The problem with Western democracy

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A recent online poll carried out by the Arabic website of Al Jazeera satellite television found that more than 80 percent of respondents distrust "Western democracy." The results simply restated the obvious. The query, of course, hardly meant to question "Western democracy" in its own right, but rather its imposition on the Arab world.

Needless to say, one needs no poll, scientific or otherwise, to conclude that the majority of Arabs are in desperate need of democratic measures. But they need democracy for their own sake, not for the sake of one who wishes to legitimize an occupation and to tout the virtues of a superpower. If Al Jazeera tested its readers' views on democracy, as a model without the word "Western" trotting along, the overwhelming votes would probably have been cast in favor of democracy - that honorable value first coined by the ancient Greeks as "citizenry rule."

Sunday's admittedly impressive turnout in Iraqi elections - and the Western spin that it suggests a vote of satisfaction for the post-Saddam Hussein US occupation notwithstanding, the prevailing sense in the Arab media continues to be that the Iraq experiment is a charade democracy that still has little to do with rule of the citizenry.

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Arabs covet democracy because they are disenfranchised and have very little control over their individual as well as collective destiny. But most Arabs find it difficult to make a choice between the governance of theocratic and totalitarian regimes, on the one hand, and a spurious, foreign-imposed democracy, which they perceive as a US invention, on the other. The choice would be difficult for anyone, and it is anything but fair.

Despite President Bush's constant exhortations that he, too, wishes to set the Arab masses free, his words resonate nowhere in the Middle East, save perhaps Israel. For ordinary Arabs, Mr. Bush is simply a hypocrite; for the politically savvy, his mission of "freedom" is a disguise of his corporate drive for power.

Most Arabs see the paradox of Western democracy in practice, in the West and in their region. In fact, they live the paradox. If you find yourself engaged in a heated political conversation with an Arab - and most likely you will with the first one you meet - you'd be surprised to learn of a deep admiration for Western democracy - in the West. You'll hear fantastic, often exaggerated stories, of the freedom enjoyed by Western societies, freedoms that not many Arab countries can match - not by a long shot.

But the wheel of Western democracy either grinds to a halt or completely changes course once it reaches the Middle East; the values, style, and goals become different, even though much of the rhetoric remains constant and unchanged. So Arabs are very suspicious of "Western democracy" vis-à-vis their own region.

Democracy is "a form of government under which the power to alter the structure of government and laws lies, ultimately, with the citizenry," one definition reads. It is "a government by the people in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system," states another, quoted on the US Department of State website.

Abraham Lincoln's famous phrase that democracy is a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" further stresses the point.

But the "people" of the Middle East are hardly the ultimate recipients of "Western democracy" as understood by most Arabs and as demonstrated by US actions in the past half century.

The prevailing example of this dichotomy is the case of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Arafat was elected by a decisive majority in the Palestinian Authority elections in 1996. Though he lived and died popular among his people, he was undercut and deemed "irrelevant" for embracing a political line incongruous from an American and Israeli perspective.

Mr. Abbas holds a fraction of Arafat's popular support and won a less impressive victory in the PA elections. But he holds a political line that is acceptable to both Israel and the US. Thus, his victory has become the standard that defines what is right and proper, and what is not, as far as democratic conduct is concerned for Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.

This is hardly the first case of this double standard. There was the CIA's toppling of the first genuine democracy in the Middle East in 1953 - the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh - and the installation of the pro-US dictatorship of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Since then, the US has lent support to the most oppressive regimes as loyal guards of American interests in the region.

The high turnout in Iraq's elections will now be spun to mean approval of continued US presence there. That is a spin on a kind of democracy that Arabs oppose. It's not democracy itself that they distrust. It's the cynical exploitation of the term for imperial or geostrategic purposes that they oppose.

Ramzy Baroud, a veteran Arab-American journalist, is a producer with Al Jazeera and editor-in-chief of the Palestine Chronicle.

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