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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What Will Replace Egyptian, Tunisian, Bahraini, Jordanian, Syrian, and Yemeni Tyrants? Democracy, If You Can Keep It

Protests in Tahir Square, Cairo, Egypt

Over the past month, US officials seem to have one central, overarching theme in their message to the people of the Middle East: “we will ambiguously and half-heartedly support your democratic aspirations.” When it is politically easy to support protest movements, like in Iran, we will show our support. When it seems we have no choice, we will do the politically expedient thing and begrudgingly throw our lot behind the people, like in Tunisia and especially Egypt. But when it isn’t politically expedient and some sort of national security or business interest stands in the way, we keep our mouths shut, like in Jordan, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. While it is frustrating that freedom and democracy take a backseat to oil and counterterrorism, a more serious concern for democracy-enthusiasts is the fragility that these new governments are often built upon.

Consider this statement by political scientist Jack Snyder: “The experiment with democracy in [the Middle East] is just the latest chapter in a turbulent story that begun with the French Revolution.” Now, that was written in 2004 with regards to Iraq, but the basic context of a nascent democracy and rival groups pulling the country into discord can apply to almost any country that has seen unrest over the last month. While nobody disagrees that the French Revolution was a noble cause, or that democracies are essentially good, getting there is often turbulent, violent, and in no way pre-determined.

Snyder continues to say that, “More fundamental, emerging democracies often have nascent political institutions that cannot channel popular demands in constructive directions or credibly enforce compromises among rival groups.” The lack of political institutions alone could be devastating for the new Middle Eastern democracies. NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote yesterday about the lack of development in the Arab region over the last 30 years, which does not bode well for their chances of keeping democracy. “The United Nations’ Arab Human Development Report,” he writes “stated that the Arab world is suffering from three huge deficits — a deficit of education, a deficit of freedom and a deficit of women’s empowerment. A summary of the report in Middle East Quarterly in the Fall of 2002 detailed the key evidence: the gross domestic product of the entire Arab world combined was less than that of Spain. Per capita expenditure on education in Arab countries dropped from 20 percent of that in industrialized countries in 1980 to 10 percent in the mid-1990s. In terms of the number of scientific papers per unit of population, the average output of the Arab world per million inhabitants was roughly 2 percent of that of an industrialized country.” This report reveals that there will be many hindrances to a strong civil society that democracies demand, and in some respects 19th century France was in a more conducive situation for democracy than the 21st century Middle East.

Another hindrance, especially to countries with multi-ethnic societies is that “Countries transitioning to democracy… are more likely than other states to get into international and civil wars. In the last 15 years, wars or large-scale civil violence followed experiments with mass electoral democracy in countries including Armenia, Burundi, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Russia, and the former Yugoslavia. In part, this violence is caused by ethnic groups’ competing demands for national self-determination, often a problem in new, multiethnic democracies” (Snyder again). Americans know all-too-much about how deep sectarian fault lines run in this region, as our war in Iraq nearly exploded in civil war between the outgoing Sunni government and the ingoing Shia government. Even more devastating is the countries ruled by an ethnic or religious minority groups (think Bahrain, Syria, and Jordan). These are also, perhaps not surprisingly, countries that the Obama Administration is publicly treading cautiously with in regards to supporting the democratic movements over the tyrants who suppress them.

No one is rooting for the success of Arab self-determination more than I am, although, if history is any guide, this will be an extremely difficult process -- one in which I will probably be still cheering for in my old age. It reminds me of that Ben Franklin quote, when he responded to a woman asking what kind of government had been decided upon in America, he said “A republic, if you can keep it.” The truth is, nobody knows what the outcome in the newly emerging Arab governments will be. They could be like the French Revolution of 1789, or 1848, or maybe 1879, when the French Republicans finally wrested control of the government from the Monarch. What is clear is that things will never be the same.

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