Yalla Peace: Democracy faces many challenges in Arab world

The challenge of democracy is to overcome sectarian ties to vote for quality candidates of any ethnic background.

November 29, 2011 23:09
4 minute read.
Egyptian man places his vote in the elections

Egyptian man votes in elections 311. (photo credit: Reuters)


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Democracy doesn’t have a great track record in the Arab world, so why is anyone surprised that the push for democracy in Egypt has run into a military stumbling block? Tunisia is really the first Arab country where democracy has taken hold, after protesters ousted former “president” Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Nine months later, preliminary elections have resulted in the first real hope for citizen rule there.

But that’s the exception, not the rule. Democracy has had a tough experience in the Arab neighborhood.

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Democratic elections were held in Palestine in 2005, but the country was and is under seemingly unending military occupation by Israel.

Hamas, the extremist movement that used terrorism and violence to block the peace process and prevent democracy from taking hold, eventually decided to run candidates in the 2005 elections.

They won that campaign, but not because the elections were democratic.

In fact, the elections were flawed.

Instead of having parties hold separate primaries to select their leaderships before general elections, it was all done under one election event.


Hamas took control of the legislature even though it failed to win a voter majority. Then, when Israel and the United States didn’t like the results, they did everything they could to undermine the new government.

Palestinian democracy has been in cardiac arrest ever since.

ELECTIONS WERE held in Iraq, but there, too, the results did not satisfy the military occupation and the results were held hostage for months.

Finally, the two sides came together, but not at the election both where the selection of leadership was supposed to be decided. No matter how persuasive the American PR machine, Iraq’s elections were flawed and the results were skewered by outside interests.

Lebanon claims to be a democracy, but everyone knows it is not. The parliament there is divided on the basis of religion, cleverly labeled a “confessional” system in which the three major religions divide up power based on the country’s population.

The problem, of course, is the population census used to divvy up leadership was taken in 1932.

The balance between Christians and Muslims has dramatically shifted from a Christian majority to a Muslim majority, but no one wants to officially make the change. The Taif agreement in 1989 shifted the balance to 50-50, even though everyone knows the Christian population in Lebanon is way below 50 percent.

Lebanese Christians continue to hold the office of president, Sunnis the office of prime minister and Shi’ites the office of parliament speaker under the confessional system.

But the real power balance is held by Hizbullah, the extremist Shi’ite movement which has the backing of Iran, Syria and Hamas.

There is no democracy in any other Arab country. Several are ruled by monarchs, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But every effort to claim they are no different than England’s monarchy-parliament system falls far short of the minimal test of true democracy.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Saudi King Abdullah are both “absolute” monarchs, which means they make the real decisions although they pretend to give the people a voice through a puppet legislative process.

Compare that to England. There, the queen engages in a lot of pomp and ceremony but real power rests with the parliament. That’s not the case in either Arab kingdom.

Many Arabs dream that one day Arabs will have true democracy where the people choose their leaders via a transparent election system, open to every citizen (of age), who is expected to cast a single vote. They dream of electing leaders that won’t be “presidents for life” or absolute monarchs who call the shots from behind the curtains.

But I have also heard many people, including Arabs, say the Arab world is not the West. Arabs live in multi-layered tribal groupings of family systems.

In Palestine they are called hamoullahs, clans brought together by blood relations and ancestry. Allegiances to religion and ethnicity often take priority over issues, policies or politics. We saw this demonstrated in Iraq, where Sunnis voted for Sunnis, Shi’ites voted for Shi’ites and Christians voted for Christians.

The essence of true democracy is when populations can rise above the religious and ethnic divisions.

SO WHY should Egypt be any different? Why should we expect that the people of Egypt can overcome the constraints that have enslaved Arabs everywhere else, except in Tunisia? Tunisia offers hope but Tunisia is a North African Arab country outside of the heart of the real Arab World.

The majority, nearly 98 percent of the population, are of ethnic Berber heritage. And it is 98% Sunni Muslim.

If religious and ethnic divisions are set aside, Arabs could come together.

Democracy is in stark conflict with the essence of Arab culture, which is the allegiance to a clan based on religion.

And in countries where religious differences define the politics, democracy has no chance.

Egyptians may be going to the polls to vote, but what they create may still be a major question.

The writer is an award winning columnist and radio talk show host. He can be reached at www.RadioChicagoland.com.

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