13 February 2007

"Moderate" replaces "democratic" in the Middle East

Only yesterday it seems, we heard incessantly about the goal of establishing democratic regimes in the Middle East. Now the emphasis is on working with the "moderate" nations. The leaders of these "moderate" nations, all dictators, typically include King Abdullah of Jordan, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and, of course, our very favourite Middle Eastern dictators, the al-Sauds of Arabia. Referring to Saudi Arabia, the world's most misogynistic government, as moderate is a particular stretch.

The United States hasn't been a particularly strong supporter of democracy in the Third World. Its first order of business has always been to favour governments that served its economic and strategic interests. If a democratic government best serves those interests, fine. If a dictatorship is more amenable, the Americans aren't above collaborating in the overthrow of democracy and replacing it with tyranny, as they and the British did in Iran in the 1950s, creating animosities that plague the region to this day.

The recent American and British enthusiasm for establishing democracy in the Middle East was almost certainly driven by a belief that democratic regimes would be more agreeable to their, and to Israel's, interests. This was a dubious theory, simply because the view on Israel that should be expected on the Arab street is opposition to its very existence. But the Americans and the British couldn't be expected to recognize this because they have always preferred to listen to the Arab dictators rather than the Arab people. They were deeply shocked when democracy appeared in the form of Hamas and Hezbollah and it turned out, as should have been expected, that neither recognizes Israel.

Both organizations, therefore, had to be crushed, particularly Hamas even though it had fairly and freely been elected to govern the Palestine Authority. And the interest in Middle Eastern democracy retreated into the older habit of working with Middle Eastern "moderates."

Needless to say, the dictators share the West's hostility toward groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. These are grassroots organizations willing to work through the democratic process, and nothing scares dictators like parties that authentically represent the people. Indeed the dictators are busy suppressing similar entities in their own countries. So they are quite willing to collaborate with Israel and its Western allies in suppressing Hamas and Hezbollah.

The dictators have very recently moderated their opposition to these groups for two reasons. Rather to their surprise, they found their people wildly supportive of Hezbollah in the recent Lebanon war. Indeed Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrullah, became probably the most popular figure in the Middle East. But what has really concerned the dictators is the readiness of non-Arab Iran to step in and support Hamas and Hezbollah if Arab countries (and the West) won't. One result of the moderation is Saudi Arabia mediating to unite Fatah and Hamas .

Its efforts to mediate between the feuding parties in Palestine notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia remains a brutal, corrupt dictatorship with a fanatical religious bent. It is not a moderate nation, and the West's pretending otherwise and cozying up to it only infuriates that great majority of Arab people who would appreciate the opportunity to choose their own governors and run their own societies. It only feeds into extremist rhetoric and enthusiasm.

"Moderate" cannot be defined simply as that which serves American, British and Israeli interests. It must include governments that practice moderation toward their own people and that means democratic process. If we truly want peace in the Middle East, not just oil and an impregnable Israel, we should persist in the pursuit of democracy. But that definitely does not mean imposing it by brute force. It does mean listening to the Arab people, and that, tragically, we don't seem prepared to do.

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