Monday, February 21, 2011

Democracy in the Middle East: Only If It Doesn’t Cost Us

East Jerusalem- the Separation Wall (2008)
I encourage friends to read Richard Falk's thoughtful piece, Post-Mubarak Revolutionary Chances.  He argues that Egypts democracy campaigners need to guard against outside influences and work to add a veneer of democracy to a military regime. He is UN Special Rapporteur for Palestinian RIghts and Professor Emeritus of International  law Princeton

A young student recently asked me in an English class in Vietnam recently– if you had to choose between wealth and freedom, what would you choose? I thought it odd at the time. But this question came to mind today as I listened to CNN and read the editorials of major dailies from New York to Sydney.
Nothing frustrates me more than hearing liberals and Western media say that they support legitimate demands for change, but then in the same breath say it is equally imperative to ensure Western strategic interests are maintained. Unfortunately for those wanting democracy, those same western strategic interests have preserved the status quo for many years. 

Today’s editorial in The Australian states:
Much harder is trying to promote the clamour for a new order in the likes of Bahrain and Yemen while at the same time protecting Western interests.”
What are these western interests exactly? Middle Eastern dictators have been supported by Western governments for years because they are vital energy suppliers and, to a lesser extent, because they are supposedly the enemy of our current bogymen, Islamist militants. What is at stake, as many commentators have argued, is Western access to Gulf oil reserves at prices and amounts that will not roil global markets - as well as the loss of lucrative markets for arms sales. Also at risk is the security of Israel, so long as its government refuses to allow the Palestinians to have an independent and viable state within 1967 borders that accords with the two state solution long favoured by the international community - and long opposed by Israel. And why is support for the demonstrators so qualified and qualitatively different depending on where it fits in the geopolitical scale of strategic significance to the US and Israel? Why is democracy in the Middle East considered so antithetical to Israeli interests? These are important questions that need considerable discussion, not the sort of dumbed-down diplomatic double-speak we have been hearing from Foreign Ministries around the world.
 The editor of The Australian didn’t mince his words:
“Bahrain's strategic importance cannot be overstated. The Fifth Fleet is crucial in confronting Iran's brutal dictatorship. As well, it is critical to the battle against extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and maintaining oil supply routes through the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, and controlling East African piracy….Unrest in Bahrain could spill into Saudi Arabia, the spear carrier of US interests in the Arab world”.

Strategic interests tip the scales again.  Of course, Saudi Arabia has also been the spear carrier of international terrorism but then that is not something we are meant to discuss in polite company. In the US, a comprehensive investigation drawing on government sources, including the CIA’s Illicit Transactions Group, estimated that two-thirds of the $70 billion spent by the Saudis between 1979 and 2003 on “international aid” was used to infiltrate institutions and promote Wahhabism and anti-Western and anti-Israeli propaganda (David E. Kaplan, “The Saudi Connection: How billions in oil money spawned a global terror network”, US News & World Report, 12 July 2003).
While Bahrain has long been depicted as relatively moderate compared with its Salafi neighbor, the reality is that the country is repressive and far from free, as citizens have almost no ability to transform their government, which according to the State Department "restricts civil liberties, freedoms of press, speech, assembly, association, and some religious practices."
Democracy is fine (as long as you clear your candidates with us first)
This mealy-mouthed lip service to democracy by Western governments and the media is not just about protecting Western strategic interests.  There is also a certain patronising orientalist perspective that has surfaced with every official statement from the EU, US, Israel and other governments.  The fear of political Islam and the Brotherhood has dominated editorials. This, the Western media argues, is antithetical to democracy.  What do these young Facebook and Twitter heroes understand about the Brotherhood and extremist threats to democracy? Greg Sheridan, on ABC television (Q&A) argued that the Muslim Brotherhood’s moderation was “tactical, temporary and fraudulent.”  He asserted that “the media and the middle class in Egypt were talking about them like they’re a Boy Scout movement with a country’s women league branch.”

We know enough about President Obama’s and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s qualified support for democracy. We have watched them weigh and determine their response to each crisis according to their assessment of which group would emerge victorious. It has little to do with backing the people.  Indeed, if it is about supporting democracy, they would have put their weight behind the people many years before the current crisis.  Alain Juppe, the then French Defence Minister, now Foreign Minister, said: "We have to trust the democratic movements and accompany them, while remaining vigilant towards the way they evolve." Another well-known commentator declared that if Islamic groups take part in government then “elections are the end of the [democratic] process, not its beginning.”  The arrogant assumption here is that all Egyptians, analysts of Egypt and their supporters are naïve for believing in a democratic future.  Commentators point to the Iranian example and argue that the fate of Egyptian democracy may very well be identical to that of Iran in 1979 in the second phase of the revolution.
However, as many have argued, this fear is unfounded. The uprising comprised a mass movement of Egyptians.  And even if the Muslim Brotherhood did win a significant share of a parliamentary vote in the future, democracy dictates that this is a choice for Egyptians to make.  The people protesting across the Middle East are asking for elected government, economic opportunity, an end to corruption and a respect for their human rights. Each uprising has its own dynamics, but all protesters seem united by frustration over economic hardship and a lack of political freedom under entrenched elites that have been propped up by Western powers eager to secure energy supplies or to protect Israel. From Jordan to Bahrain, Morocco, Djibouti, Libya, the current crisis reflects not only a popular demand for the expansion of political freedoms but, more broadly a loss of confidence in the state.  Neo-liberal economic policies that have resulted in inflation and widening economic gaps and endemic corruption have angered people across all sectors and from all walks of life. This is a crisis which has been brewing for many years.
Here come the horsemen....
After years of lamenting the absence of democracy while doing nothing, the US and other Western nations are now clamouring to show they care about democracy in these countries.  A summit in Brussels this week, called by Baroness Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, is ostensibly aimed at nurturing democratic structures and supporting economic opportunities.  But there is something unsettling about watching western powers after 30 years of turning a blind eye to repression in these countries now offering advice about democracy and providing economic assistance.  Many on the blogosphere are seeing it differently. They see it as Western powers strategizing to ensure democracy doesn’t clash with “strategic interests.” The important thing as ever is to ensure Western interests are protected.  Neera Tanden, a former senior policy adviser to Mr Obama, has offered the White House an economic plan for Egypt based on ending barriers to imports of cotton, increasing civilian aid, but more revealingly, to expand special industrial zones where Egyptian businesses gain access to world markets in return for cooperation with Israel's private sector. The concern of many is that US efforts to offer emergency economic assistance is more about mollifying protestors and creating the impression that life is returning to normal, thereby creating conditions that would support a restoration of the essence of the old order.
Unqualified Support for Democracy
For years we have valued stability over democracy.  Unfortunately, our understanding of what makes regions stable was seriously flawed.

For years we lamented the absence of democracy, but bank-rolled dictators and their police states which have proven inherently unstable.

It is imperative that Western aid to Middle Eastern countries be directed to addressing economic inequalities, building the institutions of civil societies and building capacity more generally. It is time for a serious recalculation of where our interests lie:  in a meaningful, unqualified support for democracy in the Middle East.

This means unqualified support for a governing process based on human rights, the construction of an equitable economy and the will of the people. External actors do not have a right to dictate how that democratic process will unfold. That is for the citizens of these countries to decide. It should not be a choice between western interests and real democracy.

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