“For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here, in the Middle East – and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
To separate facts from kitsch: as long as the Soviet Union existed, the US excused the Arab dictatorships (Saudi Arabia, Jordan and post-Nasser Egypt) as “lesser evils.” In Washington’s view, they formed a buffer against Soviet penetration into the region and defended the oil that is so necessary to the “Free World.” Now that the Soviet Union is gone, the US has a hard time explaining its cozy ties with Arab dictators. Its new Crusade for Democracy is a cover for two big problems. One is the dirty war in Iraq, which it attempts to camouflage in the ideological dress of a fight for democracy (not, heaven forbid, for oil!). The other is the grim foreboding that its buddy regimes of the Cold War years are near collapse. It wants to open a line of retreat, so that it won’t be identified with them when at last they dissolve. But no one is falling for this. As a well-known columnist in the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat put it, “Rice lit fires and left.”
Sixty years of supporting Arab dictators have not helped America, which paid a heavy penalty for that support on September 11, 2001. Washington then discovered that the Saudi regime, so close to its bosom – and in particular the Bin Laden family, a partner in the Bush family enterprises – had produced the attackers from within its ranks. The hatred of the assailants was directed not just against America, but also against the Arab regimes that are closest to her, regimes that are cut off from their own peoples.
Iraq was to be a “laboratory” to demonstrate the thesis that democracy is possible even on the points of bayonets. Instead, it has become the American Achilles’ heel. Despite numerous attempts to show progress, the condition of the citizens is worsening, the rebuilding of the economy is frozen, hundreds of Iraqis and Americans are killed each month. During the past half year, following the Iraqi elections, President George W. Bush has tried to present Iraq as an issue already dealt with. The elections, however, were supposed to bring secular Shiites to power, people like the first interim prime minister, Iyad Alawi. Instead, the two major parties in the victorious Shiite alliance were the Dawa, founded in the 50’s to work for an Islamic republic, and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution. The new Iraqi democracy is underway to Islamic law.
In the US, public opinion undergoes a sea change, with ever more voices calling on Bush to set a date for withdrawal. Writes Dan Balz of the Washington Post:
“On the ground, little seems to have changed. After a decline around the time of the Iraqi elections in January, U.S. casualties have increased again this spring. Iraqi civilians are dying at higher rates than a year ago, and the number of car bombings has risen from 18 in June 2004 to 135 last month. Reconstruction has been halting.”
A similar trend toward fundamentalist Islam shows up in other lands often mentioned by Bush and Rice as examples of democratic progress: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. The Arabs living there regard the optimistic American statements with amazement, wondering whether they derive from sheer ignorance or a cynical attempt to mislead.
During these sixty years, however, the US succored more than just corrupt dictatorial regimes. Under its aegis a culture of poverty developed. The rate of illiteracy in the Arab countries is among the highest in the world. It was in the womb of this culture that militant Islam expanded to the frightening dimensions it has today.
Secretary Rice knows very well what the result would be if Egyptians were free to hold democratic elections. The Muslim Brotherhood would take power. Just to show how far she is from meaning says, Rice avoided meeting the Islamic opposition during her visit in Egypt. She did so as a gesture toward her “friend,” President-dictator Hosni Mubarak.
To be fair, we should note that apart from America’s financial support for Mubarak, it also aids non-governmental secular organizations in Egypt. Their influence on the street, however, is negligible.
What about Jordan? Who would arise, in democratic elections, to replace its present dictator-king? You guessed it: the Muslim Brotherhood. And what about Saudi Arabia? You guessed it again. America yearns for democracy in the Middle East, but the leading electoral alternative in most of the region’s countries is a group that wants to be ruled by Islamic law.
We cannot bypass the recent examples of Palestinian democracy, in which Bush takes pride. There is no doubt but that the election of Abu Mazen (the sole alternative after Arafat’s death and a man much liked in the White House) was a victory for the American view of things. A short-term victory, however. The democratic process did not stop with the choice of a president but continued into municipal elections, which were to be followed by elections for the legislative council. And behold! Whom did democracy lift to power? Hamas, the militant Islamic party (which decided to take part in the elections, instead of boycotting them as it had in 1996). Abu Mazen’s Fatah was soundly thrashed. The prospect for the parliamentary elections, scheduled for late July, was all too clear. Abu Mazen postponed them.
There you have American democracy in action. In response to Rice’s Cairo speech, Zvi Bar’el, commentator on Arab affairs for Haaretz, wrote on June 26:
“The problem is that because of the belligerent way in which it is being driven into the region, the vision of American democracy arouses fierce opposition among movements that are actually advocating reform but do not want to appear to be acting according to an American diktat. The Lebanese opposition is very careful to avoid identification with American preaching. The reformists in Iran are ready to embrace the conservatives when it comes to relations with America. In Saudi Arabia, intellectual proponents of change reject American pressure, and opposition parties in Egypt – those which Rice praised so effusively – are now energetically mobilizing anti-American slogans to demonstrate their patriotism.”
The Middle East has a long account with America. It reckons with decades of blatant interference in favor of Israel, support for Arab dictators, and indifference to the poverty and backwardness in which these dictators imprisoned their peoples. The notion that such evils can be compensated with blithe slogans about democracy insults the intelligence of those peoples. During the Cold War, the US was a partner in the elimination of all the secular alternatives, nurturing Islamic parties as a buffer against them.
Real democracy can only develop in a country where religion and state are separate and where that citizens feel they have a stake in the running of affairs. Poverty and ignorance breed the rule of the tribe, the rule of corruption and fear. They enable the privileged few to do with the state what they please.
America has no answer for the Middle East. All it has to give is the misery it has always given. For this reason, democracy will only arrive when two different but related conditions are fulfilled: America must be defeated in Iraq, and people must awaken from the illusion that Islam can provide a political alternative. Only then will the way be cleared for a true democracy, one that is not identified with the capitalistic exploitation of resources, rather with the use of those resources for the good of all.