Democracy in the Middle East

Foreign intervention has undermined democracy in the Middle East for more than a century, but Arab countries are far from devoid of a democratic tradition

The bleak state of democracy in the Arab world today is the subject of widespread commentary. But neither the historical causes of this situation, nor the actual experiences of the Middle East with democracy, receive much attention. Throughout the 20th century major indigenous efforts were made to establish liberal democracy in the region. Yet war, external intervention and foreign occupation have routinely undermined its development.

History tells a varied story throughout the region over the past century, but three lessons are clear. First, foreign military occupation has generally proved to be incompatible with democratization, and has instead led to intense nationalist resistance. Second, although the occupying powers might have paid lip service to the idea of democracy for the occupied, they generally found that their own interests were incompatible with the inflamed nationalism of the occupied.

Third, where resistance proved successful and occupation ended, the independent regimes that emerged were often highly nationalistic. As a result they tended to enhance the power of the state at the expense of civil society, in ways that were not generally encouraging for democracy.

There is little understanding in the outside world of the bitterness with which many people across the Middle East regard the foreign occupations of their countries in the first half of the last century. Little is also known about the many instances where western powers, far from fostering democracy, in fact worked actively against it – by bringing down elected governments, rigging elections, supporting military coups or by other means. In contrast, partly thanks to their national curricula, very few in the Middle East can avoid learning about these long and unhappy episodes in their history.

Unhelpful foreign intervention

Both Iran and the Ottoman Empire underwent constitutional revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, both had constitutions and parliaments before such liberal innovations developed in Russia and much of eastern and southern Europe. But each system broke down repeatedly under the impact of internal problems, such as widespread illiteracy, and the unremitting pressure of war and external intervention.

In both cases, foreign pressure undermined the liberal reforms. Yet liberal values were nevertheless widespread among the local elite. Many Arab successor-states to the Ottoman Empire, including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, were thereafter influenced by these examples, and their elite continued to try to establish constitutional systems.

Iran and the Ottomans had less than happy experiences with Britain and France – the great parliamentary regimes of the day. Ironically, neither of the latter supported the liberal reformers in these countries. Britain, for instance, had previously occupied Egypt, partly to short-circuit a nationalist movement striving for parliamentary democracy. The result was a British military occupation that lasted for more than 70 years, and that did much to stifle Egyptian democracy and its budding constitutional development.

The parliaments of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan had similar experiences. For decades Britain and France, which were supposed to foster representative governments in all these League of Nations mandates, maintained military occupations against the will of the populations, and kept the substance of power for themselves. Resistance to these neocolonial regimes led to massive uprisings that were forcibly suppressed with great loss of life, especially in Iraq and Syria in the 1920s.

The constitutional systems in both countries, which were in some measure democratic, if flawed, were undermined and ultimately overthrown in the 1960s by nationalist military coups. By this time they had become discredited, and were little mourned by the peoples of these countries.

In Jordan, a freely elected government that represented the majority of the people was substituted in 1957 by the monarchy, which has ruled the country since, virtually unhindered by constitutional constraints. Only Lebanon escaped with its constitution and parliament intact, although it later succumbed to repeated foreign invasions and occupations that degraded its still functioning parliamentary system.

To complete this bleak picture, in 1953 Britain and the US intervened in Iran to frustrate the wishes of an elected government, bringing it down over the issue of nationalization of the country’s oil industry, and installing the dictatorship of the shah. The strong constitutional tradition has since reasserted itself in Iran, but only after decades of external intervention and the shah’s authoritarian rule led to the theocratic Islamist revolution of 1979.

If invasion, occupation and external intervention have not incubated democracy in the Middle East but have rather retarded its development, what can be done to address the abysmal record of most Arab countries as far as democracy is concerned?

The state of democracy in most Arab states today is dismal. There is the occasional bright spot, such as the three Gulf countries – Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain – that enjoy aspects of democracy, although in all cases small oligarchies make most of the key decisions. There is Lebanon, whose democracy has weathered two civil wars, occupation by both of its neighbours, and the stresses caused by an unwanted Palestinian state within a state from 1968 to 1982. There are also Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, each of which has some of the forms of democracy, albeit without most of its substance. In contrast, dictatorial rule is commonplace across much of the region, with wholesale denial of civil, political and human rights across Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Syria and Iraq.

A fertile soil for democracy

How can democracy be encouraged to grow where the buds are already in existence, and how can it be sown where the soil appears to be so barren? The first thing to recognize is that many Arab countries are far from devoid of a democratic tradition. All have had extensive experience at some time in the 20th century of free elections, multiparty democracy, a free press and a constitutional government. Notwithstanding the heavy weight of autocracy, democratic aspirations have remained strong throughout the region.

Islam is not an obstacle

A second point is that obstacles to democracy have nothing to do with Islam. There are thriving democracies in three of the largest Muslim countries in the world: Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia, not to mention Turkey, Iran and the lengthy experiences of all the Arab countries that once had parliamentary systems. Islam is no more incompatible with democracy than is any other major religion.

Egypt did not cease to be a primarily Muslim country during the 30 years it experienced parliamentary government, from 1922 to 1952. The failure of democracy in Egypt had nothing to do with Islam. Egypt’s parliamentary regime was so undermined by British intervention, in collusion with the monarchy, that it was incapable of ending the 70-year-old British military occupation or solving the country’s other problems.

Moreover, the Arab world is more open to the outside world today than at any time in the recent past. The state monopolies over information that were characteristic of the nationalist era have given way to virtually universal access to satellite television stations, ranging from one end of the political spectrum to the other. The growing use of the Internet, greater access to foreign travel for the middle classes, and vast labour migrations from and between most Arab countries mean that there is far greater access to new ideas and to other political systems than in the past.

Finally, the Arab world constantly observes the democratic experiences of the western world and of its three closest neighbours: Turkey, Iran and Israel. It did not go unnoticed that Turkey’s democratic parliament was better able to stand up to the United States in the run-up to the recent invasion of Iraq than any of the Arab autocracies. The internal battle within Iran to give democratic content to that country’s constitutional system is also closely watched. Similarly, the striking example of the Israeli High Court’s ability to challenge the executive was not lost on Palestinians, who have repeatedly expressed themselves in favour of a democratic and constitutional regime.

Resolving conflicts

External intervention and military occupation have harmed the practice of democracy in the Middle East. They have led to resistance, nationalism and often extremism. Furthermore, endemic conflicts in the region – notably those between the Palestinians and Israelis, and between Iraq and its neighbours – have been major barriers to democratization.

Many factors led to the increased power of the state (at the expense of civil society) throughout most of the Middle East – the region, after all, is where the strong state first came to be, well over 5,000 years ago. But war and conflict are among the most important.

Resolving these conflicts will not be easy, nor will it immediately bring democracy. But allowing them to fester will waste precious resources and provide a continued pretext for internal repression and the strengthening of state power. It will also guarantee that there will be new obstacles to democratization. These conflicts must ultimately be for the people of the region to resolve themselves.

Foreign players must limit their own interventions. However, they have a responsibility to help resolve disputes that they have exacerbated by their past policies. They can also help civil society to assert itself in the face of the power of the state. We shouldn’t forget that this region was home to the first and longest-lasting states in human history, in the Nile and Mesopotamian river valleys. Its long tradition of powerful states continued with the Islamic era, culminating in the more than 500-year history of the Ottoman Empire, one of the best-organized early modern states.

Given these millennia-old traditions, perhaps we should be more humble in our treatment of this region, afflicted though it is by some of the most unattractive regimes of the modern world. Together with careful attention to the region’s history and distinctiveness, such humility is more likely than foreign intervention to move the Arab world towards a new era of democracy.

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