Editorial Real Arab democracy Vs mythical “regional stability”

Public comments casting doubts on the Arab world's readiness for democracy are insulting and silly. As Ceasefire's editor-in-chief, Hich Yezza, argues, It's time to shelve the 'regional stability' myth once and for all.

Editor's Desk - Posted on Saturday, February 5, 2011 0:00 - 8 Comments

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By Hicham Yezza

As an Arab, and an activist, the past few weeks have proven to be some of the most moving and exhilarating moments of my generation. After decades of hope and despair, it seems the iron grip of the Arab authoritarian kleptocracy has been, at long last, irrevocably broken. In every discussion I’ve had with fellow activists (some in Egypt and Tunisia, but also others in many other Arab countries on the cusp of change), one truth is evident: this generation is determined to reclaim, and restore, the legacy of its nation’s revolutionary struggle for independence from colonialism, a legacy spoiled and defiled by decades of dictatorship and repression.

However, one of the less charming aspects of observing the media deluge around the monumental events in Tunisia and Egypt, is the seemingly robotic framing, by people who should know better, of the options facing the ‘West’. Pundit after punditarticle after article, interview after breathless interview, the debate continues to oscillate between two choices: ‘democracy for untested Arabs’, on the one hand, and a vague, near-mystical notion called “stability in the region” on the other.

Of course, the very idea that freedom is something the West grants to carefully-selected, less enlightened Untermenschen, whilst being astonishingly patronising, is hardly new to anyone with a passing knowledge of Imperialist history. After all, women, black people and countless groups from the ranks of the oppressed have all been told, at some point or other in the not-too-distant past, that they too needed to earn their right to be equal. For decades, seriously-taken men solemnly pontificated in “civilized” circles about whether other quasi-human groups were “ready” to be “invited”, amidst concerns that granting them equal rights could lead to unspeakable catastrophes.

Paul Valery memorably called politics “the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them.” For millions of Arabs, it has been very revealing to see many Western pundits and politicians publicly, and in all seriousness, agonise over the seemingly tricky conundrum of “allowing” Arabs to take control of their own destinies, and whether this incredible act of generosity might turn out to be a mistake if, heaven forbid, the lucky candidates prove to be unworthy recipients by electing the ‘wrong’ leaders.

Over the past few days, the inalienable right of eighty million Egyptians (and a quarter billion Arabs) to have a say in their own lives has been routinely dismissed as a mere geo-political consideration that ought not to distract from the bigger, more pressing calculus of realpolitik-inspired “stability”. Take, for instance, the calls by Barack Obama, Tony Blair, Hilary Clinton and others, for something called an “orderly transition” in Egypt that would, conveniently enough, allow Mubarak to hold on to power for a few more months. Egyptians are being asked to wait for their freedom until the US says they can have it (or, according to realpolitik-inspired cynics, until a suitably-pliant replacement is ready).

As to the much-vaunted regional “stability” (apparently under threat from the horrid prospect of ordinary Egyptians getting involved in their own affairs,) to call the notion Orwellian is to combine cliché with understatement. Indeed, whilst the regional elites and their Western patrons have been enjoying the fruits of “stability”, generations of ordinary Arabs have been subjected to half a century of quasi-pathological state brutality, institutional thuggery, systemic corruption, a crushing denial of basic rights of expression, communication, travel, and protest; not to mention entire generations of youths condemned to lives of abject misery and pointlessness, as well as millions of women infantilised and brutalised by a combination of patriarchy and bureaucracy.

Make no mistake, these are not distant, occasional aberrations dotted sparingly across national timelines, but hourly occurrences, to this very day, taking place, to varying degrees, across most of the Arab world. They are not sporadic excesses committed by errant foot soldiers but constitute the very Modus Operandi of entire systems of power, and inform their survival mechanisms. This is the “stability” the US and its allies are scrambling to safeguard. And to defend it as some sort of venerable achievement is to add insult to the injuries of its dozens of millions of victims.

And yet, these obvious truths have hardly featured in official pronouncements. Instead, we keep hearing the same feverish tropes about the horrific ‘void’ that departing authoritarian relics might be leaving behind and how it might present a ripe target for an opportunistic grab by the Islamist bogeyman. The same goes for the oft-repeated “concern” about whether Arabs (despite some mysterious genetic defect, the tone often seems to imply) have the necessary civil society “structures” and “traditions” to sustain a steady transition towards democracy. Whilst it is no doubt legitimate to discuss the technical modalities of how such a transition can take place (and it might surprise some to know that many in the Arab world have been doing just that for years now), it is ludicrous to assume that Arabs are somehow inherently incompatible with democracy.

Let us not forget that almost every single internal Arab uprising against dictatorship and injustice, since the 1950s, has ultimately failed because, more often than not, the West chose to cover its eyes with one hand while supplying the weapons of repression with the other. Indeed, the Arab population is in such dire straits, economically and civilisationally, because its attempts to break free had been systematically and ruthlessly crushed for so long, and not the other way round.

It should no longer be acceptable to peddle, or take seriously, the line that Arabs cannot be left to their own devices because they would invariably make a mess of it. Ultimately, a prosperous and peaceful Middle East must be seen as the crowning result, not the first condition, of the Arab populations reclaiming their right to take part in their own affairs. The time for political calculations at their expense must end now.

Hicham Yezza is editor-in-chief of Ceasefire.

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8 Comments

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Bobby
Feb 4, 2011 3:41

Such a powerful piece, I could quote every paragraph as a nail being hit on the head.

Revolution!

Jamie
Feb 6, 2011 1:43

brilliant.

Antonio
Feb 7, 2011 20:37

The most appalling aspect of this article is not its infatuation with popular uprisings or its disturbing cult of victimhood, but its surprising failure to address the issues of Arab democracy and regional stability in the Middle East. After reading it, we are left wondering why the recent protests in Egypt against the dictatorial rule of Mubarak should automatically result in “Real Arab Democracy”. It’s even more difficult to find an explanation of the author’s claim that stability in the Middle East, a legitimate concern for the world, is a myth.

As an African, I would like to caution against the infatuation with popular uprisings. Modern History of Africa teaches us that the wave of mass protests against colonialism didn’t result in the foundation of democratic political systems, but brought a new kind of indigenous dictatorial regimes. Therefore, the assumption of a straightforward causal relation between popular uprising and democracy is a founding myth of political romanticism. After all, Mubarak remains first and foremost a product of the oppressive militaristic state put in place by such a popular figure as Nasser.

As an Eastern European, I would like to warn against the dangers of a chaotic transition to democracy. An absence of law and order can easily result in a reversal of democratic gains. The authoritarian regimes in place in Russia and Belarus illustrate almost perfectly this concern. We should remember that Putin gained enormous popularity by denouncing the chaos of the 1990s, a by-product of the infamous “shock therapy”. Lukashenko won the first democratic presidential elections in 1994 by capitalizing on corruption. Therefore, the assumption of a benign change from dictatorship to democracy is another founding myth of political romanticism.

With those historical experiences in mind, we can easily explain the concerns of Western pundits and politicians about a precipitous regime change in Egypt. However, it’s hard to understand the claim that leaders of Western democracies, where Arab immigrants are granted democratic rights, wouldn’t like to see Arab countries becoming democracies. As a democrat, I embrace the struggle for democracy in every country but I also worry about its potential limits. After all, the 2003 invasion of Iraq is a regrettable product of the American democracy.

Stability and security in the Middle East are not only concerns for the West but also, for the entire world. Will a democratic Egypt repeal the peace treaty with Israel? Will it continue its fight against Islamism in the region? Such questions are legitimate and merit serious consideration. The time for political romanticism at the expense of realism must end now.

med ali
Feb 7, 2011 22:20

strong echoing words, very good piece

Morgan
Feb 8, 2011 0:13

@Antonio

You ask “Will a democratic Egypt repeal the peace treaty with Israel? Will it continue its fight against Islamism in the region?”. Yes, those are important and legitimate questions. Yes, they merit serious consideration. But they merit the most consideration and concern by the citizens of Egypt. If a democratic Egypt repeals the peace treaty with Israel, then it’s probably because the people of Egypt have good reason to want a change of foreign policy.
It is the Egyptians’ right to decide what their country does, not anyone else’s. The consideration in other countries of Egyptian foreign policy should be to offer advice, and to decide their own responses to what Egypt chooses to do, not to decide what Egypt should do.

You bring up the invasion of Iraq. Should US citizens be stripped of their right to vote because their elected government invaded Iraq? I don’t see that being raised as a serious proposition, and the USA actually has started a war. So why would it be acceptable to deny Egyptian citizens democratic rights on the basis that they might do something?

Antonio
Feb 9, 2011 1:06

@Morgan

No Western political leader has spoken against democracy in Egypt or taken concrete steps to deny Egyptian citizens democratic rights during the recent protests. The only people who ever stood in the way of democratic progress in Egypt are actually Egyptian elites, especially the Egyptian military leadership. Outside the paranoid world of conspiracy theories, democratic leaders, be they from Western countries or not, will be more than happy to deal with fellow democrats at the head of government in Egypt. Raising concerns about possible negative democratic outcomes doesn’t equate to denying democratic rights in a country. During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Al Jazeera was preoccupied with the potential return to power of neoconservatives. Was Qatar in the business of denying American citizens democratic rights? Obviously, not.

Tom
Feb 10, 2011 12:03

“The only people who ever stood in the way of democratic progress in Egypt are actually Egyptian elites, especially the Egyptian military leadership.”

Rubbish. When you have the controlling interests of the wealthiest economy on the planet plying the Egyptian government with billions of dollars over several decades how can that be considered non-intervention? The batons, tanks and tear gas being used in Cairo might as well have the stars and stripes printed on them.

“Outside the paranoid world of conspiracy theories, democratic leaders, be they from Western countries or not, will be more than happy to deal with fellow democrats at the head of government in Egypt.”

Rubbish. If that is the case why do Western governments such as those in the U.S. and Britain go out of their way to destabilise and overthrow “democratic” regimes when they don’t go along with the interests of foreign businesses operating in their territories? Arbenz, Mossadeqh, there isn’t space to name them all here… Zelaya and Aristide are more recent examples and the trend goes back at least as far as the word “democracy” has been in common use.

Antonio
Dec 26, 2012 1:37

It’s official the New Constitution sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood was passed in Egypt. And now I’m having a good laugh at the stupidity of this article and its supporting comments. I wouldn’t be surprised if you still believe in the Mayan end of world theory.

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