Democracy in the Middle-East
The recent uprisings and demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt have led people around the world to show their support for democracy in the Middle-East. Millions of people live under oppressive, autocratic regimes in that part of the world which care nothing for their people and, instead, use oil revenue and aid from the U.S. to enrich themselves and maintain their ironclad grip over their societies. The majority of people in places such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and Syria are impoverished. Freedom is largely nonexistent. The rule of law is a joke. It is easy to understand why these people want to revolt.
A majority of people in the Middle-East are young– under 30. Their entire lives they have known nothing but poverty, injustice, and callous governments. When Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian graduate student, desperately lit himself on fire in front of a local official to protest the poverty and lack of jobs, he was channeling the anger and frustration of many in the Middle-East. His brave act was a catalyst that resulted in the abdication of a tyrant who ruled for 24 years.
Now that Tunisia is in the process of determining how to move forward, and Egypt is on fire, people from around the free world have come out in support of a democratic movement in the Middle-East. In fact, it is the duty of free people to support the freedom of other people, regardless as to where they may live. But I believe it is also imperative that we have a realistic understanding of what may result if certain corrupt governments were to give way to democracy.
Too often people confuse “democracy” with our Western version of democracy. In the West, democracy means a secular government, protections for minorities, and restraints on government action (at least in theory). But this is not due to democracy per se but, rather, because of our culture. Democracy, at its most basic, is simply the ability to have a say in the choosing of one’s government. Culture has important ramifications for how democracy develops and it goes without say that different cultures will give rise to different kinds of governments.
Although people say they support democracy in the Middle-East, would they continue to support it if it meant that governments would be elected that held to Sharia Law? Would they support democracy if it meant that the rights of women were still violated and Western movies and music continued to be banned? Just how far will people go in their support of democracy?
Unfortunately, this is not a purely academic question. When democracy has been introduced in certain parts of the Middle-East, the facts speak for themselves. Western-style democracy, with its many benefits we often take for granted, is not the result. The result is radical Islamic governments that do not cherish the freedoms our Founding Fathers fought and died for, or the long heritage of the rule of law that developed over many hundreds of years in Europe and continues to exist today.
When elections were held in Palestine in 2006, the result was Hamas. Hamas, an organization whose charter puts Islam first, has not introduced freedom for women or a secular rule of law. In 2005, the terrorist group Hezbollah was swept into power in Lebanon under free and fair elections. Hezbollah’s name literally means “Party of God” and they have never been shy about their devotion to radical Islam. And in Egypt, where certain districts were allowed to be contested, the Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed a substantial gain, winning most of the seats. None of these political groups are likely to support Western-style democracy, and many have histories and activities that reveal their openly theocratic intentions.
Does this mean we should not support democracy in the Middle-East? No. It simply means we have to be prepared for the outcome. Israel, of course, does not wish for democratic elections in neighboring countries for fear that Muslim governments, backed by their people, will put pressure on its continual violation of the rights of the Palestinians. That, however, is Israel’s business. The U.S. State Department is also cautious about popular uprisings in the Middle-East which may affect the stability of its allies. But Israel has a far greater reason to be concerned about what happens across its borders. Why the U.S. should be concerned about the stability of autocratic governments thousands of miles from its shores is an entirely different matter. The U.S. has always said it supports democracy, but that is clearly untrue. Democracy is only supported if it will benefit the U.S. or, at the very least, have a negligible effect on its foreign policy. If the U.S. wanted to be a force in the Middle-East for good, it would discontinue its policy of propping up some of the most oppressive regimes known to modern man.
In the end, this is about the people of the Middle-East. Just as the colonists fought against the British in order to establish a system of government they thought would be best for Americans, and Jews fought for a system of government in Israel they desired, so too should Arabs be allowed to establish governments they want. We may disagree with the laws and policies they establish, but if democracy means anything it means self-determination. Perhaps, in time, governments ruling from the Koran will give way to more secular governments, as in the case of Turkey.
What is clear is this: the people of the Middle-East want change, and it would behoove their governments to listen. Tunisia may just be the beginning.