More about Arab Democracy

Why aren’t Arabs so keen on democratic politics? My last post referenced the widespread notion that political divisions are “sicknesses in the body politic, that weaken and divide, set one man against another, faction against faction, and make the government easily manipulable by strong and unified forces either domestic or foreign.” This is by no means a sentiment unique to the Arab world – you see it strongly expressed in the West too, in the idea that to politicise something is to make it worse, or that if only the politicians could get together and hammer out their differences, it’d be all right. Let’s be quite clear – non-partisan means anti-democratic. Yet this view, although mainstream, does not dominate in the West. I think there are two broad reasons why this view dominates more in the Arab world – one political, one cultural.

In the west, representative democracy has a claim on ancient legitimacy, even when it is in fact radical. The French National Assembly of 1789, for example, was clearly a revolutionary body, but it could also claim to be restoring the rightful ancient governance of France under the Estates-General. And almost every European country has some history of these bodies, be they called Parliaments, Estates, Diets, or whatever else, that where they fell were typically replaced by arbitrary dictatorial (or foreign) power. Thus representative democracy is often depicted as cultural restoration – and in those countries where such restorations have occurred, things have generally gone well. Therefore a Spaniard in 1978 could both see the transition to democracy as a restoration of traditional government, as gaining the benefits enjoyed by other Western European countries, as well as whatever other theoretical reasons there might be.

In the Arab world this history is absent. There is no ancient history of representative institutions to draw on. Parliamentary democracy is perceived as what it is – an imported western political norm. But despite their supposed multiculturalism, few in the west are interested even in learning about Arab ideas about political institutions, such as Shura, ulema and Wilayat al-faqih. Instead the attempt is just to impose a western politico-cultural system on a foreign country, with no regard for its perceived legitimacy, on the crazy logic that the people there are ignorant barbarians too stupid to know what’s good for them. But oh, once they see the manifold blessings of representative democracy, they’ll thank us!

(Note: I am not a multiculturalist, I think Western ways are best, and English ways in particular. But I don’t think you can pretend that Baghdad is the same as Bromley, you have to start from where you are.)

In reality, of course, the blessings of representative democracy are notable by their absence. There are two Arab democracies, Lebanon and Iraq, and both are advertisements for the Arab view that democracy makes the government weak and easily dominated by internal blocs and powerful neighbours. Meanwhile, the best-governed countries in the region, such as the UAE, Qatar and (whisper it quietly) Bahrain, all have broadly traditional forms of government. One powerful testament to superiority of capitalism to communism was that people were trying to leave East Germany to go to the West, but no-one wanted to go in the opposite direction. In the Arab world, the population flow is from Beirut and Baghdad to Dubai and Doha. What does that say about the political systems?

So much for politics, but the other factor is cultural. In the west the contrarian figure is seen as very laudable (at least in retrospect), for his willingness to tell the public what they do not want to hear and persist despite their hostility. We have countless instances of this, be it in science, politics, religion… indeed, Jesus Christ is a fine example. In fact, this is such an easy trope that many people who in fact did not suffer like this will claim that no-one recognised or believed in their work, so that they seem more heroic! Yet in the Arab world this idea is rather lacking. Certainly, someone who tells the government what they do not want to hear and is punished for it will be held up as a martyr – provided the people were on his side. But truly marginal figures are not. There is just not the same notion that the general public are fickle and frequently wrong.

Instead, the dichotomy is between the malign ruler and the good public. It’s easy to work out what should be done, the problem is that the government won’t do it because they’re evil and corrupt (you can see how this attitude makes representative democracy seem bad, with its committees and horse-trading). The countervailing conservative western notions of individualism, irreducibly opposed interests, etc, are much weaker. And so there is what I like to call the Harun al-Rashid theory of political governance: that the purpose of the political system is to choose a ruler who is good and incorruptible, and then get out of the way.

I sometimes also call this the “Dave” theory of governance, after the Kevin Kline movie where the US President is switched with a look-a-like. Unlike the real, evil President, the look-a-like is a really nice guy who sits up with an accountant all night to fix the budget deficit, solves unemployment problems, etc etc. Ah, if only we could get nice leaders instead of our current nasty ones, everything would be solved! So if you realise that the Arab critique of government sounds a lot like the leftist critique of government, ten brownie points for you. Leftists share many of these cultural traits – the hostility to individualism, the tendency to imagine that there is such a thing as the “popular will,” the anthropomorphising of institutions (“we decided as a society…”). So it is unsurprising that the left should be greeting the Arab Spring with great enthusiasm. Of course they showed the same enthusiasm for the disastrous uprisings of the 1950s and 1960s, but that kind of thing never gives them pause.

Will there ever be real progress for the mass of the Arab world? I can’t say I’m optimistic, but you have to be hopeful. If I believed in the Dave theory, I’d say they should make Adnan Pachachi dictator. At the least, it’s worth a shot.


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