Mid-East’s democracy struggle

Friday, April 8th, 2011
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Afsan Chowdhury


Whether the Middle East situation happening now is a long term reaction to the situation that began with the Afghan-Iraq crisis is worth pondering. Events are occurring in the region where traditionally Muslim people lived is also another matter to think about because lack of democracy is a key common negative factor in the Muslim world against which people are rebelling now. Politically unstable and lacking any governance structure or tradition, the area has been set up for distress for long. It’s the interaction between tradition and modernity that is creating volatility. The purdah behind which such states were failing spectacularly is now gone and the wound of historical misgovernance is open for all to see.


One of the reasons for this state is the lack of democratic content in the culture of the region.  There is a definite tendency in the region towards intolerance be it Jewish or Islamic. It can’t be an accident that no Muslim county is interested in democracy in the region while a Muslim country far away in Asia like Bangladesh is a flawed but practicing democracy.  Obviously it’s the region and its predominant political cultural practices that have come in the way of democracy and stability.


Many of the countries are also monarchies, a system that is totally out of sync with times.  While Malaysian Asia is a monarchy, it’s a non-practising one where the power lies with the political leaders. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Emirates etc are the final haven of medieval ruling families where states are ruled by royal whims and also claim the right to rule based on ancient notions of entitlement . The region lives in a past and this has created a problem as many people want to live in the present in these countries leading to conflicts.


Saddam Hussain was in all effects a king, one of the most brutal ever.  He did to his people what terrible tyrants do in myths and legends, the kind of a man whose name mothers invoke to scare their children.  A ruler who gassed his own people including children to death for protesting has been glorified by anti-Americanism and reaction to US duplicity in international affairs. It’s obvious that had there had been a functioning democracy, Saddam could never have been able to do what he did and create a situation which would allow US intervention.


In Afghanistan, the struggle actually was between two archaic forces, Islamic fundamentalism and Soviet socialism.  Neither force is democratic and so none could offer a modern option to its people. Neither side has won either because public support for them is limited.  The brutal Taliban regime is not exactly a popular example for anyone else and is attractive only to brutal people.


Can the democracy denied handle democracy?


Just as rulers need intent and ability to run democratic regimes and Middle Eastern emerging rulers have none of that, people also are unused to democratic practices.   It actually puts the entire region into further uncertainty.  Disappointment with democracy is almost certain to happen if its established and the usual reaction which stokes reactionary impulses are always quick to follow. In the post- dictatorial regimes, democracies in the shorter run tend to fail which is why collective patience is necessary. But in a region where there is no tradition of even democratic aspiration, such business is always going to be very difficult.


There is an air of inevitability in all this because the Middle East may be a victim of its own history more than anything else. It inherited both social and political cultures which have profoundly affected collective behaviour. If anything, the present phase of democracy seeking is quite out of tune with its traditions.


But democracy is an evolutionary need of its history too and no matter how late, it will happen. One hopes that it doesn’t take too long.  No one wants a US invasion or a NATO intervention and certainly not an Afghanistan but that choice has to be made long before such disasters ring the door bell far too loudly.


Its also useful to look at political evolution as a regional phenomenon since south Asians have varying degrees of democratic regimes while the Middle East has none.  Using the correct parameter while discussing politics means that Bangladesh should compare itself in performance with other South Asian countries rather than Ummah members.


Afsan Chowdhury, Research Associate York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR) York University 416-551-9244

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