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The Problem with Western Democracy in the ME

The Problem with Western Democracy in the Middle East

By Ramzy Baroud

An online poll was recently carried out by the Arabic website of Aljazeera satellite television, where well over 80 percent of voters said that they distrust ''Western democracy''. The poll results simply restated the obvious. The query, of course, hardly meant to question "Western democracy" in its own right, but rather its imposition on the Arab world.

Needless to say, one needs no poll, scientific or otherwise, to conclude that the majority of Arabs are in desperate need of democratic measures. But they need democracy for their own sake, not for the sake of one who wishes to legitimize an occupation and to tout the virtues of a superpower.

If Aljazeera tested its readers' views on democracy, as a model without the word "Western" trotting along, the overwhelming votes would have most likely been cast in favor of democracy, that honorable value first coined by the ancient Greeks as "citizenry rule".

Arabs covet democracy because they are disenfranchised and have very little control over their individual as well as collective destiny. But most Arabs find it difficult to make a choice, between the governance of theocratic and totalitarian regimes on the one hand, and a foreign-imposed, spurious democracy, which they perceive as a US invention to justify meddling in their affairs, on the other. The choice would be difficult for anyone, and it is anything but fair.

Despite President George W. Bush's constant exhortations that he too wishes to set the Arab masses free, his words resonate nowhere in the Middle East, save Israel for its own tactical reasons. For ordinary Arabs, Bush is simply a hypocrite; for the politically savvy, the man's messianic mission is a frenzied attempt to put a face on his corporate and militant drive for wealth and power.

Most Arabs see the paradox of Western democracy in practice, both in the West and in their region. In fact, they live the paradox.

If you find yourself engaged in a heated political conversation with an Arab person - and most likely you will with the first one you meet - you would be surprised to learn of their deep admiration for Western democracy in its own Western hemisphere. You'll hear of fantastic, often exaggerated stories, of the freedom enjoyed by Western societies, freedoms that not many Arab countries can match, not by a long shot.

But the wheel of Western democracy either grinds to a halt or completely changes course and momentum once it reaches the Middle East; the values, the style and the goals becomes different, even though much of the rhetoric remains constant and unchanged.

Thus, Arabs are very suspicious of "Western democracy" vis-à-vis their own region. This distrust can hardly be explained in cultural terms - the Arab culture is not essentially cynical. The empirical encounters however, are more than enough to cultivate such a determined and steady level of skepticism.

"Democracy is a form of government under which the power to alter structure of government and laws lie, ultimately with the citizenry," one definition reads.

Democracy "is a government by the people in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system," states another, quoted by the US Department of State website.

Need one invoke Abraham Lincoln's famous phrase that democracy is a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people," to further stress the point?

But the "people" of the Middle East are hardly the ultimate recipients of "Western democracy" as understood by most Arabs and as demonstrated by US actions in the region for nearly half a century.

A prevailing example of this dichotomy is the case of Arafat and Abbas. Late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was elected by a decisive majority in the Palestinian Authority elections, held for the first time in 1996. He lived and died popular among his people. Yet he was undercut and deemed "irrelevant" for embracing a political line, which proved incongruous from an American and Israeli perspective.

His successor, Mahmoud Abbas held a fraction of Arafat's popular support during the man's life and won a less impressive victory in the PA elections following Arafat's death. But Abbas holds a political line that is acceptable to both Israel and the United States. Thus, Abbas' victory has become the standard, which defines what is right and proper, and what is not, as far as democratic conduct is concerned, not just for Palestinians but also for the rest of the Arab world.

This is hardly the first case of this double standard. There was the toppling by the CIA of the first genuine democracy in the Middle East in 1953 - the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and the installing of the pro-US dictatorship of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Since then, the United States has been lending support to the most oppressive regimes as loyal guards to American interests in the region.

By the time this article is published, Iraqi elections will be over and the Bush administration will do its utmost to ensure that the numbers are spun in positive terms: High turnout could mean that Iraqis approve of the US military occupation; low turn out, means the terrorist-espoused culture of fear is overpowering Iraqis and thus the US presence is still required.

That is the definition or type of democracy that Arabs oppose. It's not democracy that they distrust. It is the cynical exploitation of the term for imperial or geostrategic purposes that they oppose.


- Ramzy Baroud is a veteran Arab-American journalist. A regular columnist in many English and Arabic publications, he is a program producer at Aljazeera Satellite Television.

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