The Road to Democracy in the Arab World

By Uriya Shavit

Liberalism has deep roots in the Middle East, if we know where to look.

The demise of the edifice of Soviet communism in the early 1990s led to a conceptual swing in Arab societies. Not only was the West restored to its post-World War I status as an unrivaled military and economic force in the Middle East, but so, too, did liberal democracy revert to what it was at the beginning of the century in the region: A form of government with universal pretensions.

The significance of these developments was not lost on many Arab intellectuals. At the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, discussions on the universality of liberal democracy proliferated in Arab countries. Some intellectuals even dared to state openly that in the post-Soviet world, Arab countries must also go the way of liberal democracies, since the fall of communism had provided definitive proof that there are no grounds for the Arab regimes’ pretense to being a link between “social democracy” (an equal social order) and “political democracy,” in the same way that there are no grounds for the pretense of delaying democratic reforms in the name of creating “true” democracy. These intellectuals insisted that the type of democracy practiced in the West is the only type worth practicing, and is furthermore a condition for becoming an advanced and free country. Despite bitter past experience, they demanded that the Western model of democracy be adopted in Arab countries, with no excuses, and without delay.10

Determined calls for democratization and liberalization following the demise of communism came not only from academic circles of independent Arab intellectuals, however. Soon, they had infiltrated into the pages of newspapers under strict government supervision. Several articles published in the Saudi paper Al-Riyadh in the summer of 1989, for example, vehemently attacked the false democracy practiced in the Arab and Third Worlds, as well as the view that liberal democracy is unique to the West. One article angrily wondered why the Arab world persists in thinking that, at best, Western democracy may be viewed from a distance, “just as one views from a distance ice-skating rinks, Big Ben, the Canadian waterfalls, voyages into space, and the lakes in Regent’s Park.”11

True, the awakening of the idea of liberalism among Arab intellectuals must be viewed in context. The number of intellectuals who spoke up in favor of adopting liberal democracy was extremely small, and they lacked the audacity to lead the struggle themselves. They believed in following the example set by the “solidarity” movements, yet none of them saw themselves as a Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel. Thus, the debate they prompted did not lead to the establishment in any Arab country of an institutionalized movement that put the question of democracy at the top of its agenda. They were the standard-bearers, but they had no followers.

Yet, despite its weaknesses, the debate among reformist intellectuals on the question of the universality of liberal democracy posed a new challenge to the political order in the Middle East. Some of these thinkers linked the collapse of the Soviet bloc to the failure of the Arab regimes’ political rhetoric, and concluded that these regimes were destined to follow ignominiously in communism’s footsteps. Moreover, these reformist thinkers translated America’s triumphalist stance into Arab terms: Like Francis Fukuyama, they, too, asked Arabs to view liberal democracy as a system of government suitable to all of humanity, and entreated them to ignore its Western roots. And like Fukuyama, they also assumed that with the collapse of communism, the last serious ideological alternative to liberal democracy had vanished.

The re-awakening of the idea of liberalism in the Arab world was short-lived, however, for in the summer of 1990, everything changed. In August, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States assembled an international coalition on Saudi soil to counter Saddam Hussein’s aggression. In Hussein’s rapid defeat, the Arabs witnessed the total military superiority of the West over their region’s strongest army.

In the eyes of many Arab intellectuals—among them even those who had been calling for political reform in the Arab world—the Gulf War served as a warning of the dangers the post-Soviet future posed to their nations and culture. Not merely a confrontation between countries, but rather the beginning of a wholesale clash of two civilizations, a struggle whose true cause is the desire of the West to quash Arab power and eradicate the very possibility of the existence of an opposing force.

Arab thinking about the war, then, ran toward an anxiety that the West would once again seek to impose its interests and values on the Arab nations, just as it had done after World War I. Thus did many Arab intellectuals infer the objective of the Gulf War from its outcome: Since the war had ended in a hard blow to the Arab state with the strongest army and an enlargement of the Western military presence in the Arab state richest in oil, then that must have been its purpose from the start. Many went so far as to describe the war as a Western conspiracy whose true goal was the realization of the vision outlined by President George Bush, Sr. of a “new world order” defined as global American hegemony and the return of the Middle East to Western-imperialistic rule.12

In the months after the war, this view began to dominate debates on democratic reforms in Arab states and most Arabs rejected the possibility of adopting the Western model of democracy, or even the very idea that the West might serve as a source of political inspiration.13 The Arab regimes were all too happy to encourage this point of view, despite the fact that many of them had been either active or passive partners in the American coalition during the war. By means of this paradigm, they were able to justify their determination to preserve the existing political order and prevent the democratization processes that had occurred in other parts of the world. These regimes presented a series of arguments that found a ready audience among the Arab public: The West, in the guise of promoting democracy, is in fact trying to paint the world in its colors, and as such is acting in an entirely undemocratic way; if the Arabs are tempted into believing Western slogans, they will forfeit their religious, cultural, and economic assets, and abandon their families to the degeneration and permissiveness that mark Western culture; and finally, those Arab intellectuals who portray liberal democracy as a universal form of government forget the disaster that the liberal age wrought upon the Arab world at the beginning of the century.

It was thus in March 1992 that King Fahd, the politically conservative and religiously observant ruler of Saudi Arabia, stated that, “The democratic system prevailing in the world does not suit us in the region, for our people’s composition and traits are different from the traits of that world. We cannot import the way in which other peoples deal [with their own affairs] in order to apply it to our people.”14 During the same month, the president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, declared at his inauguration ceremony that “Each nation has its own heritage and history, and consequently, its own culture, soul, concepts, and manners. If this were not so, our world would have been one nation, and this is not the case… even in Arab countries, you will find someone who talks about democracy and has in mind only one picture which he likes because he did not search, within himself, for any other picture.”15

The Gordian knot that ensnared the question of Arab democracy after World War I had therefore tightened considerably by the beginning of the 1990s. Just as the West was once again depicted as both liberator and conqueror, problem and solution, so, too, was liberal democracy identified with the danger the United States and its allies posed to Arab culture and autonomy.

On the fringes of this development, Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist movement began to grow almost unnoticed, first at the intra-Saudi level, and later as a group with widespread Islamic pretensions. Bin Laden adopted entirely and used for the purposes of armed jihad the paradigm that described a clash between the predatory West and the Muslims struggling for their independence, and he sought to translate it into practical and militaristic terms. He exhorted the Arabs to launch a counterattack, preferably on Western soil.16 There is no small amount of irony in the fact that it was ultimately Bin Laden’s actions that once again raised the question as to the suitability of Western forms of government to the Arab world.

The September 11 terror attacks became the catalyst for a new American doctrine concerning the Middle East: Despite the claims of renowned Western orientalists and Arab rulers alike, there is nothing special about Arab societies that prevents them from becoming democratic. Once again, however, this doctrine conflicted with the view of democracy held by much of the Arab world.

Drawing its inspiration from the thinking of second-generation neo-conservatives (primarily members of the Project for the New American Century),17 this new doctrine was based on four principles. First, it defined liberal democracy as a form of universal governance, suitable for all societies regardless of their culture or religion. Second, it renounced, at least rhetorically, American policy from the beginning of the cold war, which condoned alliances with unelected Arab regimes in hopes of promoting stability in the Middle East. Third, it proposed an analogy between the processes that led to the democratization of postwar Germany and Japan and of the Soviet bloc starting in the late 1980s, and those destined to bring about the democratization of the Middle East. Fourth, it defined the democratization of the Middle East as an American national interest and the best guarantor of eliminating Islamic terrorism, and called for a proactive policy of democracy promotion.18

It was on the basis of this doctrine that the United States went to war in Iraq in 2003, and so too did this doctrine serve as the basis for the establishment, in December 2002, of the “Middle East Partnership Initiative,” and eighteen months later (together with the other industrialized nations) of the “Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa,” both of which were intended to foster political and economic reform in Arab countries. 

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