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Western-style democracy for the Middle East is still-born

By Abe Ata - posted Thursday, 22 December 2005

Democracy at a bottom-line definition means three things: honest government, rule of law and free speech.

Autocratic Middle Eastern regimes agree: they concede that Western-style human and political rights are not available; but the public does not know of these rights and therefore does not need them. Who argues that ignorance is not bliss?

For many years America’s rationale for supporting autocratic regimes was the promise of stability. For authoritarian Arab regimes it was always easier to resist their public than the United States.


In 2004 the White House expressed an updated view. In his National Endowment for Democracy speech President Bush acknowledged that any promises of stability in the Middle East were deceptive and that the widespread corruption in governments was what made the population vulnerable to Islamist ideologies.

Whatever the rationale, Muslims remain sceptical about America’s idea of Middle Eastern democracy. They are haunted still by America’s objection to free and legitimate elections involving an Islamic party in Algeria in 1992. They know that anti-American democracy is viewed by the Capitol as neither legitimate nor democratic. They also know that superpowers never falter in having designs on, and interests in, the region.

Most of the 22 Arab states recognise, but do not publicise, their failures with regard to economic and social matters and human rights. They are prepared to consider some reforms so long as power is not given to the people. Television and radio continue to be funded and directed by governments; newspapers, magazines and books still require clearance from interior and education ministries. There is no encouragement of cultural or political phenomena which might embarrass the regime. Radio talkback is unthinkable for fear of comments which might be discussed nationally and have a liberating effect. Freedom to air opinions outside the mosques is severely restricted.

The need for honest government and the rule of law cannot be discussed without reference to the role of family structure. The Middle East continues to be a family-powered society: the extended family reacts to external forces as a collective unit. The Western concept of one person one vote is unthinkable. If enforced, as it is in Iraq, it is untranslatable to other walks of life. Patronage - the extending of favours to a village-based extended family or a sect in return for loyalty - is widespread.

The Tikrit-Saddam partnership is replicated in other autocratic Arab regimes. Wastah - an Arabic word denoting the use of power brokers to manipulate political situations (for example elections) - is common. Without it ordinary people cannot secure a job; speedy paperwork in banks and government departments are dependent on it; as are tenders for public projects.

You may ask: what difference does this make to the chances of democracy in the Middle East? Almost everything. Job applicants will have to be considered on merit - something completely at odds with the long tradition of patronage. Equally novel would be the introduction of Western-style regulations forbidding family members from working in the same institutions, legislation against sexual and religious harassment and allowing women to take a public place in social and cultural life without threat, ridicule or retaliation.


What is needed is a democratic peace - one where standard democratic institutions are built and through which all can participate and voice dissent when warranted. The people can then address and implement changes in the social, economic and political structures as they see fit, and as it suits them. When this takes place the dignity of every woman and man in the Middle East will be truly guaranteed.

But this democracy must come from the Arab mind and it will. The spectacle of the American bull lunging blindly in the china shop is less persuasive than the ideals themselves, re-imagined and made concrete in an Arabic-speaking world.

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About the Author

Abe W Ata was a temporary delegate to the UN in 1970 and has lived and worked in the Middle East, America and Australia. Dr Ata is a Senior Fellow Institute for the Advancement of Research, and lectures in Psychology at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne). Dr Ata is a 9th generation Christian Palestinian academic born in Bethlehem.

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