Can we only do it if no one tells us to? Abdel-Moneim Said
* examines the controversy over reform
The Anglo-Saxon war on Iraq has revealed much, not just about Iraq and its government, but also about the Arab psyche. The stereotype of the Arabs as a divided people is only partially true. For whether they are ordinary people chatting in cafÃ©s or pundits opining on the new satellite stations, the Arabs generally agree about two things: that (a) the United States will not create democracy in Iraq, and that (b) even if this were to happen, democracy achieved at the point of a US bayonet is unacceptable.
The result has been to revive an old controversy, one that Arab countries and their emerging elites had already grappled with throughout the period of Western colonial rule. After all, both British and French colonialism emanated from democratic regimes; both claimed to seek to democratise the Arab world and install more enlightened forms of governance than those practised by the Ottomans. Yet throughout the fight against Western colonialism, the Arab elites always found these claims hard to believe.
This reaction to colonialism was peculiar to the Arab world. It differed, for instance, from that of the Indian independence movement. The Indian elite always saw democracy as a system that was both efficient and capable of safeguarding human rights. They therefore made democracy central to their policies for a post-colonial India, despite the fact that this system was being championed by the same power they were fighting against. Ghandi was aware that the quest for independence should not be allowed to cause a rift between the people of India and the achievements of Western civilisation, chief amongst them, liberal ideals and democracy.
The Arab elite, however, was less clear on this matter. After a brief flirtation with liberalism, the independence movement became tainted with fascistic tendencies, whether inspired by religion or nationalism. The idea of the "just despot" gained currency. Many argued that if we were to adopt a Western- style democracy, this would be an admission of our own inferiority, and thus tantamount to recognition of the merits of the colonialists.
In 1942, a dramatic event sealed the fate of democratisation in the region. The British ordered King Farouk of Egypt to let the Wafd Party form a government. The Wafd held a majority in parliament, and were therefore perfectly entitled to govern the country; but Egyptian and Arab intellectuals and political leaders felt humiliated by the spectacle of the Wafd accepting this charge under the protection of the British. From that moment on, a new brand of activism began to take shape, as the Iron Guards, the Muslim Brothers, and the Ba'thists, among others, rode the wave of popular support. A succession of coups d'Ã©tats followed, which eventually brought to power a military elite which was determined to rule on behalf of the people, rather than listen to what the people had to say.
The question of independence versus democracy remains unresolved to this day. Some within our ruling elite still see self- determination as a licence to create fascistic, Saddam-style, regimes. Some still argue that democracy does not suit our countries, because we lack certain "traits". An entire body of myth has been created around the cultural requirements for democracy to thrive, and how only countries which are blessed with an unusual and innate capacity to uphold justice and tolerate opposing points of view should be permitted to dabble in the dark science of participatory politics.
Democratic countries, according to this myth, resolved all their social and economic problems before working their way to real existing political freedom. Being unprepared, we Arabs should not venture into these treacherous waters. If we do, the result can only be chaos: civil wars will erupt, and our homelands will be torn apart. It is remarkable how this self-abasing view has become so prevalent, considering how jealously we guard our particular identities and distinguished traditions, and how incessantly we extol our capacity for love and tolerance.
As the Cold War ended and globalisation became a dominant factor in international relations, our dilemma became more acute. A heated debate emerged in the Arab world about how globalisation is just another word for "Americanisation". Since America is Israel's main backer, so the argument went, globalisation must be flawed -- particularly the part of the package which concerns democracy. This paranoia of reform, and the alarm with which we greeted the reorganisation of world markets, reveals our deep-seated suspicion of everything American. Nothing is acceptable in the Arab world if it comes from the United States -- even if it can be helpful.
This dilemma was apparent even before the Anglo-Saxon war on Iraq started, in the way the Arab press reacted to US Secretary of State Colin Powell's initiative on US-Middle East partnership. Although based on the conclusions of the Arab Human Development Report, prepared by our own specialists under the aegis of the UN Development Programme, many Arabs questioned this initiative's sincerity. Powell's speech to the Heritage Foundation on 12 December 2002 was sprinkled with quotations from President Mubarak and Queen Rania, and even included lines of poetry by Hafiz Ibrahim. Yet the media reacted as if he had committed some sort of insolent invasion of Arab privacy.
As for its content, Powell's initiative invoked common historic and religious roots with the Middle East, as well as existing strategic bonds; yet it was received with disapproval, even by the Arab opposition. All of a sudden, the entire Arab world seemed to be violently opposed to reform and change -- simply because the United States was urging it on us. Arab reformists, who had for years made the same demands, were embarrassed to see the Americans hijacking their language.
Why then are the Arabs always so happy to accept US money, military aid, and even security protection, and yet see any political proposals emerging from Washington as pure and unadulterated evil? Why do bilaterally acceptable matters turn into multilateral taboos, as they did so regularly during the Arab meetings both before and after the war on Iraq? The answer to this question is not as simple as it might at first appear.
Arab countries are clearly jealous of their independence and sovereignty. In the aftermath of 11 September, religious and ethnic sensitivities have become particularly acute. References to the clash of civilisations spread like wild fire; no country in the region was in any mood to let another intervene in its educational system. The US initiative, as presented at that particular time, seemed like an attempt to dictate rather than enlighten. Moreover, its main premise was that something was wrong with Arab societies; that is, that the Arabs were to blame for both the suicidal tendencies among their youth and for the 11 September terror attacks. This charge was rejected out of hand by the Arab states. Most of them pointed out that the terrorist group that committed that particular atrocity was operating outside Arab countries and that many of its members had been educated and trained in the West. To these factors, we must also add that the Arabs simply did not wish to take advice from a country that has been, and remains, so staunchly pro-Israeli.
This complex of factors needs to be placed in a historical perspective. Throughout history, dominant civilisations have always sought to impose their way of life on others. When the Pharaonic culture was at its apogee, its mark was felt in Greece and throughout the Levant. Hellenic culture, in turn, influenced Egyptian culture, religion, and art. With the death of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic monarch, Roman culture and law rose to dominance throughout the old world. And once the Roman Empire had adopted Christianity, it made every effort to ensure it spread to the countries under its rule. The Arabs and Muslims behaved in exactly the same way, when their turn came. Indeed, the religious, cultural, and linguistic changes introduced by Arab and Muslim armies in the areas they conquered would be quite unthinkable by modern standards of political conduct.
When Britain was the world's uncontested superpower, it tried to impose its own conception of civilisation on the nations in its charge. The contemporary preponderance of such concepts as constitutions, parliaments, and political parties was the result of this small island's quest to remake the world after its own image.
When the world split into two blocs after World War II, the political, social, and cultural structures of the countries affiliated with each bloc mirrored those of their respective superpowers. The United States propagated "free world" values, just as the Soviet Union did socialist ones. Once the Cold War ended and the United States emerged as the world's unchallenged leader, Washington wasted no time in urging others to embrace its pet concepts of freedom, privatisation, human rights, and globalisation.