Change Must Come From Within
by David Govrin
The fight against global terrorism and the aftermath of the war in Iraq has intensified the debate on the necessity of establishing democracy in the Arab world, in light of the new strategic circumstances already created in the Middle East. However, given the fact that democratic notions has evolved in Europe for hundreds of years as compared to the totally different political culture and the dominance of Islam in the Middle East, it seems that the idea of establishing western-secular democracies in the Arab Middle East in the near future is premature.
There is no universally accepted definition of democracy. The basic principles are the separation of power, respect for human rights, freedom of speech and the authority of the law. These values should be genuinely discussed and adopted by all segments of the society, if a healthy society is to emerge. Importing structures and procedures will be useless unless a substantial internal dialogue has evolved. Elections are the end of the process aimed at establishing democracy, not the beginning.
Any attempt to impose democracy on Arab countries will cause a strong rejection and eventually will fail. Assistance by experienced democratic states should be given to Arab regimes by providing either political and economic incentives or preventing it, unless there is real commitment to domestic reforms. These reforms should be mutually agreed upon according to a certain timetable, so that their fulfillment may be observed. The key to success is, therefore, to work consistently and gradually with prominent Arab leaders while addressing their unique concerns, and above all, respecting the central role of Islamic heritage and tradition. Drastic changes should not be anticipated or encouraged.
The emphasis should be on promoting principles and values (such as freedom of speech) rather than institutions. Only after ensuring in years-time that these basic principles are fully internalized, the creation of effective institutions may get started. In this respect, agreed upon representation based on prior understanding between the parties is preferable in the initial phase, rather than holding elections.
Democracy supporters in the Arab world actually face three significant challenges:
The first is the blunt objection of autocratic Arab regimes to relinquish control. While lacking legitimacy from the public, these regimes believe that only by preserving absolute power in their hands will they guarantee their own survival.
The second hurdle is the strong opposition of the Islamic circles that seek to impose the Islamic Sharia (Law) as the binding law of the state, and therefore reject the notion of separation of religion from state.
The third challenge is related to the intertwined relations among democracy, peace and development in the Middle East. Democracy supporters rightly underline the fact that you cannot achieve democracy and prosperity in the region without pursuing peace with your neighbors. Since many Arab intellectuals still deny the very right of Israel to exist, it seems extremely difficult for them to accept the necessity of having peace with Israel.
The case of the famous democracy activist, Mr. Saad El-Din Ibrahim, an Egyptian professor in Cairo and the head of the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies, is an excellent example of the challenges ahead. Ibrahim and his team promoted the idea of "Civil Society." His influential activity focused on revealing irregularities and fraud during the election campaign for the Egyptian Parliament in 1995 along with supporting equal rights for Copts.
Islamic extremists' resentment towards Mr. Saad El-din increased in light of the promotion of secular notions of democracy, and the official authorities were irritated because of the open criticism directed at the regimes. Released from prison, where he spent 14 months, Ibrahim declared, "We are determined to look forward, pursue our agenda and resume the struggle for democracy, peace and development in our Arab region."
The case of Saad El-din illustrates that the battle for democracy in the Arab world is still at its very beginning. It seems that Arab societies, and only they, will have to define the right formula that will incorporate democratic principles, while taking into consideration the prime role of Islamic heritage and tradition in their respective societies. The challenge is indeed a huge one, but it seems that no one else will be able to do that for them.
David Govrin is Counsellor for Political Affairs of the Permanent Mission of Israel to The U.N
from the November 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine