public office and voting.
Nevertheless, the overall picture is encouraging. Even the most reactionary elements, which once deemed elections "a Jewish-Christian trick" to divide Muslims, are now prepared to pay at least lip service to the practice.
More important: Elections of an acceptable nature, though certainly not fully free and fair, have become part of life in a number of countries, such as Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco. Afghanistan's first free elections ever, held last month, has had a big impact on the entire region: If the Afghans did it, why not us?
Iraq and the Palestinian territories are set to hold elections in January. Success would be of crucial importance in advancing the democracy agenda.
Iraq is the first major country in the Arab heartland to hold free elections. A breakthrough there could send shock waves through the despotic regimes in neighboring Syria and Iran.
Successful elections in the Palestinian territories would have great symbolic importance. Many Arabs and Muslims have adopted Palestine as a "cause" that can only be advanced through suicide bombing and head-chopping. Transforming Palestine from an abstract "cause" into a living society that can pursue its goals via the normal tools of politics would undercut anti-democratic movements across the region.
Bush would be wrong to assume that his "democracy plan" can succeed through a one-size-fits-all approach. The 25 countries concerned are at different stages of social, political and economic development — differences that must be reflected in any attempt at encouraging them to reform.
Some have internal mechanisms for reform and change — mechanisms that can be strengthened through diplomatic, political, cultural and economic aid from America and its genuine allies. But a few countries lack any such mechanisms. Economic sanctions or a measure of military force may be needed — not to impose democracy, but to remove impediments to democratization.
Four years from now, if the "zone of darkness" in the Middle East is reduced, Bush would be able to retire confident that he has won at least the first phase of his War on Terror. E-mail: