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We Westerners are desperate to see the political systems in the Middle East evolve from authoritarian theocratic or oligarchical models to some variation of representative government. That desire suffered another setback on Saturday when former Egyptian presidential candidate Ayman Nour, 41, was sentenced to five years in prison for (what outside observers insist are trumped-up charges of) forgery.
Up and down the region - Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority - the Western pluralist model of representative democracy has failed because broadminded, Western-oriented reformers have been driven away by the intimidation of autocratic rulers, leaving demagogic Islamists to reap the benefits.
Perhaps it is expecting too much for the Western concepts of political parties, elections and parliaments to take root in a so alien a social milieu. But there is no turning back the clock. In the modern age, tribalism is no solution; Arab (and Persian) nationalism has been tried and failed. Now the region flirts with fundamentalism which, even if it works as an organizing principle for society, poses a mortal threat to the outside world.
It is in this context that US President George Bush used his state of the union address last February to challenge Hosni Mubarak to open up Egypt's political system: "The great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East."
This hoped for transition isn't merely the mantra of neoconservatives or the Bush administration. Everyone understands that representative political regimes tend to be stable, less bellicose and centrist.
Under US pressure - Egypt receives $1.8 billion in annual aid - Mubarak did allow the country's parliament to adopt a constitutional amendment which introduced a multi-party presidential election in September. The 77-year-old Mubarak, who first came to power with the assassination of president Anwar Sadat in 1981, was reelected. And the now imprisoned Ayman Nour won 8 percent of the vote - a very distant second.
A subsequent series of votes for parliament, spread out over three rounds and five weeks, was marked by crookedness. Supporters of the previously banned Muslim Brotherhood (the political precursor to Hamas and other Isalmist-oriented groups) were allowed to run as independents. Many of their followers were beaten by plain-clothes thugs and riot police; at least 11 people were killed at the polls. Yet the Brotherhood won some 90 mandates in the 454-seat parliament (and nearly 40% of all votes cast). The Brotherhood could have done even better but feared contesting more than 150 seats against Mubarak's ruling party. Some 75% of eligible voters shunned the polls because they distrusted the entire enterprise. International monitors were barred.
So how far along is Egypt today - after both a presidential and a parliamentary election - on the road toward "democracy?" Not very.
The secular opposition has been decimated at the polls. Unable to campaign vigorously thanks to various legal and political constraints, the 15 non-Islamist and non-Mubarak parties garnered less than a dozen seats. Nour himself lost the parliamentary seat he had held for 10 years to Mubarak's well-oiled political machine.
With the Muslim Brotherhood ascendant and a state-controlled media making it virtually impossible for alternative reformist voices to be heard, chances are good that Egypt's next leader will be Mubarak's son Gamal.
Like the Shah of Iran back in the 1970s, Mubarak's express ultimatum is: my autocracy or the Islamist way - nothing in between.
Closer to home, the January 25 Palestinian parliamentary elections are also in turmoil largely because a failed Palestinian establishment fears the rise of Hamas.
As is the case with Egypt, friends of freedom are forced to choose between a nascent alliance of the politically bankrupt old-guard of Mahmoud Abbas coupled with the violent "reformers" led by Marwan Barghouti, or else find themselves saddled with the Islamists of Hamas.
But for genuine democracy to evolve, it needs to be nurtured. Until the West demands reformist policies throughout the region - including a truly free press, accountable government and the kind of political socialization that could contribute to democracy's development - it will be left to wonder why it must continuously choose between the autocrats and the Islamists.
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