Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Mideast Won't Change from Within

Posted by A. Elkins on May 31, 2008

The Mideast Won't Change from Within

The Middle East has witnessed dramatic changes over the past few years, including the adoption in some countries – Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories – of the democratic system as the means for the transfer of political power. Though all of these countries are still troubled, the huge turnouts in all three electoral processes were clear evidence of the willingness of their peoples to switch to ballots over bullets.
Unfortunately, some Arab intellectuals seem bent on rejecting democracy as a foreign – in particular, Western – concept. I recall before Saddam's fall that many were repeating a slogan that says "No America and No Saddam," which ostensibly aimed at touting a nationalistic project for change. Today the same slogans are reiterated; sometimes out of good will and naïveté, other times to support the totalitarians and the extremists. People keep saying that if both Iran and the U.S. had stayed out of our business we would have been able to solve our problems on our own.
In my opinion this fantasy about change in isolation from foreign influence is ridiculous. The Middle East is not like Eastern Europe – where the countries that underwent a change were surrounded by old and well-established democracies and the Soviet Union was falling apart. Had the latter factor not been the case, democracies in Eastern Europe would've been silenced for God knows how many more decades.
Similarly, it's naïve to expect democracies that emerge from isolated nationalistic initiatives, without backing from outside powers, would ever be welcomed by the neighbors in Saudi Arabia, Iran or Syria. The idea that these states wouldn't interfere if America and the West did not is laughable.
Just look at Syrian and Iranian interference in Lebanon, even though America did not lead the change the way it did in Iraq. And while Gaza and Beirut have fallen to the extremists, Baghdad has not. The reason is the American presence that continues to protect the democratic process.
Change with support from the outside, especially the West, is a necessity. First of all, the neighbors would not let these democracies take a breath and second, democracy is a concept that emerged and evolved in the West. For the Middle East it's like importing a medicine that we didn't manufacture. The usage and dosage instructions are necessary.
Toppling Saddam's regime was half the way to democracy, and now it's become clear that protecting the newborn democracy is just as crucial a job as overthrowing the dictator. There's absolutely no doubt that the American presence in Iraq has been the biggest factor in protecting Iraq from coup attempts by extremists – be it al Qaeda to declare an Islamic state, or the hard-line Shiite movements.
It is obvious that in the Middle East there's a real war raging between the supporters of extremism and totalitarianism and those of democracy and tolerance. The choice before the world is whether it will support one side by doing something, or the other by doing nothing.

Mr. Fadhil co-writes a blog,

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