The next founders or shots in the dark?

A portrait of seven Middle Eastern pro-democracy activists.

‘National liberation without freedom and democracy is a hollow prize... human rights and democracy are not incidental... they are a central part of the struggle.” So noted Bassem Eid in the late 1990s in reference to the growing tyranny of Yasser Arafat and his security forces then given free rein in the Palestinian Authority.
Eid is one of seven men and women profiled by Joshua Muravchik in The Next Founders. The main basis of this book is that “there is no reason why the democratic idea cannot have a rebirth in the Middle East, where it was popular in the early 20th century.”
Muravchik is uniquely placed to write an introduction to pro-democracy advocates throughout the Middle East. He is a fellow at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. He has also worked with the Washington Institute of Near East Policy and for the State Department’s Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion. His thesis is that democracy has “spread to many places where it once seemed unlikely” and that the Middle East may well be on the cusp of a new revolution. He acknowledges that the seeming defeat of George W. Bush’s policy in the region has been a setback, but he references the increase in bloggers throughout the region as evidence that whereas the US may have abandoned democratization, the people themselves have not.
The author has chosen to profile activists from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Kuwait and Syria. He has attempted to be diverse, including two women as well as Sunnis and Shi’ites. Noticeably absent are Christian Arabs, a nod to the fact that they are so marginalized today that they are not worth mentioning, an irony considering it was they who originally helped bring Western ideas about democracy (and socialism and nationalism) to the region.
Muravchik’s notion of democracy is quite broad. He isn’t as interested in theorists as he is in activists. In this respect “democracy” doesn’t necessarily just mean people fighting for a more democratic system, but also people fighting for human rights and women’s rights. Therefore Wajeha al-Huwaider of Saudi Arabia is primarily interesting because she has been a writer and a frequent iconoclast. In terms of actual accomplishments, such as changing laws, she has made little headway.
However, Rola Dashti, a Lebanese-Kuwaiti, has had major success in reforming the electoral law in Kuwait to allow women the right to vote and stand for election. As a major player in the Kuwait Economic Society, a professional association of publicly traded companies, she has shown that she can be an activist in the private sector as well.
In terms of real political power and activity, Mithal al-Alusi of Iraq and Iran’s Mohsen Sazegara stand out. The former was born in 1953 and was an ardent Ba’athist who went into exile due to opposition to Saddam Hussein. He returned to Iraq after the American invasion and worked briefly alongside Ahmed Chalabi. His party now holds one seat in the parliament.
Sazegara was even closer to the center of the volcano. A loyal associate of the Ayatollah Khomeini, he was responsible for herding the sympathetic Western press onto the plane returning the mullah from France in 1979. He played numerous roles at high levels of the Islamic regime, becoming disillusioned when he saw women being tortured in the notorious Evin prison. Like other democracy advocates profiled, he became a publisher of a newspaper in order to show his opposition. However, by 2005 he was living in semi-exile in the US.
Hisham Kassem of Egypt was the noted publisher of the Cairo Times and Al-Masry al-Youm (after the former went bankrupt) and a mover and shaker of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. He has also stood in elections for the People’s Assembly party.
Eid is a human rights activist rather than a politician. He has run the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group since 1996. Originally the token Arab working for B’Tselem, he parted from that organization when its Jewish leaders and fellow travelers, such as Uri Avnery and Gideon Levy, made it clear that they were interested primarily in Israeli human rights abuses and that Palestinian human rights abuses were not important because they might undermine the Palestinian cause. Unlike the Israeli extreme leftists he was not inclined to “believe everything he heard” and as a fluent Arabic speaker and someone familiar with Palestinian culture, he was aware of the frequent exaggerations and propaganda being disseminated.
The last of those profiled, Ammar Abdulhamid and his wife Khawla, have been perennial dissidents in Syria.
A few threads run through all these men and women. Most have been skeptical of the anti-Israel narrative of their countries and cultures. Most of them have witnessed the problematic alliance between liberals and Islamists, both of whom want democracy but for different reasons. Many have an American connection, having studied there. It would be nice to believe that these are “seedlings in the desert.” But how many Palestinians have heard of Eid? Only the future will know if these are the next founders or shots in the dark. Either way, the stories are inspiring.
The writer is a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University and runs the Terra Incognita Journal blog.