Daily Express comment: there is no hope for democracy in the Middle East

The Express, August 23, 2013

WHILE Egypt bleeds, Syria haemorrhages, with as many as 1,300 people killed in a government attack on Wednesday.

Libya is still unstable, while even Tunisia, the country where the revolutions began, faces an uncertain future. When the first protests in the region began, following the self-immolation of market trader Mohamed Bouazizi in January 2011, who could have predicted that it would end like this? Well, pretty much everyone did, with the exception of most western governments, the BBC and the rest of the liberal media.

 From the start of the uprisings the narrative has been that the Arab world is moving towards democracy and freedom.

Even the name, reminiscent of the Prague Spring of 1968, suggested things would get better; more likely precedents would be 1789, 1917 or the 1979 Iranian revolution, all of which led to far worse horrors.

And yet Barack Obama, David Cameron and much of the media greeted events with almost child-like innocence.

Back in February 2011 David Cameron told the Kuwaiti parliament it was “prejudice” to say that democracy would not work in the Arab world. His statement was an example of the enfeebled western mindset, where even considering a possible thesis that could smack of “prejudice” must be discounted before the evidence is assessed, so that we approach a problem blinkered from any unpleasant reality.

This does not imply our superiority; much of the region’s problems stem from western policy, from handing Arabia to the Wahhabist House of Saud, to the 1953 coup in Iran and support for kleptocratic dictators, which have left a legacy of bitterness.

BUT that is not the only obstacle that democracy faces in the Middle East. Everyone born in countries like ours is, historically speaking, a lottery winner. Most people, in other times and other places, have lived in societies more like Game of Thrones than Borgen, clannish rather than democratic, where people feel their loyalty and duty is towards other members of their extended family or religious community. To get people to work in the best interests of strangers so that you accept their authority when they get more people into the polling booth than you, is an achievement, not a natural state.

Liberal democracy needs certain conditions to flourish, most of which are absent across the Arab world.

In our country it took a long, long time. Around the date of the next general election we will celebrate 800 years since Magna Carta, the beginning of the painful process whereby British democracy evolved.

Libya, by contrast, was artifi-cially constructed in the 20th century, and is home to Berber tribes who still have a thin sense of nationhood. Egypt is an ancient civilisation but it is a clannish society and, like most countries in the region, has a youth bulge and high unemployment. These are all factors that make democracy improbable, if not impossible.

 Egypt is also missing two vital conditions without which democracy will not flourish, the rule of law and economic freedom.

It is no coincidence that democracy emerged in those societies where capitalism had developed, where contracts could be legally enforced and people could own their own property, which the authorities could not snatch without due process. These are to democracy as foundations are to a house.

Add to this, in the case of Syria, the demographic balance.

It is very difficult for ethnically diverse countries to make democracy work, for the simple reason that voting becomes a tribal headcount. So whatever the atrocities of the Assad family, it is perfectly rational for his fellow Alawites to fight to the death to prevent a Sunni tyranny.

Likewise Iraq; home to a civilisation even older than Egypt’s, their ancestors invented everything from written laws to beer, but the modern state was arti-ficially carved out of three Turkish provinces, and contains various religious communities and tribes and clans within. The spread of democracy was a utopian idea, based not on reason or evidence, but on a worldview of humanity that emerged after the Second World War in which not only would liberal democracy and liberal ideas spread around the world, but that they were the norm, because we are all essentially interchangeable.

UNFORTUNATELY the current government shares this worldview. We have already given guns to Syria’s sinister opposition, who have “promised” they will not go to their al-Qaeda allies and will even give them back after the war!

The Foreign Office even said that the Syrian National Coalition has “declared its commitment to democracy, ethnic and religious pluralism, and the rule of law, and it rejected discrimination and extremism”. All that’s missing is a belief in “equality and diversity”.

Such an attitude is terribly worrying, especially as the horrific murder of children this week will give fresh impetus for a new military adventure in Syria.

One of the lessons from Iraq was that our troops must not again be allowed to go into combat without proper battle gear. But another, perhaps more important one, is that we should never allow naivety to leave our foreign policy unprepared for the reality on the ground.


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