Western technology and brainpower have ensured we are just a click away from the
rest of the world.
But in perfecting the ability to broadcast, the West
is seemingly losing the capacity to truly listen to others – particularly when
it comes to Middle East dictatorships.
Western leaders nobly repeat the
mantra of democracy and liberty. Yet, when the rulers of oppressive regimes
repeat the very same concepts back to us, it is routinely regarded as a sure
sign of their agreement. Subsequently, everyday autocratic repression in Egypt,
Syria and now Iran is all too often treated as interfering “white noise” to the
sweet rhetoric of progress. Now more than ever, such confusion must be replaced
Western delusion over Middle Eastern pretentions of
democracy is nothing new. Although initial hopes were high, the Arab Spring has
surely shattered any illusions that the region stands at the dawn of a new age
of freedom. President Barack Obama eagerly proclaimed hopes of “genuine
democracy” in Egypt following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, lapping up initial
talk of real reform. When free elections ensued, they proved to be a mirage,
instead paving the way for an attempted Islamist power grab. A return to
military repression soon followed. In Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring,
stability hangs in the balance following opposition assassinations and
And of course in Syria, the blood-letting
Let us not forget that as recently as 2011, Hillary
Clinton, secretary of state at the time, suggested that President Bashar Assad
was a “reformer.” This is the same Assad who was feted at Downing Street and
granted an audience with Queen Elizabeth in 2002 – his stint studying
ophthalmology at a London university had been considered a virtual guarantee
that Assad would shun his family’s taste for violent rule.
It is no
wonder that many in the West go weak at the knees at the very mention of
“democracy,” “reform” and “progress” in the Middle East. After all, the region
has become a byword for strife, violence and intractable conflict. Who would not
want to think that the tide is turning? However, without a dose of reality, such
optimism is mere fantasy. The truth is that the Middle East is not 1989 Eastern
Europe, where democracy was the only realistic alternative to Communist rule.
Czechoslovakia could point to a healthy democracy just 50 years prior to its
“velvet revolution” while East Germans had spent decades literally peering over
the wall at democracy in action next door.
By contrast, when Mubarak fell
in Egypt, and should Assad be defeated in Syria, democracy is just one of many
possible shades of government which may emerge. For most Middle East countries,
colonialism, monarchic despotism and nationalistic dictatorship are its historic
Democracy remains by and large a distant concept, both
literally and figuratively.
That is not to say that the historic absence
of political freedom precludes democracy ever taking root in the Middle East.
However, Western minds must acknowledge that for large swathes of this region,
enthusiasm for the “modern fad” of democracy is unquestionably trumped by
deep-rooted ancient loyalties.
For example, Assad’s flirtation with
meritocratic Western education did nothing to dent his unwavering commitment to
maintain minority Alawite rule using any means possible. In Egypt, democracy and
equality for all remains a fanciful notion with many Egyptians seemingly more
concerned with the advancement of Islamist rule on the one hand or the
preservation of military benevolence on the other.
THROUGHOUT THE wider
region, alliances are forged based on tribal Sunni and Shi’ite fidelity rather
than values-based or economic allegiances.
In the West, these loyalties
can be difficult to fathom.
Western citizens are bound by a social
contract of common principles which renders ethnicity, race and religion little
more than individual quirks – so much so that European national borders have
been all but eroded. Where democracy, freedom and equality bind Western society,
deep-seated communal and religious bonds remain king in the Middle
All of which brings us to the rapprochement in the offing between
the West and Iran. A conflictweary West is understandably keen to embrace the
overtures of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. Utilizing the same seductive
rhetoric which raised hopes towards the start of the Arab Spring, Rouhani’s talk
of “reform,” “change” and “hope” has predictably pricked up Western
His time as a post-graduate student in Scotland has been cited as
evidence of a liberal outlook.
Rouhani has even used the modern-day proof
of progress, Twitter, to make his case (of course social networks remain blocked
for ordinary Iranians).
More importantly, Rouhani’s attempt to allure the
West must not be allowed to obscure the essence of his political being. Having
spent 11 years as Iran’s National Security Adviser and two as Tehran’s chief
nuclear negotiator, Rouhani’s career is dedicated to serving Tehran’s strict
His loyalty is unquestionably deeply rooted in a regime
which prides itself on religious and ideological opposition to the West. It is a
regime in which freedom and liberal equality are viewed as threats, not
Appropriating the reassuring language of progress, Middle
Eastern dictators have time and again adeptly elicited Western hopes of genuine
change. Iran’s leaders are just the latest to pay lip-service to progress.
However, of all the pretenders to reform, Tehran’s nuclear ambitions pose the
most potent threat to regional and indeed global security. As such, those
Western leaders hoping for a new age of Iranian detente must look beyond the
enticing rhetoric and view Middle Eastern reality with absolute
They must see that even in today’s global village, language and
indeed values still very much divide.
Failure to do so risks the advent
of a nuclear dictatorship at the heart of the region in which they so hope to
see democracy flourish.
The author is a PR and communications