The Quest for Democracy

Gulf News, March 9 , 2005

Several recent developments indicate that President George W. Bush’s vision of democracy for the Muslim world may not be as far-fetched as it appears to the US president’s critics. Multi-candidate presidential elections have been held in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. Iraq has elected a transitional National Assembly, which will draw up the country’s constitution.

Mass demonstrations in Lebanon have forced the resignation of the country’s pro-Syrian government. Syria now appears willing to phase out its military presence in Lebanon. Stirrings of democracy have also been visible in several bastions of authoritarian rule where authoritarianism has hitherto been backed by Washington.

Saudi Arabia has held local government elections though franchise was restricted to men and political parties were not allowed. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has announced his willingness to hold a multi-candidate presidential election after wielding power for 24 years.

Kuwaiti women have held a demonstration to demand the right to vote. Are authoritarian dominos about to fall and is a wave of democracy sweeping the greater Middle East, the region from Morocco to Pakistan? Maybe. But there are still many obstacles to be overcome.

The desire of the people in Muslim countries for democracy is overwhelming. But in most cases Muslim elites the economic beneficiaries of authoritarian rule have argued against democracy. The United States was viewed as being on the side of Muslim dictators in the past. President Bush’s calls for democracy, backed by military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as political intervention in the Palestinian territories, have encouraged dormant democratic movements in the region to resurface.

Momentous change

The momentum for democratisation might be lost, however, if the United States push for change is selective. If Washington accepts “baby steps” from its friendly dictators while demanding complete transformation elsewhere, the greater Middle East would be denied the momentous change of the sort experienced in Eastern Europe after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.

Take Saudi Arabia’s local elections and Mubarak’s promise of a contested presidential election. Several Middle Eastern (and Pakistani) regimes have used local elections in the past to create the illusion of a phased transition to democracy. But, while local elections have been projected as the first step towards democracy they have often not been followed by other steps.

It has taken Mubarak 24 years to agree to a multi-candidate presidential election, but there is no sign that he would provide his critics a level playing field in challenging his rule. Even as Mubarak announced his plans for amending the constitution through a rubber stamp parliament, which might water down his promise, opposition leader Ayman Nour of the newly formed Al Ghad (Tomorrow) Party remained imprisoned.

The quest for freedom, rule of law and the right to choose leaders at constitutionally mandated intervals is a global phenomenon. If the Muslim world has not been able to build democracies, it is not because the people of Muslim countries did not want it.

The dynamic of international relations, the Cold War interplay of superpowers with each supporting its own preferred dictators which has continued until now is partly to blame for the Muslim world’s inability to join the global trend towards democratic governance.

Even now in the case of certain countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, the weight of the United States is behind dictatorship and not with democratic forces.

Soon after Mubarak’s promise of a contested election, former US ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner wrote in The Washington Post that Egypt’s transition to democracy should be gradual so that stability is maintained. There was no acknowledgement of the fact that Mubarak has been in power for 24 years and if he had genuinely been committed to gradualism, Egyptian democracy would have moved somewhat forward.

In the case of Pakistan, there is a tendency among US officials to compare its governance with Middle Eastern dictatorships than with South Asian democracies. US ambassador to Islamabad, Ryan C. Crocker, a former ambassador to Syria, would probably consider Pakistan a free country in comparison with Baathist totalitarianism.

Musharraf’s military regime has, by all accounts, several positive accomplishments to its credit. But Pakistan under Musharraf is not a democracy and the general must be nudged by the United States towards a clearly worked out plan for moving Pakistan to the same level of democracy as is practised across its eastern border in India.

That said, it is also important to note that the momentum for democracy depends only partly on external factors. The United States cannot support democracy in countries where at least some citizens do not take the risk of demanding freedom.

In Egypt and some other Arab countries, repression is so strong that democratic movements have simply been unable to overcome tyranny. In Pakistan, democratic political parties have allowed the military and the intelligence services to define them instead of defying the military regime and mobilising their people.