Power to the people

Suddenly, democracy is springing up in the Middle East. But is it related to events in Iraq? The Sunday Times’ Jon Swain in Cairo and Sarah Baxter in Washington explain.

  • E-Mail
By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  March 13, 2005

Power to the people|~|COVER-STORY-200.jpg|~||~|Suddenly, democracy is springing up in the Middle East. But is it related to events in Iraq? The Sunday Times’ Jon Swain in Cairo and Sarah Baxter in Washington explain. IN A FADED Washington mansion with a grand circular staircase, the formerly elegant ballroom is now cluttered with desks and telephones. The lines were busy late last year with calls to Ukraine. Now they are connected to dissidents and reformers in Lebanon, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East where democracy is stirring. This is the headquarters of Freedom House, a little known but increasingly effective outpost of American soft power. When Ukraine went to the polls last November, Freedom House quietly drafted in election observers, ran exit polls that exposed the corrupt government’s ballot rigging and advised the young activists of the Orange revolution on the art of pamphleteering and street protest. Its office in Kyrgyzstan, another former Soviet republic, had its power cut last month because it was printing the only independent newspapers and election leaflets for opponents of the government during the country’s polls. The American embassy quickly stepped in to provide two generators. Freedom House’s new target is its most ambitious yet: the Middle East, where a display of people power in Lebanon has drawn the world’s attention to a phenomenon few thought was even possible — the stirrings of democracy in a region notorious for its lack of democracy — and which has caught most of the world by surprise. It is too soon to say that there is a domino effect under way in the Middle East as powerful as the one that ended the Soviet Union 13 years ago. But the recent elections in Iraq, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, and now president Hosni Mubarak’s first significant move towards Egyptian political reform in decades — under pressure from Washington he is allowing other candidates to challenge him in a presidential election — are indicators of a political shift. So, too, is the stunning resignation of Lebanon’s government and the street protests in Beirut demanding free and fair parliamentary elections this spring and an end to Syrian occupation following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. For both the Arabs and the Americans, this dramatic political awakening offers a difficult paradox. Sixteen months ago Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader, described Paul Wolfowitz, the American deputy secretary of defence, as a “filthy son of a harlot of Zion” and hoped for the early death of “people like him in Washington who are spreading disorder in Arab lands, Iraq and Palestine”. Yet it is Jumblatt who, as demonstrators took to the streets around him, galvanised the world’s attention by publicly recognising the role of these hated Americans as a catalyst for democratic reform. “It’s strange for me to say it,” he told The Washington Post last month in an interview that has reverberated around the world, “but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq.” He went on: “I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.” For all that Iraq remains in dangerous turmoil, Jumblatt’s remarks lent iconic status. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iraqi election is now a benchmark from which there can be no turning back — just as president George W. Bush’s neoconservative allies had predicted. The White House is celebrating this astounding political vindication with a restraint that was markedly absent from its handling of Iraq. For Bush faces the paradox that he would trample such democratic stirrings at birth if he were to claim to be the father of them. Washington won the open and lasting plaudits of nations liberated in the collapse of the Soviet empire; but in Arab countries America remains a cause of fear and resentment. No budding Arab democrat wants to be publicly associated with Israel’s friend (or, if they are Egyptian or Saudi, with the friend of their own undemocratic ruler). This need to deny America its celebration was demonstrated by Michel Nawfal, a respected Lebanese political journalist, with his analysis of the Iraqi election. “Saddam Hussein’s style of regime and practices furnished the West with the justifications to invade and enforce a regime change,” he said, “and when Iraqis participated in the elections in Iraq, despite the dangers and threats from insurgents, they did so out of personal choice and not as a result of American choice or demand. “If anything, most braved the dangers and participated in the elections as a means of installing a government that they hoped would speed up the withdrawal of the American forces and bring about an end to occupation.” In Damascus, where the recent emboldening of opposition intellectuals is the only sign of the liberalisation expected of president Bashar Assad when he succeeded his father four years ago, anti-Americanism remains de rigueur among his critics. Ayman Abdul Nour, a political analyst who a week ago sent the president an open letter asking him to quit Lebanon or face looming dangers, insisted that Syrians “were not affected” by the Iraqi elections. “Most say if having democracy means being occupied by the Americans then we would rather live without it,” he said. “This also includes all of the Syrian opposition.” In Cairo’s chaotic streets nobody seems to have a good word for Bush. Long before Iraq, America’s credibility had evaporated because of its support for Israel and dictatorial Arab regimes — such as Egypt’s — which have comprehensively failed their people over many years. But in the past few days some prominent people in Cairo have acknowledged that Bush’s steadfast policy to advance democracy and freedom in the Arab world seems to be paying dividends and that the region is potentially on the verge of changes of tectonic proportions. Hisham Kassem, publisher of Egypt’s newest newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm (Egypt Today), talks of an “Arabian spring”. “History will do Bush justice after he has left the White House,” Kassem said. “With his advisers he is today the most unpopular American president ever in the Middle East. But he is really a man who did this region good. “The Americans have done a wonderful job. It is because of their pressure that we have had this opening in Egypt. Criticising Mubarak was forbidden prior to the pressure they put on him.” But in a theatre just a few streets away from Kassem’s office, America’s role in Iraq is being attacked on stage to rapt audiences and critical acclaim in a play called Vietnam Two by Ahmed Abu Haiba, a moderate Egyptian Islamist. In Egypt, as across much of the Arab world, it is believed that America wants to take control of the Middle East for its oil. The theatre audience claps and praises Allah every time the Americans suffer a setback. Washington appears to understand this Arab ambivalence. The result has been a significant silence about the “Arabian spring”. From Tony Blair to Kenneth Adelman, a neoconservative bulwark of the administration and patron of Freedom House, there has been no crowing from the president’s friends. Bush has confined himself to a firm order to Syria to get out of Lebanon. There was no mawkish leap onto the Lebanese democratic bandwagon. Just as Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric, which so upset his west European allies, led to a private diplomacy that fatally wore away the Soviet carapace, so Bush’s first-term “axis of evil” megaphone diplomacy and military interventionism seem to have undergone a second-term transformation into subtle statecraft to coax the Middle East towards peace and democratic stability. Even to articulate such an amibitious goal is to invite ridicule, however. Unlike the Soviet empire, the Arab lands are not one bloc but a vast swathe of discrete communities from the Atlantic to the Gulf, each with its own history, blood feuds, power elites and distinct response to local political pressures. There is no coercive ideology to unify against or a central authority that, once shattered, would set the entire Arab nation on the road to democracy. Islam, with its Sunni-Shiite tensions, both unites and divides. The one unifier — outrage at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians — has been exploited by some Arab demagogues for half a century to keep themselves in power. General Sir Peter de la Billière, the British Army commander from the first Gulf war and an Arabist with long experience of the region and its rulers, warned against euphoria last week. “There’s a degree of change unthinkable five years ago, but it’s not dramatic and it’s not going to change the Middle East overnight,” he said. “Going from a tribal system to a democracy needs to be done gradually and in an ordered way. The rulers in Saudi fear Islam because they know it’s going to cause unrest. The fundamentalist elements in these societies are lined up against the more liberal parts and you have to see order and discipline somehow. “Iraq may have had a great election, but it’s not order out of chaos; if anything it’s the other way round. We’re not out of the tunnel by a long way. “Lebanon is okay — it’s a special case. It has always been a liberal country, despite the Syrian involvement. It’s always had a government; it’s quite different from Saudi Arabia and even Jordan. “Kuwait was already moving down the democratic path and Bahrain has introduced elections; but we wouldn’t see either as being particularly democratic. These are different people with different heritages. To think that we can impose western democracies overnight is wishful thinking.” Within this contradictory political landscape, even some of the shrewdest observers are baffled. “You have a wind of change,” said Andre Azoulay, adviser to the king of Morocco (and the only Jewish adviser to an Arab head of state). “There is a breath of fresh air in the region. But I can’t tell you quite what it means. “Is it coming from one place? It’s not being imposed from above — it is more a conjunction of different situations with a convergence now in a certain direction. It is not the answer or result of what the United States government is expecting, because it comes from inside these countries. There is an emergence of civil society. From Mauritania to the borders of Asia there is a new wind.” If not from America or Iraq, where does the “breath of fresh air” come from — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the quietly reforming Gulf states? Many Arabs tend to believe that all change in the Middle East is anchored in Cairo, so political developments in this ancient city of 18 million are monitored closely. The old proverb “Misr umm al dunya” — “Egypt is the mother of the world” — may be an exaggeration, but it is the largest and most populous Arab country. While no longer the pan-Arab leader that it was in the Nasser era, Egypt is indispensable to any political progress in the Middle East. But Egypt’s own part in the Arabian spring is plainly the consequence of a nudge from Washington. Cairo remains a city of contradictions. Women covered head to toe in hijabs walk past shops filled with skimpy lingerie. In the summer the city is brimming with Gulf Arabs who, despite having exported Wahhabist Islamic conservatism to Egypt in the 1980s, come to the city for the good time they cannot find in their own countries. There is also, for all its outward vibrancy, a pervasive sense of drift. “It is like riding a helter-skelter in a too-heavy car that just keeps going down and down towards the bottom,” says Wael Nawara, a businessman. Amid the shifting moods and customs, however, there has been one constant over the past two decades. With strong American support, Mubarak has ruled Egypt under emergency laws — with increasingly pharaonic tendencies — since the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in 1981. Under Mubarak, Egypt is a mere facade of democracy. There is no genuine freedom of speech and some 15,000 political prisoners are held in jail. A few weeks ago an opposition journalist was picked up by government thugs, bundled into a car, driven into the desert outside Cairo, stripped and left to walk naked back to the city. The tensions that arise from attempting democratic reform in an oil-rich society under absolute monarchy were demonstrated last week in Bahrain, where three internet “bloggers” were thrown in jail for insulting the royal family. Bahrain held parliamentary elections three years ago — women were allowed to vote — but the 70% Shiite majority population has continued to complain that the Sunni ruling family retains control through an appointed upper chamber of parliament. Without a fully free press, according to critics of the family, the internet has emerged as a forum for dissent through weblogs. “Every village in Bahrain has one — even the most remote villages,” said a blogger in her twenties. “You get a lot of different opinions on there and you really feel the pulse of the street.” However, government officials also scan these internet forums and the bloggers were arrested two weeks ago accused of defaming the monarch, Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, spreading false rumours and spreading hatred of the regime on a site (bahrainonline.org) that gets an average of 80,000 hits a day. They could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Last November, however, the king ordered the immediate release of a human rights activist jailed for a year for inciting hatred of the government. If the Bahrain bloggers have transgressed in a relatively benign climate, young Arabs like them are seen by the Americans at Freedom House as the key to democratic mobilisation against tougher regimes. Copying the tactics deployed in the former Soviet bloc, its staffers hope to seek out a young generation of democracy campaigners and street activists, offer them free use of Freedom House computers and printing presses and help them to deploy catchy slogans such as “Enough!”, used by Egyptian students against Mubarak last month. Freedom House acknowledges, however, that it will be far more difficult to operate in conspiracy-minded anti-American Middle Eastern countries. It is also concerned that the activists it supports may be jailed. “It is important that Americans and other well-wishers do not think these events are about us. They are about the people who are taking the risks. For this project to succeed it has to be an Arab project,” said Tom Melia, a professor at Georgetown University who advises Freedom House on the promotion of democracy and civil society. “If it is identified with Uncle Sam, it will be difficult for people to claim they are standing on their own two feet.” Melia, a Democrat, added: “You don’t have to be an enthusiast for Bush to know that many of his critics were wrong. Making democracy a strategic goal for American interests in the world doesn’t sound so wacky anymore.” It is a point conceded by one of the sharpest of those critics, Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian, who wrote last week: “We ought to admit that the dark cloud of the Iraq war may have carried a silver lining.”  Additional reporting: Hala Jaber in Beirut and Damascus; Tom Walker in London; Roger Harrison in Saudi Arabia; and Robert Smith in Bahrain. ||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code