Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Do not Free the Lebanese in Syrian jails! An (Arab) Democratic Appeal

By Jihad Bitar

Yes, this is an open letter through to all Lebanese and Syrian politicians. Please do not free the Lebanese in Syrian jails, and this for many reasons:

1- They are not important (Michel Aoun during his joint interview with Hassan Nassrallah last year, said that this was not a major issue…and those in jail for fighting for Aoun – while he was hiding in a French embassy- should I think kill themselves out of shame).

2- They are guilty…Yes, they are guilty of being anti-Syrian, they should be hanged…this is how Arab Democracy should be.

3- They love torture …no doubt about that, if they did not love being tortured they wouldn’t have chosen to (Arab) democratically go to jail.

4- They are getting free diet sessions (one prisoner who was released last year recalled how he got 1 potato – rass batata – a day).

5- They are anti democratic. If in Syrian jail, that must be because they are against the Arab Syrian Democratic Republic!

6- They simply do not exist – Sayyed Hassan Nassrallah in his celebration speech for Samir Quntar, listed the Resistance’s next objectives: and Lebanese in Syrian jails did not make the list... Lebanese citizen Sayyed Hassan set the freedom of 4 Iranian diplomats in Israeli jails as an objective, rather than those Lebanese prisoners; that must be because they do not exist.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

All is not fine in Egypt

By Ahmad Mustafa*

Egyptian demonstrators carrying bread (AP)

Although there are no major riots or violent protests in Egypt that can make headlines on satellite channels, the country is not at all quiet under the surface. It appears that the honeymoon of the energetic government, installed four years ago, is coming to an end soon. You can easily feel it through what you hear from the majority of Egyptians, from all walks of life, who share one negative theme: no trust in the future.
When President Hosni Mubarak appointed Dr Ahmad Nazif as the prime minister of the country in the summer of 2004, everybody - in and out of Egypt - was talking about a new generation of government in which Mubarak's son, Jamal, has been playing a major part from behind-the-scene. With limited reshuffles, Nazif's cabinet included more business people than technocrats and the influential body within the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) led by Jamal Mubarak became more and more powerful.
At that time, many analysts and international institutions hailed the developments as they were keen to see any sort of reform in a stagnant Egypt.
Initially, the new government did live up to its expectations and did not falter. In its first couple of years, it launched an ambitious programme to reform the economy and set straight most of the books on macro-economy.
Though some of the reforms were painful and stirred internal opposition, most Egyptians gave the government the benefit of the doubt and waited to see its trickle-down effect.
Except for a section of the elite - a marginal minority in Egypt - most people did not care too much about the issue of "inheritance of power" from the father to the son and the preparation for the rise of Mubarak Jr.
Majority of the Egyptians are indifferent to the ruling regime, to the extent that in the 19th century when they had the power in their hands they brought in an Albanian (Mohammad Ali) to rule them.
Being indifferent does not essentially mean that they do not know; they know about the sins of omission and commission in their country. But they always say: OK, fine, as I can live and sustain it. But of late they are finding it difficult to meet their basic needs and foresee a bleak future.

Not successful

Clever and enthusiastic ministers in Nazif's government, especially those in charge of the economy, were not successful in gaining the trust of the people in what they were doing. They were keener to talk in English to the outside world and left the more than 70 million Egyptians to the anxious wait to see any benefit.
If it were acceptable in the first half of the government's time in office to focus on major - and sometimes shocking - moves to liberalise the economy, it might not be the case in the last couple of years.
As the government kept on its programme without any political effort to convince the people of the "light at the end of the tunnel", the tide is now turning against it and unfortunately against the much needed reforms itself.
One might argue that economic reform without political reform cannot be a remedy, especially in a country such as Egypt. Yet, even though the pace of political reform does not match the economic reform, the government is trying to force the latter with some political oppression.
That cannot work, and might even strip the economic reform of any meaning. The number of laws passed in the legislature and amendments made to them in a very short time is not a safeguard to a change; rather they are fragile rules that are forced on the people who have no say, or are just ignored as ignorant.
Self-proclaimed economic super-geeks will not be able to keep on like this. Their actions threaten the delicate socio-political fabric of the country. You cannot simply impose models that look perfect on paper and expect the tens of millions of people to cheer you as a hero.
Egypt is not a poor country and seeing the number of Egyptian millionaires living in the UK and elsewhere in Europe and North America, you can tell that the country is gifted.
It was ill-managed, right. But it does not seem to be well-managed now as far as its people are deprived of everything: basic needs and rights including having a say in what is going on in their country.

*Dr Ahmad Mustafa, a London-based Arab writer. Apart from many other journalistic activities, Dr Mustafa is a regular columnist for the Emirati Gulf News newspaper. (This article was published in Gulf News on the 29th of June 2008.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why the ‘Sand Niggers’ should vote for Obama

By Joseph El-Khoury

Out of all derogatory terms used for Arabs in the Anglo-Saxon world 'Sand Niggers' is the one that best describes their present situation at the ethnic group everyone loves to hate. For other colourful expressions I would refer you to the Urban Dictionary available on the web. Similar to the way Black people were perceived as lacking in morals, naturally violent, immune to any cultural sense, lazy and unreliable in a pre-civil rights movements America, anti-Arab prejudice is mainstream post 9/11.

As mentioned by various Arab media outlets, both candidates to the US presidency have made very little attempts to attract the vote of approximately 1.5millions Arab-Americans, who in some states (Michigan, Ohio) make a significant minority. These might even prove more crucial if the race is tight. While McCain seems at all uninterested in this community, Barack Obama went out of his way to distance himself from any display of Muslim support for his campaign, even asking young veiled women to step out from a camera shot during a rally. This is hardly surprising for the son of a Kenyan Muslim who spent his early years in Indonesia. His advisors know that while Christian America might forgive him for being Black, it will not allow him any flirtation with the ’Evil Religion’.

To be fair to Senator Obama and his opponent, the Arab-American community is neither homogeneous nor united. It is split down many religious, socio-economical and cultural fault lines that go beyond the generational gap common to every immigrant community. In general terms, Lebanese (also Syrian and Iraqi to a lesser extent) Americans of Christian extraction form a distinct sizeable group who maintain strong links to their motherland but are keen to show themselves as ‘faith cousins’ fully integrated to the American dream. Coptic Egyptians are a smaller but well organised group with a militant Christian streak. They are socially conservative on issues such as abortion, gay rights and the death penalty and feel comfortable in enlightened republican circles. Many Muslim Arabs of various origins are as socially conservative but find it harder to show their American credentials due to a heavier religious and cultural load. In some cases this extends to public expressions of faith (The veil) which for the insulated average American belong to the enemy. Their Arab identity is emphasised in relation to other Muslims but more recently the two groups have grown closer as a consequence of wholesale prejudice against them and the Islamisation of the Palestinian struggle. US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan only served to confirm their beliefs in a conspiracy targeting the existence of their religion.

The issue or Israel remains essential to understanding the relation between Arab-Americans and their adopted country. The US has been unwavering in its support for the Zionist entity since its creation in 1948 providing it consistently with the financial, technological, military means to dominate the Middle East and wreck the hopes of one Arab generation after the other. This is unlikely to change regardless of who takes over the White House come November. But two factors Arab voters should consider while casting their votes. The first factor is that An Obama administration will not be motivated by ideology in its position vis-a-vis Israel while remnants of the neo-conservative and evangelical Christian agenda will persist in a Bush-McCain transition. Pragmatic policies might still be detrimental to the Palestinians but are easier to debate and challenge than those backed by divine intervention. The second factor is that the election of a Liberal modern Black man to the highest office will be good for America, whatever foreign policy he adopts. This is a revolution in the making and as all astute immigrants know it is by joining hands with the locals for the common good that you gain acceptance. As the American poet Gil Scott-Heron cynically puts it: ‘The revolution will not be televised...’ but the election certainly will!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

De-politicize the Bible and the Quran

By Elie Elhadj

Image: Courtesy of :

For a long-term durable solution to the Arab Israeli conflict, a single democratic and secular state for Jews and Palestinians needs to evolve. Other solutions are like band-aid treatment to cancer. The dream of an exclusive Jewish state in Palestine is unsustainable, unless the Palestinians vanish.
Muslim and Jew can live together in peace. History is the proof. Hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in Arab countries peaceably for centuries. In his Coningsby, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1868 and 1874-1880), the first and thus far the only person of Jewish parentage to reach the premiership, described the “halcyon centuries” in Muslim Spain where the “children of Ishmael rewarded the children of Israel with equal rights and privileges with themselves.” Sultan Bayezid-II (1481-1512) encouraged thousands of Jews to settle in the Muslim Ottoman Empire following their expulsion from Spain.
Around the time of Israel’s creation, more than 850,000 Jews migrated from Arab countries, 600,000 going to Israel. The charge that the Jews migrated because of Arab maltreatment is an unfair political expediency. The migration happened in the course of Israel’s creation. During this period, 531 Palestinian villages were depopulated and 805,000 refugees lost their homes, according to Palestinian sources (650,000 to 700,000 refugees, according to Jewish sources).
Islam venerates Judaism. The Quran made Abraham as the first Muslim. Islam is the Religion of Abraham. Quran’s Chapter 14 is named after Abraham and, to Joseph Chapter 12 is named. Today, Jewish derived Arabic proper names are common. Feeling powerless, the Arab masses invoked hostile Quranic Verses, recounted stories of the Prophet’s troubles with the Jewish tribes in Medina, drew lessons from substituting Friday for the Sabbath and the prayer’s direction from Jerusalem to Mecca. For thirteen centuries, however, these were non-issues.
Politicizing the Bible’s Genesis 15:18: “The Lord made a covenant with Abraham, saying, unto thy seed have I given this land from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates” politicized the Quran.
Politicizing the Bible pushed frustrated moderate Arabs into orthodoxy and the orthodox into Jihadism. The Arab Israeli conflict has degenerated to a religious war that could last for a thousand years. In provoking the enmity of their age-old Muslim friends, Zionism has radicalized Arab Muslims into Islamist extremism. In doing so, it disserved the long-term interests of the Jewish people.
Had Zionism adhered to the stipulation in the 1917 Balfour declaration: “Nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” this conflict would not have developed. The Bible and the Quran must be de-politicized.

The two-state solution is capricious:
First, demographically, a purely Jewish state is impossible to attain. The Zionist dream of creating an exclusive state for the Jewish people in Palestine is unsustainable in the long-term. Presently, about 1.3 million Palestinians are citizens of Israel, or just under 25 percent of Israel’s 5.5 million Jews. Due to their high population’s growth rate the Palestinian-Israelis will eventually become the majority. The number of Palestinians in Israel in 1948 was about 150,000. The Palestinian-Israelis are in addition to the 4.2 million Palestinians who live under Israel’s occupation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Outside Palestine, 2.6 millions are registered in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, plus 1.5 million scattered worldwide.
Secondly, Jerusalem, borders, security, water, settlements, and the refugees’ right-of-return are intractable.
When Clinton, Barak, and Arafat attempted in July 2000 to tackle these issues at Camp David, the negotiations collapsed, leading to the second intifada. Thirdly, even if a miracle patches up a two-state agreement, the extremists on both sides would undermine it.
Fourthly, the Arab masses will shun a Zionist state. Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) have failed to develop beyond small diplomatic missions.

Western secular democratic ideals should inspire a single secular democratic state:
First, the intractable obstacles would disappear. Secondly, a single state will commingle Palestinians and Jews into an inseparable mix. Arabs would no longer have an excuse to boycott their Jewish “cousins.” Economic, cultural, educational, and social interaction would follow.
Thirdly, a single state would allow Arabs and Jews access to all Palestine. The Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are instruments of integration between Palestinians and Jews, not segregation, a mixture as difficult to unscramble today as removing the Palestinian Israelis from Israel.
Durable peace requires the genuine welcome of the Arab masses of the Jewish people. The Jews who had lived among Arabs could be helpful. They share customs, habits, values, food, music, dance, and, for the older generation, the Arabic language.
Whether it would be a good bargain to exchange a partial and declining Jewish exclusivity in an unstable two-state solution for a durable single state embracing Jews and Muslims is a question Israel’s Jewish people alone can answer.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

It’s the economy… stupid!

By Bassem Hassan

Picture: AFP / Getty

First and foremost, I should thank/apologize to Bill Clinton*- or more appropriately his brilliant campaign chief James Carville- for stealing their 1992 US presidential campaign slogan and using it as a title for my article.
Having said this, I should clarify that this is not an article about the former or even current American presidential campaign.
Finally, I should tell you what this article is actually about. It is about everyone’s favorite topic: Hizbullah! And make no mistake, it is everyone’s favorite topic. If you don’t believe me, just check the number of comments any article that mentions the word Hizbullah receives on this site. In fact, if you want your article read by a lot of people, just plant the word Hizbullah at several key points throughout your article and enjoy the response and the popularity it brings with it! But I digress.
What, you may ask, does Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan have to do with the controversial Lebanese movement? Good question.
A lot in fact. A major question that surrounds Hizbullah is why is it so popular? Almost every analysis you read- generally by us self-styled intellectuals of every ideological color, shape or form- concentrates on one (and occasionally both) of two main arguments.

The first is what I shall call the argument from theology. This tends to be the argument of those who are either right of center and know it, or who are right of center but haven’t realized it yet (for example the Decoratic Left Movement, as Dr. Samah Idriss so eloquently calls it). The argument goes something like this: Hizbullah binds its followers by a bond of theological allegiance to the concept of “Wilayat al Faqih” which- as those intellectuals put it- dictates obedience to the Theologian-King (e.g. the Supreme Leader in Iran), the self-claimed representative of the 12th Shia Imam (i.e. Al-Mahdi) whose return the majority of Shia are thought to eagerly await. Please note that it is rather likely that the Supreme Leader himself is not terribly eager for Al-Mahdi to return, since that would mean the end of his own supremacy… but again, I digress. Add this formidable spiritual bond to the traditional “minoritarian” thinking of the Lebanese secterian mind et Voila: the magic potion that endears Hizbullah to its Shia base. Problem solved. Liberal thinker go home happy!Ridiculous! Cries the leftist intellectual- at least of the sort still stuck in 1973 or thereabouts and glued to different chairs of various communist party committees. Stuff and nonsense! They counter with what I shall refer to as the argument from dignity. Hizbullah is supported by its base because of its formidable resistance to the Zionist enemy and its military victories over occupation. These victories have restored dignity to the nation and offered hope that the eternal armed struggle shall defeat the enemy and liberate the holy land (in which case it would of course cease to be eternal). Viva la Revolucion! This hope for a dignified future free of occupation and oppression by the Zionist gang and its imperial masters is what guarantees the allegiance of the masses to what is- au fond- a working class liberation movement. And that’s that. Time for leftist intellectual to resume paperwork on behalf of the disenfranchised.
So, this is the gist of what you usually read- or more horrifyingly- watch on Arabic sattelite channels during the course of “political talk shows”. Brrrrrrrrrrr!
You almost never hear these analysts ask themselves the simple question of why people actually support anyone. And that’s where Bill Clinton- or rather his brilliant slogan- comes in. Yes, people want to live in dignity and freedom. But that usually starts by having a place to live in and meal to eat. It starts by not having to choose between dinner and sending your kids to school. It starts by having paved roads to facilitate economic and social life. It starts by having access to water and electricity to wash your clothes and keep clean. It starts by earning your living through your own labour.
In other words, it starts with the sort of dignity that the Lebanese political system has not only failed to offer to the people of the south since independence, but in fact purposefully denied them. That is the sort of dignity that Hizbullah has been systematically offering people in the south of Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs since the early nineties. And that is exactly why the old Hizbullah of the early eighties- despite “Wilayat Al-Faqih” and despite heroic resistance to occupation- was almost universally loathed and feared, even among the Shia. They learned their lesson very quickly, and with ruthless efficiency: the route to people’s hearts and minds passes through their pockets. And once you have their hearts and minds, you become invincible.
There is probably no better demonstration of this fact than the aftermath of the 33-day war whose anniversary we are celebrating this week. Witness what happened to the reconstruction efforts run by the Lebanese government (i.e. dismal failure, highway robbery, and disgraceful secterian hate-mongering) and contrast that with what Hizbullah succeeded in doing (temporary apartments, a higher rate of restoration, small scale corruption and, by-and-large, even handedness). All that with significantly less money one must note.

So there-in lies their secret. Hizbullah delivers. Not only on its political and military promises, but more importantly, more fundamentally, on the promise that “its people” will live in dignity…of the sort that actually counts when you wake up every morning.

Notes to the article:
* William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton (born William Jefferson Blythe III on August 19, 1946) served as the forty-second President of the United States from 1993 to 2001.

A propos, here’s a joke for the Arabic speakers among you: Bill Clinton wu shrab mayytoh!

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Syrian crane made in France

By Bachir Habib


What we witnessed in Paris was not a Euro Mediterranean summit. The French are not dupe, neither the Europeans; and the occasion provided a good cover. What we witnessed was simply Syria’s reintegration into the International Community. Bashar Assad’s visit to Paris is his first successful international visit since 2004.
This visit has to be placed in a context, and that context is not European, it is purely Middle Eastern and challenging after the failure of the regional American project. What happened in Paris is also a European move on the international foreign policy chessboard; a daring maneuver from French President Nicolas Sarkozy who succeeded in convincing his European counterparts that the time was right for distancing themselves from previous alignment on US policy towards the region. This is even more necessary before Washington itself operates a foreign policy shifting leaving Brussels behind. Not to forget that in the United States, it is now “Time to Change” as said by the Democratic presidential contestant Barack Obama.
Sarkozy opened wide the gates of Europe and the world to the Syrian President. Paris tried to show that Assad is received only because he responded positively to the French demands: Reducing interference in Lebanon or using positive influence to help in unlocking the Lebanese political deadlock, pushing towards a Hamas – Israel truce through pressure on his Palestinian allies, and finally proving a true will to make peace with Israel and continue visibly what started secretly between the two countries two years ago as the July 2006 war raged on Lebanese soil.
This is the tip of the iceberg, but at its base resides a more serious issue: A new balance of power is being formed in the Middle East, there’s a decline (at least temporary) of American influence after decades of direct management of the region while a new Iranian (de facto) regional super power will emerge in case Teheran’s nuclear program is not halted.
This new context is highly important to France and Europe, because it’s not only the American “Greater Middle East” that is broken, but because the post cold war American Dream of a Unipolar World that has been crushed.
Is it the new dawn of Multipolarity that we’re witnessing? It might be. But it is definitely not the Multipolarity the West was dreaming of. It is one where Europe and the US will have to deal with countries like Iran, Pakistan and Venezuela (…) as regional super powers that have a National Interest to protect, same as Washington, Brussels or Moscow.
French diplomacy reveals its conviction that reintegrating Syria in the international community is the only way to take it back from Iran’s arms. But Assad declared this week that following a request from France, Syria would hold talks with Iran to try and resolve the crisis over its nuclear programme! Nicolas Sarkozy knows that this is not how Assad can be stolen from Ali Khamenei, and it is unrealistic, at least for now, to expect Damascus to take a distance from Teheran. It is rather the Iranians who are on the verge of being recognized as a great regional power, by using a Syrian crane made in France.
By the way, was Husni Mubarak there? And even if Saudi King Abdullah was with him, Assad would have remained the only star. It is simply not a good time for US allies.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The July War 2006 in Information Design

By Bachir Habib

33, is the number of days it took to implement a new Middle Eastern equation. On the 13th of July, only one day after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in Northern Israel, behind the so called “Blue Line”, Israel declared an open war on Lebanon. Hezbollah called its operation “The Truthful Promise” and Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah declared that its goal was to capture Israeli soldiers in order to exchange them with Lebanese prisoners in Israel. Two years after a war that devastated large parts of the country in just 33 days, Hezbollah is proving he is standing by his promise as we stand days away from the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israel.
Very few books have been released so far on this conflict and its outcome. But in the months and years to come this topic will become of high interest to Geo-strategists and Historians. In the meantime this war was also a source of inspiration in the artistic sphere. Pamela Hraoui, a Lebanese student of Information Design at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in London decided to use the theme for her Masters project.
In her book titled 33, with a pitch black cover, Hraoui’s concept is articulated in three different movements. The first one is displaying opposing information by contrasting the headlines of the Lebanese Daily Star and the Israeli Jerusalem Post. The second is again opposing two main pictures, one from Israel and the other from Lebanon. These pictures have no legend and speak for themselves! Her third movement involves mapping the human, economical, and military cost on both sides, day by day, with forty novel design characters and symbols of her own creation.
In this unpublished book, each day of the war is summarized in six pages based on visuals, graphics and journalistic information.
Below are snapshots of the book (copyright: Pamela Hraoui) she kindly agreed to post on Arabdemocracy in memory of the July 2006 war.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

We Can Be Heroes... Just For One Day

By Bachir Habib

As soon as the prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hezbollah left the secret sphere, it became subject to debate in the media and on newspapers pages. The UN is officially calling it a “Humanitarian Agreement”. But this labeling doesn’t seem to justify such a deal in the eyes of many in Israel.
A quick look at the daily press there is enough to reveal an aggressive debate on the issue. Even some international newspapers have fallen in the trap of the internal Israeli debate. Last week, “The Independent” correspondent in Jerusalem Donald Macintyre was the latest Western Fashion Victims choosing to title his piece “Israel to swap killer for two dead soldiers”.

This debate is not expected to end soon. It may at the contrary amplify in the coming days, as the exchange operation nears.
Whether Israel likes it or not, this UN brokered deal is the direct consequence of the July 2006 war. In a conventional war perspective, where the military operations end with a clear winner and loser, such a deal would have occurred sooner after the war. But Israel was not in a posture to admit defeat in August 2006, while Hezbollah showed much triumphalism describing as a “Divine Victory” his ability to resist the Israeli attack.
needed time; it took over a year for the Winograd Report to be issued detailing the Israeli mistakes after a lengthy investigation. After admitting defeat, it is now time for Israel to pay the price.
Under a “humanitarian” cover, Israel is making a historic move. Giving back Samir Kuntar in exchange of two (maybe dead) soldiers captured on the 12th of July 2006 is a giant leap. The interesting debate about it in Israel is about fears that such a move might become a political and juridical precedent.
The deal will most likely go forward, and the Israeli government is in need to improvise to justify such an unusual event. The latest justifications belong both to the moral sphere. One of the traditional arguments has a religious connotation, invoking Jewish practices that prohibit abandoning dead Israeli soldiers in the battle field.
But the more important and controversial argument is one of “Moral Superiority”.
After at least five decades of Israeli attempts to prove “Military Superiority” and “Technological Superiority” over its Arab neighbors, now it is has found the gift of “Moral Superiority”.
The deal will soon be implemented, Samir Kuntar will be free and welcome as a national hero in Lebanon, while the Israeli nation will overcome its grief by convincing itself that it is morally superior, only for one day. I say one day because no doubt that Israel will continue flaunting basic human rights and international war while claiming eternal victim status.

Moral superiority can only be a stranger in an entity governed by a war doctrine, where every citizen is a solider, and where peace is not possible before the opponent is completely defeated.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Failed States Index 2008

By Joseph El-Khoury

The Failed States Index for 2008 is finally out. This Index has been compiled yearly since 2005 by an organisation called 'The Fund For peace’ and published in the reputable ‘Foreign Policy’. Before the authors credibility is put at stake lets say that as always the company is based in Washington DC, staffed by Americans, under the patronage of other Americans and supported by more Americans. But since no one else worthy of mention has compiled such an index; we will have to put aside our healthy dose of scepticism and accept their mission statement in the words of their president Pauline Baker that ‘it is a research and educational organization that works to prevent war and alleviate the conditions that cause war’.

The product is a table where countries are scored according to a number of criteria touching on a range of economic, social and political factors. Those who are in a real mess are colour-coded in Red for ‘Alert’ and this year 35 countries out of a total of 177 fell in that category. We will focus our attention on those countries which are members of the Arab league. At the top spot Somalia, a country only by name since the late 70s where warlords and religious fundamentalists fight it over with occasional international attention. It is followed closely at number 2 by the Sudan of Omar El Bashir, reputed modernist and democrat, with a special weakness for minorities. At number 5 we find the fascinating democratic experience of Iraq, still one of the most dangerous places on earth five years on from the invasion. Lebanon shows up at number 18, down from 28 the previous year (The country was not even in the red in 2005), probably thanks to the combination of consistent governance and constructive opposition. In the process it has surpassed Srilanka and is only 2 down from Ethiopia (A point to consider next time you look down on your maid/servant). Yemen headed by the friendly Ali-Abdallah Saleh is at number 21 and last but not least Syria, the great defender of Arab pride and always happy to dish out advice through its foreign minister Mr Walid Muallem, at number 35. As a point of consolation in the face of poor Arab performance, Israel is only at number 58 but would surely do better only if it could get rid of this thorn in its side called the Palestinians. Its Jewish population would then live happily ever after following the rules in this rather selective democratic oasis.

For the Fund for Peace webiste

For the Foreign Policy article

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Mirage of Arab Democracy

By Elie Elhadj

Picture: Courtesy of

The Article that follows is from Elie Elhadj. M. Elhadj is a banker with 30 years of experience in New York, Philadelphia, London and Saudi Arabia. At age 54, he joined London University's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to attain his Master's Degree and Ph.D. His doctoral dissertation addressed issues of food self-sufficiency and water politics in the Middle East. In the following article, M. Elhadj explains why, in his opinion, Arab Democracy is a Mirage, and in his conclusion, he comes up with an alternative model, a very debatable one. Click on Read more to access the article.


Arab democracy is fantasy. Democratic ideology cannot defeat Islamic theology. Notwithstanding that Arab rule is tribal, corrupt, and mired in favoritism and nepotism it is significant that Arab rulers typically stay in office until death, be it natural or resulting from a military coup.
No Arab king or president, however, spares an opportunity, to display the loyalty of his subjects. While the presidents conduct stage-managed referendums in which they consistently manage to achieve near 100% approvals, the monarchs draw mile-long queues of happy-looking men on every national and religious occasion to demonstrate their people’s allegiance. Are such shows indicative of true approval, or devoid of genuine support? Regardless of the contrived appearance of these demonstrations, a degree of real support for Arab rulers does exist. It is impossible to falsify every ballot and force every subject to hail the king. When the presidents of Egypt and Yemen allowed contested presidential elections on September 7, 2005 and September 20, 2006; respectively, the former gained a fifth term with 88.6% of the votes cast, hardly different from his four previous uncontested referendums, and the latter won 77.2% majority, after 28 years of rule.
Representative democracy is not a natural choice for most Arabs.

Obedience to hierarchical Islamic authority is. In the Arab home, school, mosque, work place, and the nation at large a culture of blind obedience to autocracy prevails. Poverty, illiteracy, and ill health, together with a fatalistic belief in predestination make the masses politically quietist; except for small minorities of Jihadists and Western influenced professional activists, genuine Arab democratic reforms will not evolve for generations, if ever.

Curiously, Muslim, but non-Arab countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey, together representing almost two thirds of world Muslims, conduct democratic elections and allow female prime ministers and presidents.

Why is the political persona of the Arab masses quietist?

First, the masses fear the security forces.

Secondly, the masses worry that change could result in a worse ruler.

Thirdly, the influence of Islam is strong on the Arab peoples. The Quran describes them as the “best nation evolved to mankind” (3:110). The Prophet, His Companions, the Quran, and the Sanctuaries in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem are all Arabic. Arabs feel they are the guardians of an Arabic religion. Additionally, political frustrations during the past half-century over U.S. policies in the Middle East and Israeli humiliation have been drawing Arabs closer to Islam.
Obedience to authority is the hallmark of Islam’s political theory. In the harsh environment of the Arabian Desert, disobedience and strife could waste scarce water and staples. The Prophet Muhammad, a product of desert living, enshrined obedience to authority into the Islamic Creed. In 4:59, the Quran orders: “Obey God and obey God’s messenger and obey those of authority among you.” The Prophet has also reportedly said: “Hear and obey the emir, even if your back is whipped and your property is taken; hear and obey.” Belief in predestination makes tyrannical rulers seem as if they were ordained by God’s will. Many eminent Islamic jurists opine that in the name of societal peace, years of unjust ruler are better that a day of societal strife.
Today, Arab rulers exploit Islam to prolong their dictatorships. Egypt’s president and the Saudi king declared on February 24, 2004: “The Western model of democracy does not necessarily fit a region largely driven by Islamic teaching.” Pandering Ulama to Arab kings and presidents preach that obedience to Muslim authority is a form of piety.

Fourthly, in the Arab home, poverty drives the father to transform his children into a ‘security blanket’ for old age. Fear of destitution makes the father into what Nobel Laureate Najib Mahfouz calls the “central agent of repression,” constantly threatening his children with the wrath of God if they disobey him.
At school, corporal punishment terrorizes students into blind obedience in classrooms. The manager at work, a product of the Arab milieu, demands obsequiousness from subordinates. In the thin Arab labor markets, the employee finds that blind obedience averts financial catastrophe.

Islamist democracy is no Western democracy. Lately, leaders of the Arab World’s best known Islamist movement, the Muslim Brothers, have been supporting free parliamentary elections. Is Islamist parliamentary democracy consistent with Western democracy? The answer is no. The parliament in an Islamist democracy is not the final authority in lawmaking. Islamist parliamentary democracy superimposes an Islamist constitutional court composed of unelected clerics on top of an elected parliament to ensure that man’s laws comply with God’s laws, a structure similar to Iran’s Council of Guardians.

Is the Islamist constitutional court similar to Western constitutional courts? Again, the answer is no. While the former adjudicates according to the Ulama’s interpretation of Sharia law, the latter adjudicates according to parliamentary laws.

The failure of Washington’s Arab democratization project Washington has been supporting Arab dictators in order to keep the Islamists at bay. The advances that the Islamists made in every one of the Arab countries that held elections in 2005 and early 2006 at the instigation of the Bush administration indicate that the foray into Arab elections might be over.
In the occupied Palestinian territories, the Islamist Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats. Iraq’s January 30, 2005 elections were expedited, if not forced, by the leader of the country’s Shiite majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. His candidates won 140 of the 275 parliamentary seats: In the December 15, 2005 elections, they won 128 seats. In Saudi Arabia, the 2005 municipal council elections were theatrics. Women were excluded. One-half of the councilors were government appointed and the councils have no power, merely a local advisory role. In Egypt, members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood stood as independents in the November-December 2005 parliamentary elections. They won 88 seats, or 20% of the parliamentary seats. They could have won more seats, had they been allowed to campaign freely.
Finally, the cause of democracy was certainly not enhanced when Colonel Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, capitulated to U.S. pressure without an ounce of change in his tyrannical rule.

The U.S.' “War on Terrorism” has also delayed Arab democratic reforms.

Since Arab rulers’ cooperation is needed to eliminate the local Jihadists, Washington cannot seriously pressure its dictator friends to become democrats, because of the fear that democracy could usher more Islamists into city hall. Furthermore, the enormity of the damage inflicted upon Iraq since 2003 by the American occupation in the name of democracy has repelled the Arab masses from democratic reforms. Arab kings and presidents are delighted!

An alternative to Arab democracy

Since democratic governance is unlikely to grow in Arab soil, an alternative would be benevolent dictatorship. Except for its non-representative nature, benevolent dictatorship could deliver participatory rule, ensure justice for all, and fight corruption, nepotism, sectarianism and tribalism; thus, defusing the anger that breeds and inflames the Jihadists.

How likely is it that benevolent dictatorships might replace Arab rulers’ absolute rule? The answer is that since benevolent dictatorship does not evolve institutionally there is no predictable pattern to discern here. There might be a coup d’état by a benevolent dictator tomorrow; or, there might not be one, ever.

Arab democracy is fantasy.

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