In democracy’s name dictators rule

Gulf News, November 16, 2005

A US sponsored international conference on democracy in the Middle East ended last week without a final agreement because one of America’s closest allies, Egypt, insisted on retaining control over the pace and method of democratisation.

The Forum for the Future, a joint US-European initiative launched at the 2004 G8 summit hosted by President Bush, is part of the Bush administration’s plans for promoting democracy in the Islamic world. But the authoritarian governments that receive massive amounts of aid from the US do not want democracy, especially if democratisation involves encouraging nongovernmental organisations and civil society.

As Egypt, which accounts for more than half the Arab world’s population and is the second-largest recipient of US aid, demonstrated at the Bahrain meeting of the Forum for the Future last week, Muslim dictators want to control the democratisation process and would love to get more American money in the name of building democracy.

Officially, of course, Egypt neither objected to democracy nor to fostering civil society. It spoke in the name of national sovereignty and its officials emphasised that peace in the Middle East must precede full democracy. From North Africa to Pakistan, such arguments have always been the grounds for potentates to thwart real change in the way their countries are governed.

Slogans of “Palestine before democracy” or “Kashmir before normalisation” enable America’s authoritarian allies to carry on business as usual. For its part, Washington knows the game but continues to play along.

Even after the setback at the Forum for the Future in Bahrain, US officials were muted in their criticism of the rulers they finance. For the sake of stability in the region, the US is willing to pursue a dichotomous policy. It keeps on defining democratisation as its priority but refuses to condemn those that obstruct its democratisation agenda, namely the Muslim potentates Washington trusts with ensuring stability.

The US government repeatedly makes the mistake of defining as “moderate” those authoritarian Muslim rulers who fulfil America’s foreign policy goals. These strategic American allies are not the force for ideological moderation that would change the Muslim world’s longer term direction.

Authoritarian governments in the Muslim world do not want democracy as that would amount to the potentates giving up their power. It is the democratic movements opposed to governments in the Muslim world who are likely to be the real engines of social and political change in the Middle East and South Asia.

American officials must recognise the contradiction in their simultaneous support for democracy and dictatorial Muslim regimes. For example, Mali is the only Muslim country described by Freedom House as “free” based on its adherence to all criteria for freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. But Mali is not a major recipient of Western aid, whereas Egypt and Pakistan characterised by Freedom House as “not free” or “partly free”, are.

While the governments drag their feet on reform, ordinary Muslims continue to take brave steps to prove that despite all odds civil society in the Muslim world has both vision and the potential to initiate real change. Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani rape victim with little education and no prior exposure outside her village, has become an international advocate for the rights of Muslim women oppressed by tribal customs.

An ordinary Palestinian family has recently demonstrated the kinder, gentler side of Islam through action, succeeding where Muslim leaders and intellectuals have generally failed in recent years. Esmail and Abla Khatib donated the organs of their 12-year old son, who was killed mistakenly by the Israeli military on the day of Eid Al Fitr, to be transplanted to any Israeli awaiting an organ donor. “It didn’t matter to me whether they were Jewish, Muslim or Christian,” Ismail Khatib later told reporters. The Khatibs did not join the long list of Palestinian parents who, upon losing one child in war, pledge their other sons’ “martyrdom” in suicide operations.

The Khatib family of Jenin demonstrated that violence and hatred are not the only way of dealing with humiliation and helplessness.

If the US is serious about transforming the Muslim world, it must embrace people like the Khatibs and the hundreds of thousands of believers in peace and democracy among ordinary Muslims.
Muslim rulers, who have created the problem of intolerance in the Muslim world in the first place, cannot bring the enlightenment or moderation that President Bush claims is his goal for the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims.