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The Mirage of Arab Democracy
April 2008
 
 
Arab democracy is fantasy. Democratic ideology cannot defeat Islamic theology.

Notwithstanding that Arab rule is tribal, corrupt, and mired in favoritism and nepotism it is significant that Arab rulers typically stay in office until death, be it natural or resulting from a military coup.  No Arab king or president, however, spares an opportunity, to display the loyalty of his subjects. While the presidents conduct stage-managed referendums in which they consistently manage to achieve near 100% approvals, the monarchs draw mile-long queues of happy-looking men on every national and religious occasion to demonstrate their people’s allegiance. Are such shows indicative of true approval, or devoid of genuine support?
       
Regardless of the contrived appearance of these demonstrations, a degree of real support for Arab rulers does exist. It is impossible to falsify every ballot and force every subject to hail the king. When the presidents of Egypt and Yemen allowed contested presidential elections on September 7, 2005 and September 20, 2006; respectively, the former gained a fifth term with 88.6% of the votes cast, hardly different from his four previous uncontested referendums, and the latter won 77.2% majority, after 28 years of rule.

Representative democracy is not a natural choice for most Arabs. Obedience to hierarchical Islamic authority is. Obedience is at the heart of Ulama's teaching. In the Arab home, school, mosque, work place, and the nation at large a culture of blind obedience to autocracy prevails. Poverty, illiteracy, and ill health, together with a fatalistic belief in predestination make the masses politically quietist, save for small minorities of Jihadists on the one hand and Western influenced professional activists on the other. It should be noted that the Shiite partisans of Ali have been rebellious against the religious and temporal order of Sunni rulers since the early Islamic state. Obedience here, therefore, refers to the obedience of the adherents of a specific sect to the rulers of their own sect.

Curiously, Muslim, but non-Arab countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey, together representing almost two thirds of world Muslims, conduct democratic elections and allow female prime ministers and presidents. Obviously, these non-Arab Muslims have a more relaxed attitude to Islamic dogma than Arabs do. Why is the political persona of the Arab masses quietist?

First, the masses fear the security forces.

Secondly, the masses worry that change could result in a worse ruler.

Thirdly, the influence of Islam is strong on the Arab peoples. The Quran describes them as the “best nation evolved to mankind” (3:110). The Prophet, His Companions, the Quran, and the Sanctuaries in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem are all Arabic. Arabs feel they are the guardians of an Arabic religion. Additionally, political frustrations during the past half-century over U.S. policies in the Middle East and Israeli humiliation have been drawing Arabs closer to Islam. Obedience to authority is the hallmark of Islam’s political theory. In the harsh environment of the Arabian Desert, disobedience and strife could waste scarce water and staples. Islam is a way of life guided by the Quran and the Prophet’s actions and words in the Hadith. To be a good Muslim one must abide by the rules of the Quran and the Hadith. The Prophet Muhammad, a product of desert living, enshrined obedience to authority into the Islamic Creed. In 4:59, the Quran orders: “Obey God and obey God’s messenger and obey those of authority among you.” The Prophet has also reportedly said: “Hear and obey the emir, even if your back is whipped and your property is taken; hear and obey.” Belief in predestination makes tyrannical rulers seem as if they were ordained by God’s will. Many eminent Islamic jurists opine that in the name of societal peace, years of unjust ruler are better that a day of societal strife. Today, Arab rulers exploit Islam to prolong their dictatorships. Egypt’s president and the Saudi king declared on February 24, 2004: “The Western model of democracy does not necessarily fit a region largely driven by Islamic teaching.” Pandering ulama to Arab kings and presidents preach that obedience to Muslim authority is a form of piety. Unless the historicity of the Quran and the Hadith are allowed to be freely examined, rationally, and philosophically, without the fear of persecution under blasphemy laws and ulama intimidation genuine Arab democratic reforms will not evolve for generations, if ever. 

Fourthly, in the Arab home, poverty drives the father to transform his children into a ‘security blanket’ for old age. Fear of destitution makes the father into what Nobel Laureate Najib Mahfouz calls the “central agent of repression,” constantly threatening his children with the wrath of God if they disobey him. At school, corporal punishment terrorizes students into blind obedience in classrooms. The manager at work, a product of the Arab milieu, demands obsequiousness from subordinates. In the thin Arab labor markets, the employee finds that blind obedience averts financial catastrophe.

Islamist democracy is no Western democracy
Lately, leaders of the Arab World’s best known Islamist movement, the Muslim Brothers, have been supporting free parliamentary elections.

Is Islamist parliamentary democracy consistent with Western democracy? The answer is no. The parliament in an Islamist democracy is not the final authority in lawmaking. Sovereignty in Islamist democracy is to God whereas sovereignty under Western democracy is to the people. Islamist parliamentary democracy superimposes an Islamist constitutional court; composed of unelected clerics, on top of an elected parliament to ensure that man’s laws comply with God’s laws, a structure similar to Iran’s Council of Guardians.

Is the Islamist constitutional court similar to Western constitutional courts? Again, the answer is no. While the former adjudicates according to the Ulama’s interpretation of Islamic law, the latter adjudicates according to parliamentary laws.

The failure of Washington’s Arab democratization project
Washington has been supporting Arab dictatorsin order to keep the Islamists at bay. The advances that the Islamists made in every one of the Arab countries that held elections in 2005 and early 2006 at the instigation of the Bush administration indicate that the foray into Arab elections might be over.

In the occupied Palestinian territories, the Islamist Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats. Iraq’s January 30, 2005 elections were expedited, if not forced, by the leader of the country’s Shii majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. His candidates won 140 of the 275 parliamentary seats: In the December 15, 2005 elections, they won 128 seats. In Saudi Arabia, the 2005 municipal council elections were theatrics. Women were excluded altogether. One-half of the councilors were government appointed and the councils have no power, merely a local advisory role. In Egypt, democratic reforms meant many restrictions on the opposition and a fifth term for the incumbent. Finally, the cause of democracy was certainly not enhanced when Colonel Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, capitulated to U.S. pressure without an ounce of change in his tyrannical rule.

The U.S. “War on Terrorism” has also delayed Arab democratic reforms. Since Arab rulers’ cooperation is needed to eliminate the local Jihadists, Washington cannot seriously pressure its dictator friends to become democrats, because of  the fear that democracy could usher more Islamists into city halls. Furthermore, the enormity of the damage inflicted upon Iraq since 2003 by the American occupation in the name of democracy has repelled the Arab masses from democratic reforms.

Arab kings and presidents are delighted!

What is the solution?
Since democratic governance is unlikely to grow in Arab soil, an alternative would be benevolent dictatorship. Except for its non-representative nature, benevolent dictatorship could deliver participatory rule, ensure justice for all, fight corruption, nepotism, sectarianism and tribalism; thus, defusing the anger that breeds and inflames the Jihadists.

How likely is it that benevolent dictatorships might replace Arab rulers’ tyranny? The answer is that since benevolent dictatorship does not evolve institutionally there is no predictable pattern to discern here. There might be a coup d’état by a benevolent dictator tomorrow; or, there might not be one, ever.

Arab democracy is sheer fantasy.
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