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March 10, 2011

Democracy in the Arab World

Dr. Ibrahim Hayani

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Although the roots of the current revolutions in the Arab world can be found in the prevailing tyrannical/despotic order, violations of human rights, poverty, unemployment (especially among the young), corruption, dynastic rule, and widening gap between rich and poor, the deeper and more profound reason is the Arabs' enduring struggle for freedom and dignity - the two wings of the Arabian Eagle that emblazons the Egyptian flag.

I am saying this because any person with a fair knowledge of Arabic literature, past and present, would recognize the centrality of these two values in the collective Arab ethos and value system.

Tyranny and despotism are viewed by Arabs as the antithesis of the noble qualities of freedom (Hurriya) and dignity (Karamah), the linguistic root of which is Karam, or the virtue of liberal-mindedness or generosity.  

In this respect, it was the Tunisian immortal poet, Abul-Qasim Al-Shabi, one of the foremost poets in modern Arabic literature, who said in his famous poem titled “If the People Want Life,” (now a popular song throughout the Arab world):

If one day the people demand life, then destiny will inevitably respond;

And the darkness of night will give way to the sparkling light of day;

And the chains will be broken.”

In this poem, as well as in Arabic poetry in general, life implies living with freedom and dignity; the essence of “the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect,” because a person without freedom and dignity is a person without a name.

The well-known Canadian journalist Richard Gwyn has perceptively pointed out in a recent article titled “Arabs have discovered themselves,” (Toronto Star, February 11/11), that perhaps for the first time in modern history, “large number of Arabs are talking about themselves. They are not talking about Jihad, Islam, or even Israel, nor about the West. Instead, they are talking about being treated seriously as people, as individuals, as human beings, of being treated with respect and dignity and not as anonymous serfs.”  

He goes on to say that “This is the essence of contemporary society in large parts of the world. It is what charters of rights and freedoms are all about, also gender equality, also religious and political freedom.” 

However, what Mr. Gwyn failed to mention is the fact that when the Arabs talk about themselves they are also talking about Palestine and the Palestinian need to put an end to Israeli occupation. Despotic Arab leaders are perceived as complicit in Israeli occupation, weak in standing up to Israeli actions – thereby striking another blow to the Arab need for freedom and dignity.

Regarding Israel, the need for freedom and dignity will revolve around where Israel ends and Palestine begins in terms of borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian refugees’ rights of return.

Equally important is the fact that when the Arabs talk about themselves they are also talking about Islam, especially the abuse, or misuse, of the inherently humanistic, just, cosmopolitan, and inclusive spirit of Islam, which has been hijacked by despotic tribal regimes to legitimize their essentially illegitimate rule, and by naïve and/or ignorant Muslim extremists who have “managed” to project Islam as an inherently violent, misogynous, and undemocratic faith.

As a case in point, the government-sponsored Ulama/clergy of Saudi Arabia recently issued a so-called Fatwa/legal opinion declaring that public demonstrations are un-Islamic.

However, if it is true that the peaceful demonstrations that brought down the despotic regimes of Husni Mubarak (of Egypt) and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (of Tunisia), and are trying to overthrow the criminal regime of the “Mad Man of Libya,” have not alluded to Islam, it is also true that the biggest and most powerful demonstrations have been taking place after the Friday prayers.

In more ways than one, and in addition to trying to bring (a) real self-determination, (b) real constitutionalism, (c) real citizenship, (d) real civilian control of security systems, (e) real economic and political accountability, and above all (f) real democracy, the demonstrators have also been trying to re-claim the enlightened and democratic spirit of authentic Islam itself.

Tragically, the fact that the contemporary Arab world is awash with dictatorial rulers has long been a key piece of evidence used to whip up anti-Arab (and anti-Muslim) sentiment in the West – as if the Arab world had willfully chosen to be ruled by these corrupt and incompetent tyrannies. The rationale goes like this: Surely all those dictators are a living “proof” that Arabs don’t love democracy the way we Westerners do, and that they are culturally, religiously and perhaps congenitally attracted to tyrannical strongmen as leaders.

This widely held view has become increasingly difficult to sustain now that wall-to-wall TV coverage of the uprisings has exposed the truth: Arabs don’t like tyrants anymore than we do. In fact they love democracy – so much so that hundred of thousands of them have been risking their lives to defy regimes which for decades have been leading practitioners of repression and torture of dissidents.

Another truth has also, wittingly or unwittingly, slipped out of the bag: while hated by their own people, Arab dictators, perhaps without any exception, have managed to hold onto power because of the support of Western governments, particularly the United States, Britain and France, whether in the Arabian Peninsula, the Fertile Crescent, the Nile Valley, or North Africa.

As the well-known Canadian journalist Linda McQuaig has recently asserted in a compelling and provocatively titled article on “Arabs love democracy, but do we?” (Toronto Star, February 8/11), “If we want to pinpoint responsibility for the lack of democracy in the Middle East, we might stop trying to find defects in the Arab soul and start looking in the mirror.” The sooner Western support is denied to Arab despotic regimes, the faster and more inevitable their fall will be.

Unfortunately, morality and virtue can be compromised, but, fortunately, historical inevitability cannot. And so that is why regularly we in the West find ourselves holding hands with dictators and repressive regimes while history is marching them out.

History and living reality would suggest: (a) that democracy is more compatible with, and responsive to, human diversity than any other political system; (b) that by its very nature, democracy is not only a “learning by doing” process but also a self-correcting system; and (c) that in order to maintain its vibrancy and sustainability democracy needs structural changes, including an edifice of institutions, civic education, rules and rights, and certainly some “luck” too.  

This is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the emerging democratic movements in the Arab world and beyond. For when we talk about democracy, we are not just talking about elections. To say that democracy is only about elections is like saying you don’t need the whole building if you have the door. Elections tell democracy it is welcome to come in, but elections are only the entrance. Without “home,” that is strong democratic institutions, democracy cannot settle down and flourish easily.

People who are subject in their daily lives to the personal authority or economic power of tribal leaders, large landowners or primal capitalists or the weight of economic deprivation are not especially sensitive to the authority of some civilian or military dictators or junta in the often remote capital of their country. Their freedom of expression is sufficiently circumscribed or defined by the local norms and traditions, as also by poverty and an all-embracing struggle to survive.

Mass illiteracy also contributes greatly to political docility.

If history suggests that the cause of violence and insecurity in the Arab world lies largely in the dictatorial practices that prevail in the region’s politics, it also indicates that democracy is the only remedy. And the most obvious and urgent topic at the beginning of our long road to comprehensive democratization is human rights.

In this respect, the West cannot remain indifferent to gross human rights violations in certain countries while celebrating the rise of democracy elsewhere. It must help the nascent, albeit strong, impulse towards democracy in the Arab world. Success in this field would be a more effective contribution to peace and stability than alliances with despots.  

Dr. Ibrahim Hayani teaches economics at Seneca College and Ryerson University in Toronto.

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