After a few abortive starts over the last decade, it is starting to look like we are finally witnessing, in the words of one pundit, the Arab world's 1989.
The date refers to the wave of democratic revolutions that swept through Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union collapsed. A similar wave of uprisings appears to be sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, as the region's long-suffering people protest poor living standards, rising food prices, high unemployment, and oppressive, autocratic regimes.
Tunisia's dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has already fallen, after 23 years in power. So, barring a few formalities, has Egypt's president, Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak. To reach the 30th anniversary of his accession to the presidency later this year, Mubarak will have to take measures even more extraordinarily tyrannical than merely shutting down the media and the internet. He would have to kill a lot of his people, which the army may not prove willing to do for him.
With over 80 million people, Egypt is the largest Arab nation, but it is certainly not the only one. The wave of protests has sparked fears among leaders from Morocco and Algeria in the west, to Yemen and Bahrain in the east. Not to mention Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Libya.
No Arab dictator will be sleeping easily, as 300 million Arabs chafing under their yoke gain confidence from what they see on Al Jazeera, the television channel which is has taken the undisputed lead in covering the region.
Each country has somewhat different dynamics, and I'm no expert on any one of them, so generalising about the entire region would be presumptious on my part. What has become clear, however, is that the West, led by the United States, is between a rock and a hard place in terms of how to respond.
The equivocation of US President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is painful to watch, but not unexpected.
For decades, Cold War realities have enforced a foreign policy on the part of the West in which stability was paramount. The broader US-Soviet standoff threatened to turn every hot spot into a site for a newer, nastier proxy war. Each of these could spark a nuclear world war, and a few very almost did.
The standing commitment on the part of the US to defend Israel's right to exist, along with the terms of the peace deal struck at Camp David in 1979 between Egypt and Israel, also played a role in the US approach to the region. So did the more utiliarian consideration of securing global trade routes. And as if all this isn't complicated and intractable enough, Middle East politics is spiced with nuclear proliferation and international terrorism.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, the US has explicitly stated that its policy had changed. Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State under George W. Bush, stated it most clearly in a clarion call made in Cairo, which echoed across the region: "For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East - and we achieved neither," she said. "Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."
In 2009, Barack Obama went to Cairo in fulfilment of a campaign promise to make a major speech from an Arab capital. He said: "I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere."
This formulation – perhaps unwittingly – gives a clue to what many observers, including angry Egyptians, view as the hypocrisy of the US and the betrayal of its own stated ideals. The US has long supported Hosni Mubarak, still sends boatloads of Camp David bribe money to Egypt, and now – when the people themselves have risen – can't seem to bring itself to go beyond polite, almost bashful mutterings about "reform" and "the aspirations of the people".
Much popular rhetoric would have you believe that US motives are simply venal. It's all about the oil, the Suez canal, the Zionists, the financiers, a little racism and a lot of corrupt American corporate interests. I'll ignore those claims with the contempt they deserve.
A more realistic explanation lies in the fear of radical, Iran- or Taliban-style theocracies. If they emerge through revolutionary force, it is easy to condemn them. If, however, they arise democratically, how could the West object? That was the conundrum when Hamas took over in Gaza. Isn't democracy exactly what the West advocated? Doesn't objection amount to the kind of cultural imperialism which the rest of the world resents so deeply?
True, religious regimes have a nasty record. Hamas, the Taliban, and the Iranian mullahs aren't exactly poster children for political tolerance, moderation and progress, any more than Western monarchies before the separation of church and state were beacons of progressive thought. As a rule, they were opposed to freedom and intolerant of different cultures and opinions. Often, they were cruelly oppressive about it. The Crusades, the Inquisition and Apartheid were not among the West's proudest moments.
The popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and other strictly religious political movements in the region fuel fears that democratic revolutions in the Arab world might just make a bad situation worse, as military dictatorship gives way to theocratic rule.
The experience of Somalia is, perhaps, instructive. After the ouster of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, after 22 years of military-socialist dictatorship, the country disintegrated. Clan rivalry, not uncommon in Africa, was fierce. The attitude of one clan to another was no less bigoted than the attitudes of whites against blacks in colonial Africa, of Japanese against Chinese in Manchuria, or of Hindus against Muslims in pre-partition India. It seemed then – and history has proven since – that such a disunited country could never exist as a peaceful, sovereign, united state, unless it was under either a strong military dictator or religious rule.
The rivalries become even more complicated when different religions and sects are pitted against each other, in addition to different clans. As a consequence, the fear right across the region is that a democratic majority will prove to be a disaster for less powerful clans or religious groups. In Tunisia, the population is relatively homogeneous. In most countries of the region, however, different races, tribes, clans, religions and sects co-exist in varying degrees of hostility to one another.
Therein lies an important point. The West has been promoting democracy, as if this is the holy grail for peace and prosperity. It is no such thing. Democracy is nothing without liberty. It is individual liberty that brings peace and prosperty.
Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, an Austrian political theorist, once put it this way: "Fifty-one percent of a nation can establish a totalitarian regime, suppress minorities and still remain democratic."
He was a monarchist opposed to totalitarianism, and described himself as an arch-liberal who did not believe democracy could achieve freedom.
He may well be wrong. I'm sceptical of monarchy on the same basis that Plato thought a philosopher king would have been ideal if there were any guarantee that such a ruler would not turn into an oppresive tyrant. Nor do I agree that democracy and liberty are mutually exclusive. However, Keuhnelt-Leddihn's observation does make the distinction clear: democracy and liberty are not the same thing.
If democratic revolutions are to result in peaceful, prosperous societies, those societies must be based on constitutional liberty. The principle of liberty, which affords everyone the right to act in their own interest according to their own conscience, provided that such action does not infringe on the same right of another, is what truly matters.
If a population can be convinced to accept this principle, it removes both the threat of radical theocracy, as well as the danger of factions turning on each other when order is no longer enforced by a military dictator.
This principle of liberty, more so than mere democracy or a power-sharing agreement, accounts for the South African "miracle".
Accepting the differences between us is why this country did not slide into civil war. Accepting the equal right of each of us to think, believe and act according to our own conscience, is why this country did not break up. Accepting liberty as a guiding principle of our constitution is the reason why communists and capitalists, whites and blacks, Xhosas and Zulus, Afrikaners and Englishmen, liberals and conservatives, men and women, rich and poor, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, atheists and one Anglican could unite to reach for our dream.
The principle of individual liberty isn't a Western concept, but a universal one. It applies no matter the particular dynamics, cultures or rivalries in a particular country. It is not based in Judeao-Christian tradition, but permits every person to live according to their own religion, or no religion at all. It does not preclude religious law, but forces it upon nobody. It is free of coercion, rises above bigotry, and abhors violence.
The reason the West appears so timid and even hypocritical in the face of the popular revolts sweeping through the Arab world lies in this distinction. To throw off the yoke of autocratic oppression, democracy is only a first step. Strictly speaking, it is not even a necessary one.
What we should be advocating is liberty. DM
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