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Just how democratic is the Middle East getting?

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If democracy is any more up for a redefinition anywhere, now would be the time and the Middle East would be the place. Events in Iraq and the elections of the Palestians had a contageous effect in other Middle Eastern countries too. For the first time in at least 50 years, we see grassroots demand for updated versions of democracy in countries that have long been dominated by authoritarian regimes; Egyptians have been demanding to be allowed a multi party system, in Lebanon the fall of a strongly Syrian influenced government went accompanied by street rallies and even in Syria, where street bans are most stringent, the people going out on the streets were unusually defyant. What are the chances that the grassroots demand for democracy will actually begin to intersect with supply from home governments?
Go to any Arab country and read the headlines of background sections of newspapers and you’ll surely find yourself immersed in series and series of studies on the merits of true democracy, women’s rights as well as the links between Islam and women’s rights. You could argue that news in the Arab world is taken in a literal sense here but after the sixth week, you’ll find yourself harboring less than democratic feelings for the editors of the papers for their lack of ingenuity.
Slowly, however, all the theorising is being replaced by real live examples of efforts to effect greater democracy in Middle Eastern countries. Not least to the satisfaction of senior US officials including President Bush, who reiterated that the time has come for the Middle East to shrug off the shackles of authoritarian regimes only last week.
Both in policy circles and on the ground, change is taking place, observers say. To descrIbe where the two parties interlock would be to cover the story of the century no doubt. A lot has been said already about the spread of democracy in the Middle East, but events are finally beginning to provide the poignancy that the rhetoric went short of for decades and decades.
Why the euphoria? In the Middle East, grassroots still really means grassroots. That is why ever since the 9/11 attacks, the think tanks (who have a reputation of providing the most dependable information on the societies they are active in)’ refocus from the Israeli Palestinian piece efforts to ways of combating terrorism has been more on the money than ever.
After the 9/11 attacks, many institutions overhauled their agendas and soon their work started to reflect the exact concerns that were alive on the policy making level. Topics included research into promotion of democracy in a way that endorses, rather than undermines stability; the war on terrorism, along with the diminution of extremism and radicalism as well as the nation-building process in Iraq.
What was taking place was a shift toward new realities. Initially, the organizations were accused for totally missing out on any alarming signals that the wider Arab societies might have issued ahead of the 9/11 attacks, but this was soon forgotten. More pressing issues such as bigger scope for democracy in more Arab countries were gaining momentum as the invasion of Iraq and the effort to build a democracy in that ravaged country became a matter of western style branding of a seemingly revamped phenomenon.
As Washington was showing itself ready to ‘entertain an unprecedented level of political risk and uncertainty’, the idea of Arab autocracy was slowly beginning to become more and more old fashioned. All nice for who was buying into it when listening to hyper modern tv reports, but what did this work out on the ground? How is the US making good on its promise to actually effect greater and true democracy in the Arab world. Good question. How do you go about effecting deeper democracies in countries which hardly have any other idea of ruling other than by what they deem decent autocratic approach.
To truly affect Arab countries in the heart of their political systems would first neccessitate an overhaul of the legal system, in order for constitutions to be reformed, And this is something that needs most governments’ approval before it can go underway. The way an opposition party recently has started out in Egypt is an example of just how precarious it is to tread this water. To be legitimate, a party needs approval from the incumbent rules, who control the entire judicial system.
The push for democracy hits a brick wall here. You can have as many programs as you like assessing the possibilities for democracy in a society, but so long as working out the practical recommendations of such programs remains an illegal activity, democracy will be a higly desirable, yet unachievable goal.
What is needed is a change in countries’ judicial systems if any of the over-researched ideas can begin to become plausible in reality. In a paper entitled ‘Beyond Liberalisation’, Daniel Brumberg, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University hits the nail on the head, drawing a sharp distinction between democracy and political liberalization. The latter is about promoting a freer debate and competition in the media, civil society, and political parties. Democracy rests on rules, institutions, and political practices through which voters regularly and constitutionally replace or modify their leadership by the exercise of representative political power.
“Political liberalization is a necessary but far from sufficient condition for democracy, which is something that is effected when you have a most opportune intersection between demand and supply”, says Brumberg in his article which is published in the Wilson Quarterly. Work on creating the necessary ingredients for the democratic pie has long gone underway and hopeful signals are being heard that the puzzle might begin to come together.
Civil society organizations are virtually agents of what Brumberg terms ‘a demand-driven model of slow reforms’. And now more than ever, given their refocused agendas. The grassroot demand combined with greater participation in the discourse on the possibilities of democracy is slowly bearing fruit.
Incumbent Arab regimes are protected from all too dramatic challenges but will have to bow down to people demanding their rights. What was taking place in Lebanon and Syria the last few weeks was a good testcase of how a power struggle is done the peaceful way. Events have proved that governments do not necessarily cede control when street rallies take place. In a sense the Arab people’s love for their leaders is something Western states might even envie. If democratisation in the Middle East becomes a reality, these societies are likely to flourish in ways hardly seen elsewhere.
It will be interesting to see if the US role in the Middle East will stay largely the same as its Cold War programs to aid democracy, a policy whereby the country aided its friends by supporting government structures and undermined its foes in the hope that communist regimes would collapse. Later on the friendly stance was seen as inducing terrorism. It remains to be seen whether in future, Arab states will lend themselves as easily for such accusations.

About the Author

Angelique van Engelen is a freelance writer who has lived in the Middle East for over three years and currently runs www.contentClix.com.
She also contributes to a writing ring http://clixyPlays.blogspot.com


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