The Failure of democracy in the Middle East

By Farhang Jahanpour

The terrible events in Egypt, especially the massacre of thousands of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, have not only marked the failure of Arab Uprisings, especially in the most important and the most populous Arab country, they have also revealed the lukewarm attitude and even the hypocrisy of many people in the democratic West towards the whole concept of democracy and representative government.

First of all, it is important to point out that democracy is not the same as majority rule. Many Middle Eastern rulers, including former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and right-wing Israeli politicians, believe in a winner-take-all philosophy and imagine that just because a group or a party has received the largest number of votes in an election it is entitled to rule the way that it wants and ignore the wishes of many other sections of society.

Iranian rulers often speak of Islamic democracy and argue that as the majority of Iranians are Muslims, the government must be based on Islamic law, the Shari’a, while many right-wing Israeli politicians want Israel to be an exclusively Jewish state. Other governments that have come to power after having won an election believe that achieving a majority in the election entitles them to rule as they wish.

Of course, here we are not dealing with many governments that are in power on the basis of hereditary monarchy, coup d’états or military rule. Majority rule is only one essential element of democracy, but it basically means nothing without a number of other prerequisites.

Prerequisites of true democracy

The first prerequisite for a true democracy is free expression and free media so that different people and groups can express their views freely and openly, in order for the people to be able to make their choice on the basis of all available views and alternatives. Without freedom of expression the choice will be very limited or non-existent.

The second requirement is the rule of law and having an independent judiciary so that those in power who violate the law may be punished and those who are the victims of oppression can receive justice and have recourse to impartial and independent justice. This is why separation of powers is very important, and it is something that only exists in name in most Middle Eastern countries. One can hardly find an independent judiciary in any Middle Eastern country. Most heads of judiciary are appointed by the government or by the ruler and they often obey their bidding.

The third requirement is equal rights for minorities. In fact, the strength of a democratic government can only be judged on the basis of how it treats its minorities and dissidents, whether these be religious, ethnic, racial or ideological minorities. Again, the treatment of minorities is something that is far from ideal in most Middle Eastern countries. Most Middle Eastern countries do not treat their religious or ethnic minorities equally.

The way the Palestinians are treated in Israel, the Kurds are treated in Turkey, religious minorities, especially the Baha’is, are treated in Iran, etc. shows that those countries have a long way to go before they can be called democratic. Many countries, especially fundamentalist Persian Gulf states, do not even allow other religious minorities to function freely, and even the Muslims who convert to other religions are regarded as apostates, punishable by death.

The fourth requirement is human rights, because in the modern world, since the Second World War when most countries have at least in name accepted the Human Rights Charter, governments are bound by its provisions. No religious, cultural or ethnic mores should overrule the principles of the Charter, because all member-states have accepted the principles of the Charter. Democracy without human rights is meaningless. Various forms of sophistry, speaking about an Islamic concept of human rights, or the primacy of national or religious traditions over universal human rights, have no validity. If any religious, traditional or ethnic principle contradicts the provisions of the Human Rights Charter it has to be rejected and brought into compliance with universal human rights provisions.

The fifth requirement is the equal participation of women in politics and in all aspects of social life. In most Middle Eastern countries, especially those run on the basis of the Shari’a, women are discriminated against and are barred from holding high office, while in some countries they are even prevented from driving, from showing themselves in public, travelling or working without the consent of their male relatives. One cannot speak of democracy while excluding half of society from equal rights.

The sixth requirement of democracy is that people are in charge of their affairs, and they make the laws and legislate. People’s personal religious or ideological views are respected, but they cannot impose them on the society as a whole. Therefore, Islamic democracy, or Christian or Jewish democracy is an oxymoron and does not make any sense.

Traditional religions regarded their scriptures as the word of God, which could not be altered and had to be obeyed, especially according to the narrowest and the most restrictive interpretations of some fundamentalist clerics.

Democracy gives sovereignty to man and it is a matter of interactions between people and communities, while religious beliefs refer to personal, spiritual matters, and the way that man interacts with his deity. The two should not be confused. This is why separation of religion and politics is not a luxury but an essential feature of democracy.

In the light of the above, many Middle Eastern governments, even those that have come to power as the result of elections, fall very short of the ideal and cannot be regarded as true democracies. However, having said all that, it is clear that governments that have come to power as the result of an election are one step ahead of the dictatorships and autocratic regimes.

Egypt – Western lip service to democracy

In that light, the toppling of the Islamist government in Egypt by force is something that should be condemned strongly, and efforts should be made to return to elections and the rule by consent. The Egyptian people took part in a revolution against the former dictatorship, which had been propped up by the military ever since the Egyptian revolution of 1952. What the Egyptians wanted above all else was human dignity (Karama), a voice in their government, and above all an end to arbitrary military rule.

The events of the past few weeks have reversed those gains and have brought Egypt to a very perilous state that may be even worse than was the case under President Mubarak. While paying lip service to democracy, many Western commentators have shown that they do not really believe in democracy. They are in favour of elections only if they produce the results that they desire. Otherwise, the whole process has to be condemned. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon and we have seen many examples of it in the past.

Egypt – a copy of Algeria 20 years ago, of Hamas, of…

The events in Egypt are a copy of what happened in Algeria over two decades ago. Local council elections were held in Algeria on 12 June 1990 and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) swept the board with 54 per cent of the votes. Parliamentary elections were held on 26 Dec 1991 and the FIS won 188 of the 231 seats.

A week later, the army cancelled the election, forced President Chadli Bendjedid to resign, arrested all the FIS leaders, and a state of emergency was declared. The crushing of democracy in Algeria resulted in a reign of terror. The suppression of the FIS gave rise to the formation of the militant Islamic Salvation Army and the clashes between the Army and militant groups resulted in some 200,000 deaths, and eventually in the formation of Al-Qaida in the Maghreb, which is still with us. I am afraid that the coup in Egypt may have the same disastrous consequences.

Palestine – another similarity

Another example is what happened in Palestine. In order to undermine Yasser Arafat, President George W. Bush put pressure on the Palestinians to have nationwide elections, which they did on 25 January 2006, as the result of which Hamas won 76 of the 132 parliamentary seats, to the ruling Fatah’s 45 seats, in a 74.6 per cent turnout.

However, this was not the result that the West had expected. Immediately the results were declared null and void and economic sanctions were imposed on the Palestinians. The then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice started a tour of the Middle East denouncing the results. Many Hamas leaders and members were assassinated or jailed by the Israelis. Hamas was told that they would only be recognized if they recognized Israel. Ismail Haniyyah, the new Hamas Prime Minister, asked: “Which Israel do you want me to recognize? The Israel as defined by the UN Partition Plan, the Israel that came into being after 1948 that occupied additional territories not included in the UN partition, the Israel after 1967 war when Jerusalem and the West Bank were conquered by Israel, or the Greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates? First of all, please tell me what Israel’s boundaries are so that I can tell you if I recognize it or not.”

Unfortunately, that question has not yet been answered.

Westerners embracing the military coup in Egypt

The reaction to the coup in Egypt has followed the same rules. Many Western commentators, especially some members of various Neo-Conservative think thanks that seemingly advocate democracy in the Middle East, have shown that their interpretation of democracy is very limited indeed. The leading neocon champions of democracy have approved of the military coup in Egypt.

In an Orwellian double speak, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, in a column on July 7, wrote: “If democracy is the goal, then the United States should celebrate Egypt’s coup… Rather than punish the perpetrators, Obama should offer two cheers for Egypt’s generals and help Egyptians write a more democratic constitution to provide a sounder foundation for true democracy.”

Frank Gaffney, from the Center for Security Studies, went even further and in an article on July 4th, he wrote: “On the eve of our nation’s founding, Egypt’s military has given their countrymen a chance for what Abraham Lincoln once called ‘a new birth of freedom.”

When the Egyptian revolutionaries were calling for the removal of President Mubarak, the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: “Mubarak is very courageous and a force for good.” When Mubarak was toppled, in a change of tone he predicted: “His fall is a pivotal moment for democracy in Egypt”. After the coup, writing in the Observer, he praised the army and said “the Egyptian army had no alternative but to oust President Morsi from power, given the strength of opposition on the streets.”

Presumably, when his and President George Bush’s popularity was at an all time low, he would have advocated the use of force by the army to remove the unpopular governments, especially given the strength of opposition on the streets to the Iraq war.

The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed strong approval of the Egyptian military’s removal of former President Mohamed Morsi in a statement he made to Pakistan’s Geo News on August 2. Kerry said the military was “restoring democracy” when it ousted Morsi, which he said was at the request of “millions and millions of people.”

However, to his credit, after the terrible massacre, Secretary Kerry strongly has condemned the massacre and has called for an end to the state of emergency as soon as possible. Of course, it would have been better if there had been a stronger denunciation of the coup, which American officials are still reluctant to call it by its proper name, earlier on, because it might have prevented this dreadful massacre. Even at this late hour, a strong condemnation of the coup, the massacre and the state of emergency may prevent similar occurrences in other countries.

The West has to admit that most people in the Middle East have a strong attachment to Islam, in the same way that many people in the West are attached to the so-called “Judeo-Christian” principles. One only has to think of the Religious Right in America, the growing power of Christianity in some East European countries, and the growing strength of Orthodox Jews in Israel.

The only way to prove that Islamist governments fail is to respect the choices of the people and allow the elected governments to prove in practice whether they can govern or not.

Morsi did not do things like this

To his credit, Morsi did not close any newspapers, any political parties, any web sites, or any television stations. He did not imprison opposition leaders.

On the contrary, he freed many political prisoners. However, since the military coup on 3 July, all press and media belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood have been closed down, MB leaders have been put in jail and Morsi has been charged with espionage and inciting violence for not welcoming the coup against him.

These violent military tactics and Western support or acquiescence for them would only make Muslim masses believe that they have no option but to resort to force. If they cannot achieve their rightful position through the ballot box they will have no option but to resort to bullets.

Sadly, this is what is happening in many Middle Eastern countries, and the massacre in Egypt is likely to speed up that process. Until we are prepared to stand by our principles and condemn dictatorship and military rule everywhere, including in the countries that are allegedly our allies, our support for democracy will not be believed and will seem hypocritical. 

This will only result in the alienation of Middle Eastern people from democratic principles and will make the relations between the West and the Muslim world much more acrimonious than they are already.

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