Middle East Dangerous democracy

David Hirst

Imperial America won’t like the free Arabia that missionary America will have helped to spawn.

At last month’s anti-war conference in Cairo, Egyptian delegate Kamal Khalil excoriated President Mubarak’s regime over “torture, poverty, unemployment, corruption, tyranny and despotism’’ - then added that the “liberation of Jerusalem starts here with the liberation of the people in Cairo’’. This linkage of domestic reform with the external foe dramatised the quandary lying in wait for President Bush’s crusade for “freedom and democracy’’. God-given rights of all peoples are the panacea that will, among other things, end international terror and induce the Arabs to make their peace with Israel. So what, in this era of American-sponsored diplomacy and reconciliation, could this self-styled democrat possibly have meant by this reversion to the militant rhetoric of yesteryear? The extent to which Bush is contributing to the winds of change now blowing across the world’s last monolithically tyrannical region is passionately debated by the Arabs, perplexingly confronted, by two Americas, the new missionary one of Bush’s second term and the old unrepentant superpower. Never has imperial America, with which the missionary one is inextricably intertwined, been as rampant and detested as it is today.

For Bush didn’t embark on this radically interventionist, quasi-colonial phase of America’s relations with the Middle East only, or even mainly, to confer democracy on it. He did so for other reasons, too, that had far more to do with the traditional drive for strategic and economic dominance — as well as with an Israel whose influence on US policy has reached unprecedented levels. In fact, the rationale for Arab democracy comes partly from Israel itself, in the person of the rightwing zealot Natan Sharansky, whose thinking, says Bush, is “part of my presidential genes’’; the thinking being that, since democracies are inherently peaceable, only a democratic Arabia will take Israel to its bosom.

This contradictory America feeds the tension between two broad camps into which the Arab world itself breaks down: on the one hand old-school nationalists and Islamists who in recent times have supplanted them in mass appeal, and on the other emergent democratic forces who blame post-independence nationalist regimes, in their despotism, for the region’s ills. As ever, the nationalists and Islamists give priority to the external problem, imperial America and Israel, while the democrats give it to the internal one, and to ways in which missionary America might be used in their reformist cause.

The more that imperial America inflames nationalist sentiment, the more it plays into the hands of regimes that appear to stand up to it, and the more difficult it is for democrats to work against them. And anyone can see that, after Iraq, Syria has become a key target of imperial America, perhaps all the more alluring because, as some in Washington say, it is the “low-hanging fruit’’ that, unlike Iraq, is harvestable by merely political and not military means.

Indeed, the democrats argue, nationalism versus democracy is a false antithesis. Said Shibli Mallat, a legal adviser to the Lebanese opposition, “Just imagine the political authority with which Egypt, Lebanon or Syria will be able to oppose Israel’s occupation policies once we have democratic governments here!’’ True, it was for its own strategic reasons that the US leapt to Lebanon’s support. But that hardly impugned the credentials of a movement that, in one demonstration, put a quarter of the country’s population into Martyrs’ Square in Beirut, or obscured the basic reason why Lebanon so threatens the Ba’athist regime, which is the potential domino effect inside Syria of its “people power’’. For could any Syrian fail to grasp that what the Lebanese were rising up against was the extension, on Lebanese soil, of what they themselves more drastically endure at home?

No one knows how Arab democratisation will proceed. But one thing is clear: imperial America will not like the democratic Arabia that missionary America will have helped to spawn. Already it is uneasy about the kind of Shia Muslims, Islamist-minded and Iranian-influenced, who, in the shape of prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and the United Iraqi Alliance, triumphed in the Iraqi elections. It will be even less pleased if Hamas does so well in coming elections that it demands to form the next Palestinian government. Secular modernists, the dissident intelligentsia and human rights activists are to the fore in demanding an end to the Syrian-backed “intelligence state’’ in Lebanon, saying “Enough!’’ to the electorally irremovable Mubarak dynasty in Egypt, and chipping away at the Ba’athist monopoly of power in Syria. But Islamists everywhere would be the first to profit from their success. Hizbullah would doubtless retain some special place in Lebanon’s confessional system.

A democratic Arabia of this kind would soon pose a challenge to what the once American-supported despotic one left behind, with slogans like “liberating Jerusalem by liberating Cairo’’ leaving little doubt where that legacy would come under the heaviest strain.

Americans and Israelis would soon find out what an occasional Israeli commentator,

contradicting Sharansky, at least implicitly concedes: the Arabs’ hostility to Israel never had much to do with their lack of democracy; much more with the fact that, in its treatment of the Palestinians, Israel remains far from

democratic itself. —The Guardian