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democracy in the middle east

  1. Democracy in the Middle East
    Ariel Natan Pasko
    24 February 2003

    Scorecard: Israel 1, Arab States 0. That about sums it up.

    Israel just had elections recently and three Arab-led parties won 9 seats in the Knesset - Israel´s parliament. Democracy, I was told when I was growing up, was majority rule with respect for minority rights. Israel, more or less qualifies. Let´s take a look at a few other examples.

    Iraq not too long ago had elections and guess what, Saddam Hussein - running unopposed- was elected by 100% of the electorate. Even people in the hospital, ´deep in coma´ came out to vote for him. Same thing for Syria´s Hafez Assad a few years ago, running unopposed, he garnered 99% of the vote. Gee, they sure love those Arab despots, don´t they?

    Take Lebanon for example. Poor thing, they ´invited´ Syria in to ´help´ them during the civil war in 1976, and it never left. Sort of like an obnoxious guest who overstays his visit, not sensing when its time to leave. The Christians in Lebanon feel that way. That´s Syria, well-known ´champion of democracy´, respected member of the UN Security Council, and rapacious occupier of Lebanon in violation of UN Resolution 520 (telling them to get out, I might add).

    Syria, that´s that country run by the Alawis (a heretical offshoot of Shiite Islam), of which Bashir and the rest of the Assad clan are members. Although they make up only 10-12% of the population, about the same amount as Christians, and far fewer than the about 75% Sunni Muslim majority, they rule with an ´iron fist´. The Sunnis might be the majority, but when the now deceased Hafez Assad destroyed a town (Hama 1982) killing 20,000 people, to root out his political opposition (a few hundred members of the Muslim Brotherhood), well hey, so who cares about being a majority, right? Although about 90% of the population is ethnically Arab, with the remainder Kurd, Armenian, and others, Alawi affirmative action proves, minority rights are doing fine in Syria. Democracy is democracy!

    Iraq isn´t much different. It´s run by the Tikritis. Sons of the town of Tikrit, as most everybody whose been following the Iraq adventure probably already knows. Saddam Hussein, his advisors, top Baath party leaders, and most military and security leaders all come from there, a town of about 100,000 out of a country of 23 million. Talk about a company town, this one´s a town-run country. Saddam and his cronies are Sunni Muslims, that make up only about 35% of the population, in contrast to the about 62% Shiite majority of Iraq. Minority rights win again.

    Or look at Jordan, that well-known ´modern´ Middle East kingdom. Parliament was suspended and political parties were banned for over three decades. Political parties were first re-legalized in 1992. After years of promised ´creeping democratization´ under the now deceased King Hussein (friend of Yitzhak Rabin, ´peace´ and formerly, builder of latrines in Eastern Jerusalem out of Jewish gravestones), his son the enlightened, western educated King Abdullah II (who became king in 1999), suspended parliament in June 2001. Elections have been postponed ever since. Over 100 emergency regulations (i.e. anti-democratic laws) have been enacted, including the suspension of press freedoms. But, don´t worry, everything´s been done according to the constitution. Right?

    The ruling Hashemite Dynasty, I remind you, decedents of Abdullah I, are natives of the Hejaz, not Transjordan. The Saud family booted them out in the early part of the 20th century. So, they moved to the Palestine Mandate area and, under British perfidy, established a new kingdom in Transjordan.

    Then there´s Egypt, a nice place, as long as you´re not a Coptic Christian. For over 50 years, Egypt has been ruled by only three presidents. Nasser and Sadat were members of the Free Officers Movement revolt of 1952. Mubarak was Sadat´s vice president from the National Democratic Party that Sadat established in 1977. In Egyptian democracy, the president is nominated by the NDP dominated People´s Assembly, and then ratified (unchallenged) by popular referendum. Mubarak was re-elected in 1999 by about the same amount, 95%, as he´s ´won´ for three previous 6-year terms. Surprised?

    Elections might not be all that free in Egypt, but there is plenty of media freedom. That is, for anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing, all in violation of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. But what can you do, democracy is democracy.

    Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and several North African states don´t even try to pretend. They are honest in their opposition to western-style government. Usually taking the position that democracy, pluralism, and tolerance is alien to their Arabic cultures and Islamic inclinations.

    All joking aside, with the upcoming war (if it takes place), the United States is promising a ´regime change´ and a democratization process in Iraq. The Bush Administration wants to promote democracy throughout the Middle East; it just dedicated $145 million to a project called the Middle East Partnership Initiative. President Bush, for example, has called for democratic reforms in the Palestinian Authority before statehood. Taking the cue, Syria has recently publicized a withdrawal, ´cosmetic redeployment´ to some, of troops in Lebanon. Even Saudi Arabia has hinted that after another Gulf War, reform is on the way. But for some thinkers in the US, the real question being debated is whether the US should forcibly export democracy to the Middle East, instead of waiting for the Arab regimes to institute it on their own.

    There are plenty of minorities in the Arab world, North Africa and the Middle East that await real democracy. There are Lebanese who suffer daily occupation under a vicious Syrian regime. There are Kurds throughout the Middle East and Assyrians in Iraq, who aspire to independence. There are Berbers (the pre-Arab indigenous population) in North Africa, who after 11 centuries still resist Arabization. There are Christians in Egypt, who are attacked by Islamic radicals and persecuted. There are Christians and Animists in the Sudan, who resist slavery or Islamicization. And so on and so on, all are non-Arab or non-Muslim minorities, who long for the United States to bring regime change to their area, too (see Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression, by Mordechai Nisan, and The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam, by Bat Ye´or, to get a better sense of the problems).

    Which brings us to the most serious measure of how committed to democratic reform in the Middle East anyone is, the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Quartet (United States, EU, UN, and Russia) is promoting a ´roadmap´ to peace, with the promise of Palestinian statehood. Recently, their Task Force on Palestinian Reform met in London, but only the US has been demanding any real democratic reforms in the Palestinian Authority, and only half-heartedly, at that. The Europeans seem to be more interested in financial accountability for their aid money than democratic political reform in the PA.

    According to ´global common knowledge´, Jewish ´settlements´ in the ´West Bank and Gaza´ will have to be abandoned, and Jews transferred, voluntarily or forcibly, back to the new borders of the State of Israel.

    I ask a simple question: Why?

    Ethnic cleansing has been condemned throughout the 1990s. Bosnia´s power sharing government is a case in point. After the breakup of Yugoslavia and the war that followed, the EU, NATO and the US did not help to establish an exclusively Muslim state in Bosnia, but one where Croats and Serbs were included. The 4th Geneva Convention (meant to protect residents from forced expulsion) was adopted after World War II, with the Holocaust in mind. How could the US or Europeans be thinking of making parts of the historic Jewish homeland Judenrein?

    If the Palestinian state in the making is to claim the mantle of democracy, then no better test of its tolerance of minorities would be the granting of citizenship to Jews who would choose to remain in their towns, villages, and homes in Judea and Samaria (the ´West Bank´), and Gaza. Without extending full, equal rights and privileges to Jews in Palestine, including the possibility to be elected to parliament and serve in the Palestinian government - rights Arab citizens of Israel have - democracy and peace become empty expressions.

    So what will it be? Are we going to stop hearing calls for the closing down of Jewish ‘settlements’, that is, Jewish cities, towns and villages? Are we going to stop hearing calls for the expulsion of several hundred thousand Jews from their homes? Or will we now know, that ‘regime change’ and ‘democracy in the Middle East’ are just empty slogans bereft of all meaning?
    Ariel Natan Pasko, an independent analyst and consultant, has a Master´s Degree in International Relations & Policy Analysis. His articles appear regularly on numerous news/views and think-tank websites, in newspapers, and can be read at www.geocities.com/ariel_natan_pasko.

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