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Arab democracy could take centuries, or never happen

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In light of the turmoil currently facing the Middle East, it would be an understatement to say that the media have had a difficult time making sense of the prospects for “Arab Spring” democracy.

Writing from Tunis about the assassination earlier this month of Chokri Belaid, the leader of the secular opposition, the Globe and Mail’s Eric Reguly reflected on dire situation in Tunisia: “[T]he political chaos threatens to tarnish, perhaps even destroy, [the country’s] reputation as the model in the Arab world for transition from dictatorship to modern democracy.”

Non-democratic regional movements, specifically those characterized by tribalism (Libya) and Islamic authoritarianism (Egypt), appear to be gaining at the expense of prospects for liberal freedoms.

It was never clear from the start of the Arab Spring that the liberal freedoms we identify with democracy in the West – including individual rights and respect for minority rights – were the aspirations shared by the majority of those seeking freedom from tyranny in the Middle East. Indeed, most (if not all) of the societies in question remain patriarchal and religiously conservative.

Still, numerous experts continue to argue that the Arab Spring remains the harbinger of “real” democracy (that is, beyond the mere mechanics of elections). Those same analysts caution that, like other historical struggles for freedom, this will take time and involve setbacks.

In the Feb. 13 Times of Israel, Elhanan Miller interviewed Yigal Carmon, founder and president of the Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors and translates the Arab and Muslim media in the region. Miller points out that Carmon, who has studied the Middle East for decades, considers it racist to claim that Arabs cannot build democratic societies.

The challenge, however, is that the move to such a political order could take a very long time – measured in centuries. As Carmon notes: “There are no shortcuts in history. Europe took hundreds of years to agree on a progressive set of values.”

According to Miller, “Carmon scoffs at the notion that a monolithic Islam has taken root in the Arab world… Far from an amorphous ‘Islam’ taking power, states are rapidly disintegrating into smaller structures representing region, tribe, religion and ethnic group.” 

Coincidentally, Tom Friedman, in the New York Times (Feb. 10), drew attention to similar points about time frames and these smaller structures. Writing from New Delhi, but looking at the broader region, Friedman wrote: “Indian officials tend to think in centuries, not months, and they look at the map of the Middle East without any of the British-drawn colonial borders [following World War I]...

“‘If you want to understand this region, just take out a map from the Ganges to the Nile and remove the British lines,’ remarked M. J. Akbar, the veteran Indian Muslim journalist and author. It takes you back to the true undercurrents of history that have long ruled the Middle East ‘and to interests defined by people and tribes and not just governments.”

The references here to region, tribe and religion correspond with Carmon’s thoughts. But, significantly, there is no indication that they hold the promise for any movement to democracy. Just the opposite appears to be the case, given the atavism, the return to an earlier order, to which Friedman alludes.

“So from India, the struggle in Syria looks like just another chapter in the long-running Sunni-Shiite civil war,” which never ends but can only be “suppressed,” he remarks.

Friedman foresees a Syria that breaks apart into Sunni and (Shiite-related) Alawite regions. He also reminds us that a similar process is already underway in Iraq, where “deep historical currents were at play there – Sunnis versus Shiites and Kurds versus Arabs.”  

We may not have adequate perspective to see what lies ahead for the Arab Spring. And we certainly don’t have centuries to find out. What seems fair to say, however, is that early signs do not look promising.

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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