Arabs and democracy

Not yet, say the Arabs

Jul 20th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Why democracy will not sink roots in the Arab world, at least in a hurry
 

"FOR those who think that an onrush of democracy is the answer to the Arab world's malaise, these books are disheartening. This is so, even though one of their authors, Fouad Ajami, hails from a rare breed: an Arab (now an American citizen) of Lebanese Shia background who enthusiastically backed George Bush's plan to spread democracy throughout the Middle East, starting most hazardously in Iraq.

None of these books asserts categorically that the Arabs are unfit for, or incapable of, democracy, but all make plain how extraordinarily hard it will be for a system of one-person-one-vote to sink roots in such unfamiliar soil. Not a single country in the 22-member Arab League is a stable, full-fledged democracy: the three that currently come closest—Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq—are all peculiar and flawed cases, and are now all in particular trouble.

Indeed, the title of Mr Ajami's book has, perhaps unintentionally, a mocking ring to it. The “gift” of which he speaks is presumably the enforced imposition by the United States of a new and, with luck, democratic rule which the Arabs—Mr Ajami ruefully admits—are unlikely to embrace with ease, let alone with gratitude.

His book is the most awkwardly problematic of the three because its message betrays fiercely conflicting feelings. A professor of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, Mr Ajami has been a courageously outspoken proponent of the neo-conservative cause. The war in Iraq, he insists, is “a noble war”, which will end in “noble success or noble failure”. In a sometimes bitter, occasionally trenchant but ultimately confusing polemic he castigates most of his fellow Arab intellectuals and most Arab leaders for their failure to support or applaud the war.

He hails the opportunity that America's intervention has afforded in the region as a whole. There was “the promise of a new beginning—a base of American influence free of the toxic anti-Americanism at play in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt.” With rather contrived optimism, he describes conversations during his six visits to Iraq since the invasion with Shia, Sunni and Kurdish notables. He also expresses unabashed admiration for Ahmad Chalabi, the neo-cons' long-time favourite to lead the new Iraq, and bemoans his fall, without explaining why it happened.

The dominant tone of Mr Ajami's treatise is one of lamentation. Despite the supposed attractions of the new deal the Americans have offered Iraqis, the beneficiaries have been patently unable, for a host of reasons, to grasp it. “The steady refusal of the Shia to come out openly in support of the American project had been one of the great surprises of this expedition.” It may have surprised Mr Ajami; it did not surprise others familiar with Iraq's exceptionally violent and fractious history for the past half century and more.

Mr Ajami has a sadly nostalgic section on the fine poets and liberal intellectuals who prospered in Baghdad in the first half of the 20th century. Will their moment come again under the new imperium? There is no sign that it will. The book gives way to a forlorn litany of the tragic events and missteps since Saddam Hussein's fall. “Nothing here is what it seems,” says one of the secular-minded politicians whom Mr Ajami admires. “If you see an elephant, it's probably an ostrich.”

Rory Stewart's tale is told very differently. A former British diplomat who had previously tramped on foot across Afghanistan, he found himself, for most of the year after the invasion, in charge of Maysan, an Iraqi province bordering Iran in the south-east. It is a story of appalling chaos, local Iraqi chicanery and violence, and administrative mayhem imposed from outside (mainly by Americans), told with candour, humour and insight.

Compared with the mainly Sunni Arab provinces north and west of Baghdad, Mr Stewart's mainly Shia area in Maysan was mild. But he makes it plain, without wringing his hands or denigrating the locals, that the culture of violence along with tribal and religious intrigue make it unthinkable for Western democratic values to take root any time soon. He sought to appoint provincial councils, governors and police chiefs, but most of his constituents had no concept of democratic procedure. “If they make any trouble,” explained one leading politician of a rival group, “we together will kill them.” “If you put my cousin on the [provincial] council,” explained another local bigwig, “I will slit his throat.” “Seyyid Rory, you don't understand,” complained another. “How do you make a prisoner talk if you don't torture him?” Though in no way flippant or sneering, Mr Stewart makes it plain that the neo-conservative agenda in such areas is absurd.

Messrs Stewart and Ajami make glum reading. By contrast, a slim volume by one of Britain's leading diplomatic Arabists, Mark Allen, is an amiable and in many ways more useful guide. Knighted for—among other things—his apparently key part in persuading Libya's Muammar Qaddafi to give up his programme to build nuclear weapons, Sir Mark, a long-serving member of MI6, Britain's external intelligence service, offers a thoughtful potpourri of observations on the Arab psyche and identity. Acknowledging that “a systematic technique for dealing with contradictions and dissent” is woefully lacking in the Arab world, he also stresses that the old-fashioned bonds of blood, tribe, religion and pan-Arab identity tend to govern behaviour and can, if subtly addressed, be woven to good effect. Politics is still necessarily personal and clan-based; antipathy to fitnah (social discord and strife) makes it hard to envisage a peaceful institutionalisation of adversarial politics. These and other caveats, born of nearly four decades in the Middle East, offer more useful hints than the laments of a disappointed Arab-American neo-con."