In the past, Arabs experienced a form of western democracy, which was specifically tailored and imposed by foreign occupiers during the colonial period. After the First World War, voters in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon used to cast their ballots that were supposed to determine which party would form the government. Alongside critical media driven by intellectuals and reformists and rapid modernisation and education, the scene was almost real: an active functioning democracy.
However, this scene was deceptive, as such a democracy had a red line that was not to be crossed: the demand for independence. With the presence of foreign occupiers, the real player who determined the horizons of that democracy were not elected governments or the parliament, which represents the people’s will. It was the colonial political agent who determined the boundaries of democracy.
What did that democracy yield? We know the answer — it was not a real democracy, but a limited and conditional one, simply because it was not supposed to be in conflict with the occupier’s supreme interests whether it was oil or geopolitics. So, if this kind of democracy was planned to develop gradually, definitely it could not have been normal. The greater interests of colonial powers were always placed above democracy in an extremely rude manner. The interference of political agents of the occupiers reached new heights, whether in manipulating local parliaments to impose unfair agreements or when it came to issues related to oil, military bases or economic and commercial concessions. So what was the final outcome of the occupier’s democracy? Nothing, except the emergence of totalitarian inclinations.
No wonder these countries were then ruled by military leaders with popular support, who came to power in a series of military coups — in Iraq from 1937 to 1968, Syria from 1949 to 1970, and Egypt from 1952 until now.
Until recently, democracy was not on the US foreign policy agenda. The political scene in Arab countries ranged from military coups to short periods of civilian rule. During this period, the principle of non-interference was prevailing over the promotion of democracy in American foreign policy.
Yet this explanation remains naive because the military coups that took place in some Arab countries were nothing but a result of a struggle between old colonial powers like Britain and France, and new powers, such as the US and the former Soviet Union.
It was the period during which the US policy succeeded in coexisting with undemocratic regimes. And, whether it was the requirements of the Cold War or the struggle for oil and other interests, democracy in the Arab region was not a priority for the US.
Following the September 11 attacks, it appeared that US officials woke up after a long coma to discover that Arab countries were in need of democracy, but from America’s own perspective that said “the September 11 attacks would not have happened if there was democracy in Arab countries”.
After September 11, democracy became the only topic in the American foreign policy in the Arab region for a while, which was dominated by non-stop pressure and endless initiatives under new guises, as there was no longer a political agent to impose the will of his own country, despite what the example of former US administrator to Iraq, Paul Bremer might suggest.
Yet, this opportunistic linking of a lack of democracy in the Arab world to the September attacks — the biggest and most devastating attacks since the Pearl Harbor — has cast doubts on the credibility of the new US approach. This test failed in the first transparent democratic elections that took place in Palestine in 2006, which Hamas won.
What was the reaction of the US and western countries? The Palestinians who believed the US and cast their votes were punished in the largest ever campaign of humiliation, on the hypocritical pretext that Hamas was a “terrorist” group. In this case, democracy was not the issue, but the interests of Israel.
This clearly means that for the US, Arab democracy is conditional upon the acceptance of co-existence with Israel as an occupying power.
There are historical precedents in Latin America. For instance, when former leftist Chilean president Salvador Allende formed his elected government in 1970, the US supported a military coup by General Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973.
This led to the establishment of a brutal regime that ruled until 1990. This means the US embraces an unchanged policy that does not differentiate between leftists and Islamists.
US foreign policy has nothing to do with ideology, as it only cares about the kind of democracy it wants. The US wants to impose a “designed and tamed democracy” in the Arab region, so as to protect its own interests.
The US position will never change, and there is evidence to support this assertion.
An Arab reformist movement (one of whose demands was developing education curricula) which existed since the mid-1850s during Ottoman rule, was crushed by colonial powers, just because its demands could have affected the interests of these powers when there was a struggle for independence.
Similarly, the US, since 2001, spoke about reforms, which was a demand of the Arab intellectual elite since the 1980s.
However, with the US pushing for democratisation in the Arab world, reform became tantamount to treason. Another paradox: in 1930s and 1940s social forces which were engaged in bringing western-style democracy were accused of treachery.
What does this mean? Primarily, democracy never got a chance to develop normally in Arab countries. In contrast, democracy was impeded by the resistance of the ruling elites to change, as well as by foreign interference which always leads to reverse implications.
Foreign interference usually harms democracy in the Arab world as it is meant to restrain and suppress the internal reform movement by determining a specified limit that must not be crossed. In conclusion, the conditions for democracy that existed in the colonial era still remain.
Mohammad Fadhel is a Bahraini writer and media consultant based in Dubai.