Aug 22nd 2013

Perils Of A Quick Transition To Democracy

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

What is currently happening in Egypt should not come as a surprise to anyone who has even cursory knowledge of the Arab world from historical, cultural, religious and political perspectives.

The Arab Spring has not come one day too soon to lift the Arab populace from decades of servitude, subjugation and suppression by despots.

The idea, however, that once a dictator is overthrown the rush to a democracy will provide the people with all that they have been yearning for, is a fallacy that inescapably ushers in disastrous consequences, as witnessed in Egypt.

The West, led by the United States, is partly to blame for what is happening in Egypt, the continuing carnage in Iraq, the unending violence in Libya and what might still be in store for Syria’s calamitous civil war.

The West seems to have forgotten how many centuries it took, how many wars (including America’s civil war) have occurred, how many millions of people have perished and how much destruction has been inflicted to reach the democratic political order they currently enjoy.

Democracy was not then and it is not now to be taken for granted as if it were a natural development of political processes. Democracy is not a pill that, once swallowed, changes human behavior overnight and infuses the mind with a deep sense of freedom immune from outside challenges.

Democracy is a long and tedious process that takes decades to mature even under the best of circumstances.

From the days of their inceptions, in the wake of World Wars I and II, not a single Arab state has experienced any form of democratic governance. Kings and Emirs were arbitrarily installed by colonial powers; national boundaries were randomly drawn irrespective of sects, races and ethnicities.

The seeds of popular discontent were planted then and further nurtured by sectarian, tribal and ethnic rivalries, while dictators and kings ruthlessly used every tool available to divide and conquer in order to secure their hold on power.

The state and its resources became the private holdings of families, many of whom continue to this day, passing their fortunes and power from one generation to the next. They treat their citizens as subjects living at the mercy of their rulers and daring to challenge the authorities would be at their own peril.

For the West to think that once a dictator is deposed by popular demand it can push for democracy starting with general elections and haphazardly write new constitutions is nothing but a recipe for continuing upheavals and bloodshed.

While the West has the moral responsibility to support the march to freedom and provide the guidance to transition to a new political order, it requires more than an instinctive leap to democratic governance.

What is needed is a political process that paves the way for the establishment of a democratic form of government based on a carefully thought-out constitution to safeguard the rights of every individual and with a built-in political mechanism to ensure full adherence to these rights.

By pushing for early elections, any fool could have predicted the results. The Islamic parties, be they in Tunisia, Egypt or other Arab states, have been diligently preparing to capture power. They are patient and disciplined, with extensive social networks, organizational skills and resources to help the poor that no secular political party could match.

Whereas these Islamic parties operated under the watchful eyes of the authorities, using religion and the mosque to promulgate their mission without challenging the government, secular parties needed the public arena to promote their political agenda, which governments have forbidden or systematically stifled.

In Egypt, there is hardly any secular party with a clear political ideology of which the public is fully aware and in a position to evaluate and compare to the political agendas of other parties, be they Islamic or secular.

It was a given that the MB in Egypt would win the elections. However free and fair these elections might have been, they did not represent the wishes of the majority of the people.

Simply put, other political parties were suppressed under the previous dictatorial regimes; they lacked the organizational and political skills and failed to present a political agenda that would address the people’s grievances.

What is absurd is that while the US has been witnessing the unfolding events in Egypt over the past 30 months, the Obama administration is now making precisely the same mistake again by pushing for early elections and writing, in a hurry, a new constitution.

Due to globalization and the technological and information revolutions, the Arab states do not need the decades or centuries that it took the West to develop a functioning democracy. That said, a transition to democracy still requires time and it cannot, for political convenience, be artificially accelerated.

The US should encourage and use its considerable leverage on the Egyptian military and the current civilian authority to seek an inclusive transitional government that represents all segments of the population for at least four years.

This minimum transitional period is necessary to allow for the development of democratic institutions, institutionalization of free press and freedom of speech while developing the culture of advice and consent.

To be sure, no democratic form of government can be accomplished, let alone sustained, by rushing for quick fixes under the banner of democratic reforms.

Although the MB has thus far refused to participate, the party will sooner than later have to choose between continuing resistance and being forced to go underground, or becoming a part of the new political process. The MB is not suicidal and knows that there is no future for the movement if they remain politically excluded.

The transitional government should be composed of respected and skilled bureaucrats, experts respected in their fields, known for their commitment to the national interest and ready to dedicate their time and energy for the future of their country.

Such a government would then chose legal scholars representing all segments of the population to assume the task of writing a new constitution that enshrines human rights, including political and religious freedoms.

The different political parties, old and new, would develop their platforms and present them to the public, allowing the people to choose intelligently and freely the party of their choice.

The idea here is that regardless of the continuing violent conflicts and diametrically opposing views, the message from the West must remain the same: a representative and inclusive transitional government should govern for at least four years to be followed by general elections based on the new constitution.

The army will remain the custodian for national security and relinquish its internal security functions once a new government is elected.

No one can suggest that this is an easy path free of hurdles and can easily be realized. But the US must have a consistent message and avoid being seen as hypocritical in dealing with the inevitable continuing upheavals engulfing various Arab states.

The US could have used its leverage on the Egyptian military following the fall of Mubarak to form an inclusive transitional government (including the Brotherhood) for at least four years. In so doing the US might have been able to dramatically change the political landscape and avoid the unfolding violent conflict and instability.

Sadly, the West (led by the US) is about to commit the same mistake again and deprive once more young Arab youth the opportunity to grow and flourish under sustainable democratic governance.




Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The facts are clear: the wealthiest 0.54%, about 40 million people, are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50% of income earners, almost 4 billion people, only emit around 10%. The world’s top 10% income earners are responsible for at least 25% and up to 43% of our environmental impact. Most people living in developed countries would fit into this category, meaning you don’t have to consider yourself rich in order to be globally affluent. Even many poorer people in wealthy countries have a disproportionately large and unsustainable resource footprint compared to the global average."
Jun 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "To be sure, the American Dream was always more aspiration than reality. Economic, social, and intergenerational mobility have always fallen short of what the myth of the self-made man or woman would lead one to expect. But with social mobility now declining as inequality rises, today’s young people are right to be angry."
Jun 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "There is only one way to repair America’s reputation, regain the trust of allies, and ensure that the US can act as an effective counterweight to China: address the root causes of the cracks that Trump’s disastrous presidency has exposed and widened. This is in line with the vision advanced in 2011 by two military strategists, Captain Wayne Porter and Colonel Mark Mykleby, using the pseudonym “Mr. Y.” Porter and Mykleby argued that national security depends not only on the capacity to respond to threats from foreign powers, but also – and perhaps more important – on the “application of credible influence and strength.” That influence, in turn, depends on America’s success in providing a “pathway of promise” for US citizens – and a model for the world."
Jun 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "The most critical question then is not how far Trump will go to promote his treasonous agenda, but for how long Republican leaders will silently accept and subserviently enable Trump to destroy the basic moral tenets and values on which this Union was founded, and which they swore to uphold and protect...............Of course, shame on us if we continue to be surprised by Republicans’ continuing silence, because as we all know, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that Trump committed crimes against the American people, Trump’s Republican stooges in the Senate exonerated him following impeachment almost unanimously...................The Republican leadership, to be sure, has made its bed. It has committed moral suicide. History will judge them harshly for their treason and betrayal of the nation, including all of those who have lived and died throughout our history to foster and protect our safety, integrity, and freedom."
Jun 9th 2020
EXTRACT: " Governments can do nothing about the quotidian offenses of living as a black person in America – the empty taxis that refuse to stop, being mistaken for employees in supermarkets, the myriad intentional and unintentional insults. Many now in the streets won’t be satisfied unless the result of this national spasm is improved schools, health care, and job opportunities for minorities – a fair shake for black people. What will happen when America once again falls short of honoring its professed values?."
Jun 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should be apparent to most observers of international relations that the Chinese government wants the world to play by its own set of rules. Beijing appears to believe that China’s rise and its assumption of global leadership positions are an inevitable extension of earlier periods in its history, when it was the world’s most powerful country. This is often at odds with the global norms that have been established – with China’s participation, it is worth adding – since the 1940s. While this is clearly the Chinese century, few outside of China would agree that Beijing’s global leadership is either inevitable or necessarily desired – certainly not on the Chinese government’s terms."
Jun 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Many Americans are clearly horrified by their president’s crass and incendiary words. But will their disapproval be offset by anxiety about violent social unrest? Will age-old racial prejudices, often unspoken, or even acknowledged, still make them vote for the false security of a coarse white bully?  Much will depend on how hot this summer gets. If people think rationally in November, it is hard to imagine that enough of them would vote to keep this appalling administration in power for another four years. But fear is reason’s worst enemy."
Jun 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "For starters, many Americans have accepted that they live in a winner-takes-all society of deepening inequality. While the wealth and incomes of those at the very top continue to grow, tens of millions of Americans struggle to afford health care, childcare, and other basic goods. This story has been told many times over. But what often goes unremarked is that the responsibility for managing the social costs of this system has been offloaded onto the police."
May 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "Obamagate is the latest conspiracy theory to be pushed by US president, Donald Trump. It started on the morning of May 10, when Trump retweeted the word “OBAMAGATE!” By the next day, the Obamagate hashtag had accrued over two million tweets and another four million by the end of the week. Trump has repeatedly reused the slogan on his Twitter feed since and it has been promoted by right-wing influencers including Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and many others....You are not alone if you’re confused by what Obamagate actually is or why Trump is tweeting about it."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "Not all aspects of our near and medium-term future can be foreseen at this juncture of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we now know enough to make some hypotheses about what is likely to change, based on what has already changed. The future is sure to look very different than it did before this decade began, regardless of whether a vaccine is found. If a vaccine is found, it is unlikely to be tested, approved, manufactured, and efficiently distributed to the world’s population of nearly 8 billion people for years. Bearing in mind that there is no vaccine for any coronavirus, what is likelier is that the world will be living with Covid-19 as a part of our ecosystem for many years to come – possibly permanently. That means that our new normal is probably already here."
May 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "LONDON – The new Franco-German proposal for a €500 billion ($547 billion) European recovery fund could turn out to be the most important historic consequence of the coronavirus. It is even conceivable that the deal struck between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron might one day be remembered as the European Union’s “Hamiltonian moment,” comparable to the 1790 agreement between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson on public borrowing, which helped to turn the United States, a confederation with little central government, into a genuine political federation."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "In April 2011, Donald Trump, then considering a run for the presidency the following year, said that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to check out rumors that President Barack Obama wasn’t born there, but in Kenya, which would disqualify him for the presidency. His investigators, Trump declared, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” I can find no record of Trump being challenged on this outlandish claim at the time. In the fall of 2016, Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, was convinced by his staff that he had to abandon this “birther” nonsense. He did so reluctantly, charging – also with no evidence – that such rumors had actually been initiated by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. There, in a nutshell, is Trump’s modus operandi: he’s not just a liar but a fabulist, seemingly unconcerned with whether his fictions will be exposed. If they are, the world simply moves on as he invents fresh distractions."
May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Li, a doctor, was purportedly silenced and chastised by Chinese officials for warning on December 30, 2019, about a new virus in the Wuhan hospital where he worked. When it became evident that he was on to something serious – so serious, in fact, that it ultimately killed him – the Chinese government changed its tune and celebrated Li’s bravery. If only that had happened sooner, the argument goes, the world would have avoided this horrific pandemic.................... But that’s not what happened."
May 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Jana Winter and Hunter Walker at Yahoo News broke the story that 11 Secret Service agents have tested positive for the coronavirus. Likely some of them served in the West Wing. This week it was revealed at that a US military valet who brought Trump food came down with the virus, sending Trump into a “lava level” rage. Two aides to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive. Some observers are afraid that the virus is circulating in the West Wing itself."
May 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "There has been much debate around the world about the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from a laboratory to Wuhan’s seafood market to some other form of animal-to-human transmission. While there is no proof (yet) that the virus may have been inadvertently released from one of the two biological research laboratories located at Wuhan, there is evidence that viral release has occurred in the past, and a host of additional data that point to a laboratory connection. "
May 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "A better bet is that nothing will be the same. Wealth will be destroyed on a catastrophic scale, and policymakers will need to find a way to ensure that, at least in some cases, creditors take part of the hit, a process that will play out over years of negotiation and litigation. For bankruptcy lawyers and lobbyists, it will be a bonanza, part of which will come from pressing taxpayers to honor bailout guarantees. Such a scenario would be an unholy mess."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "We need the twenty-first century’s two superpowers, America and China, to set the example, by burying their rivalry and uniting all of humankind around a collective response to the current crisis, and to those that await us. As COVID-19 has taught us, the old international system can no longer guarantee humankind’s safety and security. We cannot afford to be taught that lesson twice."
Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should come as no surprise that Trump has abused his power in orchestrating the federal response to the pandemic. For example, he made sure that Colorado received 100 much-needed ventilators, and made sure that Colorado voters knew it, in order to help re-elect troubled incumbent Republican senator Cory Gardner.  More alarming, Trump effectively threatened to wage germ warfare against US Postal Service workers by denying them congressionally approved virus-mitigation aid unless the USPS quadrupled rates on packages. Trump’s actual target was Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post."
Apr 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "These ten risks, already looming large before COVID-19 struck, now threaten to fuel a perfect storm that sweeps the entire global economy into a decade of despair. By the 2030s, technology and more competent political leadership may be able to reduce, resolve, or minimize many of these problems, giving rise to a more inclusive, cooperative, and stable international order. But any happy ending assumes that we find a way to survive the coming Greater Depression."
Apr 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Federal Reserve will buy unlimited quantities of Treasury bonds, the Bank of England will purchase £200 billion ($250 billion) of gilts, and the European Central Bank up to €750 billion ($815 billion) of eurozone bonds. Almost certainly, central banks will end up providing monetary finance to fund fiscal deficits. The only question is whether they should make that explicit."