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The Mirage of Middle Eastern Democratization

When you wander in the desert long enough you grow thirsty and you begin to see mirages in the desert, flowing fountains and springs in the sand, flowering trees and ripened fruit in the barren dusty hills stretching for miles out of sight.

Such is the nature of the wishful thinking of those who imagine democracy in the Middle East.

For the last seven years the West has been attempting to give Muslim Middle Eastern nations lessons in governments. In Gaza, Egypt and in Lebanon, Islamists are giving the West a lesson in government-- the lesson that governments and elections mean nothing without the force to back them up.

This is a vital lesson that the West once knew but has now forgotten. The vital documents of Western democracy, the Magna Carta, the United States Constitution, were preceded by bloody battles to secure the rights inherent in them. Without those battles those documents would have been as worthless as Siniora's government.

Western diplomats today imagine that it's enough to draw up a constitution, hold elections and thereby create a democracy tapping into some fundamental human impulse to have a democratic government. Time and time again this illusion has been shown for the mirage that it is the moment Islamists march into the streets with masks over their faces and automatic weapons in their hands.

Government requires more than a set of rules and an election and a police force trained by the United States.

Firstly it requires the support of entrenched local interests, which alone will compromise its democratic nature, but is indispensable. After all the American Constitution had to make the same compromises, including one over slavery. It wasn't perfect but it was a work in progress.

Secondly it requires a defense force loyal to the government. Time and time again the US has presumed that holding an election and paying people to join a police force and providing them with some training is enough. It isn't. It might be enough in the United States because there is a patriotic and civic tradition in place. The same thing cannot be counted on someplace like Iraq where a major part of the successes in the Sunni areas came from bringing in motivated and experienced Sunni fighters eager to take on Al Queda and the Shiite militias.

If the experiment in Iraq succeeds, it will be at great effort and at great cost.

The reality of the Middle East is that its governments exist because of their ability and willingness to deploy military and police forces to execute anyone who opposes them. That is true of hostile regimes like Syria and Iran, but it is also true of putatively allied regimes like Mubarak's Egypt or the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. It's ugly, it's brutal but it's also how it's done. The reason there is no peace in Iraq and there will be no peace in Iraq, is that it lacks a government and a force capable of doing this.

The West continues to flirt with middle eastern liberals in places such as Egypt having learned nothing from its Iranian experience. While the Mubarak regime for example is indeed brutal and contemptuous of democracy, the alternative to it is either a US controlled democratization program in the Iraqi style or the Muslim Brotherhood-- neither of which is worth contemplating. The alternative is not Egyptian democratization from its liberal activists, who like their Iranian counterparts under the Shah, are just useful enough to help discredit and weaken the Mubarak government and too useless to seriously compete with the Islamists for power.

This is a tale told in blood and prison camps all across the Middle East time and time again, as liberal activists, many of them with ties to the ancien regime do their protests and pave the way for an Islamist takeover. Westerners typically miss the fact that so many of these protesters have a grandfather who was a high muckety muck back under the old regime, which provides them with a grievance against the current government, a good education and a certain amount of immunity from police reprisals, (this is the case with both Sandmonkey and Big Pharaoh).

More than painting a profile of Islamist tyranny, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (now a motion picture) accurately and painfully captures the face of the privileged upper class liberal opposition to the Shah, which proves to be every bit as useless in actually taking power and useful to the Islamists, as the Egyptian opposition is these days. The mirage her Westernized parents lived in, is the same mirage that those Westerners hoping for a Democratized Middle East inhabit.

The first and final law of government is ultimately that of force. Force is leavened by democracy only with a government and military that actively submits to constitutional control. When that control is removed, all that is left is that first and final law, the naked brutality of bullet, club and fist.

That terrible law is what rules across the Middle East and it is the first and final law that would be reformers and democratizers must consider.


  1. Liberia also proved that just making a nation with democratic government does not work.
    The government IS the people and if it is not in the hearts of the people if they are not committed to it and will not fight for it, it is empty.

  2. Sultan, I'm afraid that the type of democracy being pushed by our leaders, both in the US and Israel, is for our democracies to be equal to that of the Arabs. Military and strategic victory should encounter only small resistance if that is what is truly being pursued. When it is a permanent presence for the corporate world for reasons of their profits more than for reasons of protecting the vital interests of our own countries and people, there is a need for a change of leaders and a new strategy.

    We have a fully capable military. It is the capabilities (or loyalties) of the civilians who control the military which need to be examined. If we don't, we will wind up with levels of "democracy" equal to that of the Middle East.

  3. we have no problem winning wars but our military wasn't designed for an occupation, let alone one in which civilians and even enemies call the shots and set the terms

    the achievements in Iraq are nevertheless amazing but the entire idea of democracy we have is based on a false premise that doesn't apply to those parts of the world

  4. The iraq project will fail. If you have to use the military to force a democracy on a country and stay there until they give in - that's not exactly a democracy.

    That's what's happening over there.

  5. How relevant this article turns to be now, in light of the events in Egypt.

    The "you might also like" feature is great!


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