By Gilbert Achcar
THREE recent events have marked the Middle East. The death of
Yasser Arafat on 11 November 2004, followed by the election of
Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the Palestinian Authority on
9 January; a big turnout in the Iraqi elections on 30 January
with the majority of voters taking part; and the assassination
of the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, on 14 February,
which prompted big protests demanding the departure of Syrian
troops from Lebanon and an end to heavy-handed control by Damascus
over Beirut's affairs.
There have been other less important events, such as the municipal
elections in Saudi Arabia - split into three stages from February
to April - and the announcement by Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak,
of a reform of the presidential election. Voters will be able
to choose between several candidates, whereas previously parliament
named a single candidate, subsequently ratified by plebiscite.
The conjunction of these events, hailed by some observers as
an "Arab spring", has prompted considerable interest
in the world press, much of it touchingly naive. Many former critics
of George Bush have seized the opportunity to admit the error
of their ways and acknowledge that his policies produced positive
results after all. His longstanding supporters made no secret
of their satisfaction, nor did Bush and his secretary of state,
Condoleezza Rice. Unfortunately, several stubborn facts contradict
the overall impression. For instance, Arafat, having been democratically
elected by universal suffrage, repeatedly demanded the right to
organise new Palestinian elections. But he was denied that right,
simply because the Palestinians would certainly have elected him
Only massive public mobilisation in January 2004, in response
to a call by the grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, secured the principle
of elections in Iraq. This was a setback for the US administrator,
Paul Bremer, and his masters in Washington, who were determined
to set up a constituent assembly appointed by the US. As for the
opposition's impressive mobilisation in Lebanon, the murder of
Hariri triggered it, not anything Washington did, unless we are
to suppose the US was in some way responsible for the attack.
In the case of US client regimes, such as the Saudi "protected
kingdom" or Egypt, the main recipient of US foreign aid after
Israel (1), pressure from Washington is directly responsible for
reform. But it is a very narrow view of "democratisation"
that boasts of Saudi elections in which only male voters were
asked to choose half the complement of municipal councillors,
the other half being appointed by the monarchy, in a country without
a parliament and where political parties are prohibited. As for
the reform promised by the Egyptian president, it in no way constitutes
a step towards real democracy. The new law, passed by parliament
on 10 May and ratified on 25 May by a referendum condemned by
the opposition, is framed to exclude candidates not approved by
the president in person. To enter the race, candidates must be
sponsored by 250 elected officials, including at least 65 members
of parliament, where Mubarak's National Democratic party holds
412 out of 454 seats.
The region is still far from democracy. The United Nations Development
Programme (UNDP) has just published a devastating report on the
state of freedoms in the Arab countries (2), which focuses on
civil rights in the broad sense, embracing civil and political
liberty, and social, economic, educational and environmental rights.
The latest publication is the third in a series of four (3).
As it did last year, to Washington's continuing discomfort (4),
it singles out Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories
and multinational occupation of Iraq as "hindrances"
to human development in the Arab world. It does, however, place
much of the blame on Arab rulers. Most of them, with authoritarian
or traditional, religion-based, regimes, deny basic rights: freedom
of speech, expression and association. With the extra excuse of
the war on terrorism, repression is all the more severe.
The report describes the lack of democratic legitimacy of most
Arab regimes, which pervert elections and representative bodies
by cheating on the rules of the game. Only rarely does the judiciary
enjoy any real independence from government, and in many cases
it operates exclusively through exceptional courts. Many obstacles
keep opposition parties, when tolerated, on the sidelines of politics.
There is no idea of habeas corpus for the citizens of Arab countries,
nor yet a guarantee of their right to life, caught in the crossfire
between violent extremist groups and government forces unconcerned
about innocent lives. Women and cultural, religious or ethnic
minorities suffer double subjugation, persecution specific to
their group besides general oppression.
"The modern Arab state, in the political sense," the
report says, "runs close to this astronomical model, whereby
the executive apparatus resembles a black hole which converts
its surrounding social environment into a setting in which nothing
moves and from which nothing escapes" (5). With the gradual
loss of forms of traditional or charismatic, religious or nationalist
legitimacy, political life has been stripped of any substance,
leaving a vacuum that organisations of civil society have failed
The report does not restrict itself to describing symptoms. It
also offers diagnosis of the causes of the Arab democratic deficit.
In keeping with a recent comparative international report (6),
it rejects culturalist explanations, rooted in a biased perception
of the Orient, Islam and the "Arab" mindset. The question
of whether Islamic doctrine is compatible with democracy is a
matter of interpretation (7), and many exegeses are actually designed
to suit practices not originally inspired by religion.
The behaviour of global powers in the Arab world is severely
criticised: they care little for promoting democracy - their prime
concerns are oil, the state of Israel and now terrorism. At the
same time the main groups opposing western domination, regardless
of whether they are Islamist or nationalist in inspiration, have
in the past adopted a strictly opportunist line on democratic
liberties. The real or imaginary anti-democratic character of
some Islamist opposition movements is still used to justify the
refusal to organise elections, referred to by the report as the
"the trap of the one-off election".
The status of civil liberties in the Arab world is linked to
the dominant social organisations. The report highlights the survival
of traditions rooted in tribalism and an education system that
inculcates voluntary submission. Together with poverty and increasing
social inequality, they prevent the underprivileged from playing
a part in politics. The rentier mode of production, particularly
in oil-producing countries, means government is not accountable
to tax-paying subjects.
As solutions, the UNDP report mostly offers conventional remedies
to the shortcomings it identifies, advocating political, judicial
and constitutional reform to set up democratic institutions. It
acknowledges that pressure from outside may be a positive factor,
but only if civil rights and popular wishes are upheld in a way
clear of any domineering relationship.
The overall picture is most instructive, even if it contains
little that is really new to those familiar with the Middle East.
The fact that it was published by a UN agency and written by Arab
authors, including several well-known intellectuals, makes it
a valuable tool that Arab democrats can use without running the
usual risk of facing demagogic accusations.
However, the report has its shortcomings, due to the conditions
under which it was produced and because it was published by an
intergovernmental agency. It underestimates the fundamental contribution
of satellite television, in particular the pioneering al-Jazeera
(8), to the emergence of independent Arab public opinion. Its
assessment of the political potential of Arabic-speaking peoples
is consequently excessively gloomy. It is also far too cautious
about religious matters. Whereas separation of religion and state
must be a basic condition of freedom, the report goes so far as
to consider that even if the constitution of a country designates
the sharia (Islamic law) as a basis of legislation this may still
be consistent with human rights.
Above all, the report appeals to governments and their subjects
to implement the necessary changes. To avoid the "impending
disaster" that would follow widespread revolt - which, it
fears, would only lead to civil war - reformers in government
and civil society must negotiate a redistribution of the political
stakes in order to achieve "good governance". Given
the reality of oppression in most Arab countries and the social
make-up of their governments this seems remarkably unlikely.
A report unfettered by institutional constraints would be more
likely to conclude that democratic forces must unite and impose
radical change from below. As history has shown often and recent
events have confirmed, the larger the turnout, the less need for
any bloodshed. It is impossible to consolidate democracy without
a major redistribution of property and income. In the Middle East
there are many patrimonial states where ruling families still
corner a large share of national agricultural and mineral riches.
It is consequently foolhardy to suppose that concerted action
in partnership with segments of the ruling classes will lead to
the lasting establishment of civil liberties and democracy. There
is no more chance of this working than with the absolute monarchies
that once ruled Europe or the bureaucratic dictatorships of the
former Soviet bloc.
But it is a far worse illusion to claim that military intervention
by outside forces, whether followed by occupation or not, may
usher in such change. Iraq is the most glaring example of how
ill-suited the method adopted by Washington is to its stated aims.
The political situation there is deteriorating with worsening
tension crystallising around ethnic and sectarian differences.
The US authorities justify their continuing occupation by claiming
that pulling out the troops would trigger a civil war. But the
longer occupation continues, the more likely it is that their
claim becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moreover, the spectacle
of the chaos into which Iraq is sinking could well discredit the
idea of democracy in Arab public opinion.
What is at issue is not so much whether military occupation is
a valid means of bringing democracy to the Arab world - since
it is demonstrably counter-productive - but whether the Bush administration's
claims of promoting democracy in the region are genuine. The double
standards Washington applies to its relations with Arab regimes
should be enough to convince us that despite all the talk about
a new paradigm in foreign policy, not much has really changed
on the ground (9).
Bush tells us that when he invites the leaders of nations to
his Texas ranch it is a token of his friendship. So the much-publicised
reception of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, including the
spectacle of Bush walking hand-in-hand with him in front of the
press, is surely instructive. Despite the kingdom being one of
the world's most obscurantist regimes with a pitiful record on
women's elementary rights, Washington clearly still sees it as
a key ally. In December 2003 all that the Libyan dictator Muammar
Gaddafi needed to do to regain public acceptance was to let Bush
and Tony Blair announce he was giving up attempts to develop weapons
of mass destruction. Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, Gerhard Schröder
and Jacques Chirac visited Libya soon after.
There is no denying, however, that by kicking the Arab anthill
with the invasion of Iraq, followed by statements on promoting
democracy, as a plausible replacement to destroying WMDs, the
US has further undermined the stability of the region, bringing
to the surface popular discontent, previously stifled by despotic
We are told a wave of democratisation is sweeping through the
Middle East, using formulas already tried and tested in former
fascist states after 1945 and in eastern bloc countries after
1989. But the actual results are far from pleasing to Washington.
The present instability has opened cracks through which various
political forces have slipped, most of which the US sees as cause
for concern or openly hostile.
The death of Arafat, and his replacement by Mahmoud Abbas has
led, for lack of any progress on the Israeli side, to growing
support for Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood
movement. After years of boycotting elections, Hamas has decided
to take part in future votes. In Iraq the elections sidelined
Washington's liege man, the former prime minister Ayad Allawi.
More importantly, they were won by a coalition of parties and
other groups, most of them Shia Muslims, and fundamentalists to
boot, more sympathetic to Tehran than to Washington. The show
of force by Hizbullah demonstrators in Lebanon fuelled mostly
fanciful fears (see The limits on Shia power, page 8) shared by
the US and its Sunni allies, that a Shia crescent is forming from
Lebanon to Iran, through Syria's "Alawite regime" and
Even the Mubarak regime in Egypt has had to face a wave of demonstrations
led by rejuvenated opposition groups. Mostly dominated by the
Muslim Brotherhood (as in Jordan and Syria), they are taking their
cue from events in Iraq and Lebanon. At the heart of the modern
school of directly political Islamism, the famous brotherhood
has decided to launch a region-wide political offensive to take
advantage of the instability to which Washington contributed so
much deliberately and, even more, involuntarily.
Confronted with the alarming results of its own policy the Bush
administration, encouraged by Saudi Arabia but much to the disgust
of US neoconservatives, is trying to limit the damage by seeking
contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, now presented as moderate
Islamists, a term not much heard in the White House for some years
(11). Once again, the US is playing the unhappy part of sorcerer's
apprentice to the Middle East
Note: This article is republished with authors permission. It
originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.