January 28, 2011 | National Post

Democracy Will Prevail in Egypt and Across the Middle East

Democracy has been the dominant form of political organization in Canada and other English-speaking countries for so long that we often forget just how historically unusual it is. Until the establishment of Europe’s first Parliaments and constitutions, strongman rule was simply part of the human condition. For several billion people on the planet, it still is.

During the 20th century, democracy gradually spread to other parts of the world, including such giants as India and Japan. Toward the end of the century, political freedom came also to much of South America, Indonesia, South Korea, the former Soviet bloc (excluding Belarus and, under Vladimir Putin, Russia itself), and even, fitfully and bloodily, sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet throughout all this, a single corner of the globe stubbornly persisted as a black hole on freedom’s map: At the dawn of the 21st century, not a single nation in the 22-member Arab League could be described as a true Western-style democracy.

What explains this anomaly? Arabists emphasize Western colonialism and U.S. support for convenient autocrats (such as Egypt’s besieged Hosni Mubarak). But many other parts of the world that are now flourishing democracies were once colonized, too. Moreover, some parts of the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, were never subject to colonial occupation.

Another explanation revolves around oil — a commodity that tends to enrich and empower the small elite that controls its extraction, without providing much in the way of jobs and upward mobility to the masses. Yet Syria, which has little oil, is just as autocratic as Libya, which has plenty. So that doesn’t provide a complete answer either.

Others have focused on the influence of Islam. Unlike Christendom, Islamic civilization has never embraced the doctrine of separation between church and state, nor religious pluralism, nor equality between men and women, nor individualism — all essential components of modern democracy.

And yet, Muslim Indonesia is a democracy; as is (with several asterisks) Muslim Turkey. Even Iran has a strong grass-roots democratic movement, albeit one crushed under the Ayatollahs’ jackboots. So it cannot be said that Islam is entirely incompatible with democracy.

Perhaps the only complete explanation is that democracy simply has been alien to Arab political culture for a host of reasons, including those listed above. But that culture is changing — and it is changing fast.

When the history of the Arab democratic revolution is written — whether in a month, a year or a decade — a sacrosanct place will be reserved for Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old man Tunisian street peddler who immolated himself last month after enduring a litany of abuses from the country’s unaccountable bureaucrats and police. His plight symbolized the quiet, simmering sense of imprisonment felt by millions of his countrymen — and his name was on the lips of the protestors who brought down the nation’s government. The fuse that he lit has made its way to powder kegs in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and — most significantly — Egypt, by far the most populous state in the Arab world.

Yet Mr. Bouazizi’s tragic, desperate act did not take place in a vacuum. For years, Arabs have been learning that dictatorship — whether under Nasser-cloned nationalists or Saudi-style Wahabbists — is not the only way. They know this from surfing the Internet, and watching al-Jazeera and other satellite television networks, which show them scenes their leaders do not want them to see; scenes such as Iraqis going to the polls after Saddam Hussein had been deposed by George W. Bush’s armies in 2003. They also watched the casting out of Lebanon’s Syrian occupiers in 2005. These are scenes that make pharaohs shudder.

These new media have been saturated with incendiary coverage of Israel, too, of course. But viewers also have seen the other side of the coin: Hamas turning Gaza into a fundamentalist appendage to Iran, not to mention the corruption of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Since 9/11, viewers also have seen al-Qaeda terrorists perpetrate carnage against Muslim civilians far more horrible than any outrage committed by Israelis. This helps explain why Islamists seem to be on the margin of this week’s protests: Most ordinary citizens want freedom, not an Arab version of the Taliban.

It is telling that neither the North African protestors nor their autocratic targets are mentioning any of the usual anti-Israeli conspiracy theories in their media war. The Jewish state, long a demagogic obsession in the region, has disappeared from the headlines entirely. This is a sign of a people that finally appears to be taking control of its own destiny, and so no longer needs outsiders to blame.

No one knows how the drama in Egypt — or any other Arab nation — will unfold in the short term. Political revolutions are unpredictable. But in the long run, we all know how this drama will one day end: with the Arab world joining the rest of the globe on the march to democracy. And the images that fill our TV screens today suggest that destination may be closer than many Arabs only recently dared hope.

The hearts of all free people are with the protestors. May their campaign be victorious, short and bloodless.

Jonathan Kay is a Visiting Fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

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