November 4, 2016    4 minute read

‘Arab Democracy’ – An Oxymoron? Hardly.

The Demonisation Of The Middle East    November 4, 2016    4 minute read

‘Arab Democracy’ – An Oxymoron? Hardly.


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“Japan is not a Western democracy. The Japanese have kept their traditions, culture and heritage, but they have joined the community of free nations.”

Natan Sharansky

Following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, the US under President George W. Bush decided to proclaim a “war on terror” which entailed invading Iraq in 2003 and removing its dictator Saddam Hussein. Ignorant to the cultural and historical traditions of the region, President Bush then attempted to impose a form of democracy based on the nation-state which derived from Western models.

A Presidential Failure

However, following the administration’s neoconservatives’ evident lack of knowledge and expertise in the region, coupled with a frightening absence of a coherent strategy, the invasion of Iraq was arguably the greatest failure of a President in the US’s history, costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars as a result.

So great and traumatic were the results of the invasion that the scars of the Iraq War are still felt across the Western world, the problem being that the “lesson” taken from the Iraq war, and the status quo opinion formed was that, evidently, democracy could not succeed in the Middle East.

But is this just a defence mechanism, perhaps indirectly placing the blame of the invasion of Iraq down the people in the Middle East? The West did everything they could, but the culture and traditions of the Middle East simply do not mix with all democratic values.

They were fighting a losing cause the moment they invaded Iraq and attempted to install “democracy,” they argue. The irony in this logic is that, in large part, it has been the West that has been responsible for actively scuppering democratising efforts in the Middle East by the indigenous people. The Western power elites have viewed the Middle East as no more than a region of multiple resources and strategic interests. Hence, their aim has been to keep it “stable” and “manageable.”

The Western Interference

For example, during the 1950s in Iran, the elected government was overthrown in 1953 by a US-British alliance. Mohammad Mosaddeq was Iran’s elected prime minister, and he enjoyed the approval of Iran’s parliament for his nationalisation programme in which he moved to nationalise Iranian oil and throw out foreign control of oil fields.

The US and Britain organised a CIA-led coup to oust Mosaddeq because Iran refused to make oil concessions to the West. Thus, primarily concerned with their interests, whether that be access to supplies of oil or key military bases, the US and its allies have been responsible, not for promoting, but demoting democracy in the region.

While it does not help to illustrate the damaging effect the West’s involvement have had in the Middle East, the key point to take is that the path to a democratic society entails a gradual, evolutionary process. Freedom House (a US-based NGO) and various other freedom indices categorise Kuwait, Tunisia, Lebanon, Turkey, and Morocco as democratic Middle Eastern countries.

Countries that are occasionally classified as partly democratic are Egypt and Iraq.

Democracy Takes Time

So is the concept of an “Arab democracy” an oxymoron? Of course not. It would be foolish to expect democracy to spread across the Middle East, transforming the political landscape, in just a few years. But it would also be foolish to suggest that democracy could never take hold and prosper in this tormented region.

The lesson of East Asia provides a strong cautionary note for claiming that non-Western societies can not conclusively establish a democratic state. In the 1960s and 1970s, the common wisdom was that the “Confucian societies” of East Asia were bred only to conformity and autocracy.

Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines have proved that wrong. Similarly, democracy has arrived in parts of the Middle East, and will undoubtedly continue to grow and spread across the region, but one should just not expect the virtues of democracy in the Arab world to sing to the same tune of the West.

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