Why the Arab revolt may be good for democracy – and Israel

An as-yet unspoken empathy with their democratic ideals may flourish between the new generation of Arabs and Israelis.

Bahrain protests 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Bahrain protests 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Concerns have been voiced over the possibility that today’s turmoil in the Arab world might be hijacked by Islamist movements with totalitarian designs, among them the destruction of Israel. The toppling of Iran’s shah in 1979 is given as a salient example of an autocracy being replaced by an even more despotic regime.
Legitimate as they undoubtedly are, these concerns should not overlook the fact that the Arab region may be ripe for a democratic turn averse to Islamic fundamentalism.
The following considerations support a cautious optimism with regard to present developments: The current Arab revolts more closely resemble Berlin 1989 than Tehran 1979.
Eastern Europeans in the late ’80s and Arabs protesting today share the same overriding objective: political freedom. In 1989, the revolt was aimed at bringing down communist totalitarianism. The current uprising in the Arab world is taking place at a moment when Islamic fundamentalism has unveiled its frankly totalitarian nature; it can no longer advertise itself as a system suited to democratic aspirations.
THE LIKELIHOOD of a remake of 1979 is actually nearly nil. Who, among today’s protesters, would like to be in the position of Iranians in 2009, sent to jail, tortured or murdered simply for having requested that the people’s will be respected? Are Arabs going to let their democratic dreams be usurped by a theocracy? The women who play an active role in today’s protests, and who struggle for gender equality – will they wish to be subjected to the Shari’a the fundamentalists impose wherever they take power?
Besides, the region’s rulers will have more pressing business to attend to than stigmatizing Israel. The newly established governments (Tunisia, Egypt, possibly Libya) will face the daunting task of reconstructing their countries politically and economically – presumably with Western aid. As regards the autocrats who manage to stay in power, they know they are walking a tightrope, and that protests may yet overthrow them; they will therefore have to channel their energies and economic resources toward improving the living conditions of their population. Attacking Israel can hardly loom large among the new priorities of Arab regimes.
Iran’s potential threat is currently weakened by the political, economic and social conditions in that country. The Iranian hierarchy is confronting two major challenges: growing popular discontent and rifts within the regime. Only repression has managed to prevent a new wave of street demonstrations in Tehran, and internecine rivalries at the top are on the rise. At the same time, international sanctions and mismanagement of the economy have shrunk the financial playing field for Iran’s ayatollahs.
The rebellions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have been nurtured in no small measure by the defection of members of the ruling cliques. The ayatollahs know this could also happen in Iran. Mistrust is likely to spread, thereby accentuating the fragility of the system.
Hamas has good reason to dread the effect of the pro-democracy movement.
Gaza’s population is aware that Palestinians in Judea and Samaria enjoy significantly better conditions (to a large extent thanks to the modus vivendi that the PA and Israel have managed to maintain).
Consequently, the people of Gaza may choose to give their vote to a party capable – unlike Hamas – of improving their living conditions further. This is one of the key reasons why Hamas is opposed to holding elections in Gaza, even though such elections are long overdue.
And so too with Hezbollah. Emboldened by the pro-democracy winds blowing over the region, tens of thousands gathered in Beirut on March 13 to protest Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanese politics and to demand that it give up its weapons. The more disdain that Hezbollah displays vis-à-vis these demands, the more unpopular this terrorist organization will become (it should be recalled that Hezbollah already lost votes, and seats, in the last parliamentary elections, held in 2008).
LAST BUT not least, blaming Israel for everything simply seems to have lost its appeal on the “Arab street.”
Anti-Israel slogans have been largely absent from the Arab revolt, and not a single Israeli flag has been burned during the current protests.
This is not surprising: The demonization of Israel has fallen into disrepute, along with the autocracies that had prompted such demonization as a way of diverting people’s discontent away from their regimes.
Arabs yearning for democracy are likely to look with less acrimony than in the past on the sole effective democracy in the region, namely the Jewish state, in which minorities (Arabs) are represented in the Knesset, and in which a president can be indicted or a prime minister forced to resign for corruption.
An as-yet unspoken empathy with their democratic ideals may flourish between the new generation of Arabs and the people of Israel. That in itself would be a major achievement.
The writer is an economist and a retired UN staff member. His latest book, Ternes Eclats (Dimmed Lights) presents a critique of the inconsistencies of multilateral diplomacy, including the anti-Israel bias that prevails in a number of international forums.