Arab democratization and the future of ‘the only democracy’

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Such a pall of darkness had overtaken the Arab lands for so long that one thought Arabs existed in a permanent malaise, a condition of corruption and authoritarianism, their regimes maintaining a lock down on their subject populations and their mutual borders. It’s as if people slept, awoke, lived, and worked without hope, overtaken by the feeling that they could not even effect their own lives, much less something bigger. The Arab regimes’ lack of imagination in opening up to themselves and to other Arabs across the region, their inability to see that the future lies in economic, political, social cooperation and relations, is staggering, their parochialism, suspicion and fear for their power crippling their ability to respond meaningfully and effectively to the region’s multifaceted challenges.

The main issue was always the absence of citizen participation and representation in the affairs of state and society. In the past two decades, the monopoly of information in the public arena gradually stopped being in the exclusive hands of the state, leading to political culture’s democratization. This is why both the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings are inspiring. Hope rekindled was the driving energy and determination of the Egyptian protestors. They saw possibilities. And possibilities ignite the human imagination.

The West, particularly the US was content with the old state of affairs. The lamentation of missing Arab democracy, smugly attributed to Arab/Muslim culture, was a charade to obfuscate the fact that the US in fact required autocrats as lynchpins for its economic and political domination of the region. All the talk about freedom is vacuous, not comporting to actual behavior. The barely cloaked response is one of fear, resentment, and antagonism, for there was not and is not a natural comfort with peoples in weak states managing their own affairs. These, after all, may have their own preferences, interests and needs. But with Egypt, and an American president smart and nuanced enough to understand what he is witnessing, support for mass democratic revolution, for now in Egypt, is better than the alternative if America hopes to maintain influence. Perhaps Egypt may begin to acclimatize Washington to a more imaginative way of dealing with the region. One litmus test will be whether the US suddenly discovers, as they did of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, that, after all, Hamas and Hizballah, too, are sociopolitical movements rooted in their societies and not al-Qaida like terrorists. I doubt this, including that US strategic policy centered on Israel will end anytime soon.

The Israelis for their part exist in a universe of their own, so steeped are Israel’s elites and leaders in anachronistic racist stereotypes of Arab culture, which they openly utter, along with fulminating fundamentalist men of the cloth and neo-fascist nut jobs, unaware of how they look, of the degradation of their own humanity. Many if not most Israelis and Jewish-Americans see the Arabs (and Muslims) as a collection of anti-Semitic tribes, ethnicities, sects, and classes bound together only by their hatred of Israel. This crude, stupid thinking is a product of a state-socialized society nurtured on Arab inferiority, violence, backwardness, etc., unable to see the consequences of its own actions or the humanity of the Other.

It is not, of course, that Israelis do not and should not have legitimate security concerns. It is that they must decide what they want: colonization and war or relinquishing occupation, peace and coexistence. Israel cannot ultimately impose its will on the region. Feeling encircled is more a psychological function than a reality. Israel’s ideological foundations require fundamental reconsideration.

Practical considerations for Israeli opposition to peaceful Arab mass resistance and democratization are the fear of a similar Palestinian revolt, which may very well come, of highlighting Israel’s fierce denial of Palestinian human rights and freedom, and of the bankruptcy of the claim that Israel is the Western frontline against violent Arab and Islamic tyranny. The “only democracy in the Middle East” may begin to look not so democratic or innocent after all, undermining the mantra of American-Israeli shared values. A state, a people, convinced of its normality, its historical and moral rightness, cannot possibly fear others’ democratization unless it fears the consequences of its oppression and violence against them. On the other hand, screeching self-righteousness rationalizes all thought, perception, and behavior. Or, perhaps, Israel is concerned that it cannot maintain the status quo, that is, occupation, expansion, and military primacy, its control and coerced cooperation, when dealing with democratic will rather than autocrats. The Mubaraks of the Middle East, having been neutered by treaties and bought off with US aid, sustain Israeli intransigence and belligerence, such as in Gaza and Lebanon. If extremism and instability are not in anyone’s interest, is it wise to bet one’s security interests on repressive despots who give rise to these conditions?  Surely a state that genuinely desires peace on a legal and just basis has nothing to fear, especially from democratic nations, with whom peace is durable.

None of the old ways of perceiving and doing make sense anymore. They are fantasies. A democratic Middle East, unlike the pretend vision of the neoconservatives whose main concern is Israel, is a stable, legitimate region. Do we want transient regimes or permanent political institutions? Do we want friendship of dictators or independent cooperation based on shared interests and values predicated on people’s decisions? Is it really good for US national interest to advocate and support the needs and whims of Israel, which falsely thinks it requires friendly autocrats, keeping their cutthroat rabble under heel, to maintain its security? Arab democracy will be neither a tectonic nor volcanic occurrence for the US or Israel, but a more complex, fluid relationship. Arab liberal democratic sensibility is an antidote to extremism, a tamer of political Islamists who in any case are themselves fragmented, have evolved towards a more pluralistic power sharing orientation. It is the avenue to open borders, enhanced contact between peoples, Israelis and Arabs, the path to familiarity and humanization.

Democracy is the best permanent guarantor of Israel’s peace and security, but only if Zionism understands that ideologically driven expansion, oppression, and regional depredations must end, and an urgent end to occupation without condition take place. Israelis could have had a two state solution over two decades ago, Palestinians and Israelis peacefully coexisting, the Palestinians the gateway to Israeli-Jewish entry into the Middle East, in trade, social and cultural contact, political cooperation, joint efforts to solve ecological problems and security challenges, perhaps increasing integration, over a decade or two, towards a larger regional entity. Muslims can be most forgiving, and even assume the banner of fighting anti-Semitism. I say this with the certainty of a non-Muslim. Yes, this was, is, all possible, realistic for anyone who knows the Middle East and its historical, psychological, and cultural make-up well. Instead, Israel’s elites choose isolation and domination, deliberately creating enemies and staging provocations for war, emphatically rejecting a goal Israelis say they desire to realize, acceptance into the Middle East. The Israeli poet and novelist Yitzhak Laor argues that Israelis vehemently insist on their identity as Westerners and Europeans, juxtaposed to the Arab barbarians. Israel has long been on the path of suicide, its future in jeopardy, so myopic are Israeli elites, so paralyzed by a mixture of trauma, victimhood, and superiority and enabled by Diaspora Jews politically organized on Israel’s behalf.

The intermediate to long-term future does not bode well. Zionism is ideologically and institutionally incapable of a liberal, pluralistic state. Israel has failed to create a tolerant, moral society. It has not brought peace to its people, despite essentially Arab pleading. It has become increasingly isolated. America, relatively or otherwise, is declining—exhausted by the folly of its elites and, partly, by Israeli scheming to have the US fight wars on its behalf—and it will globally retrench. Some scholars argue in 10 years at most. Signs of a collapsing US-imposed order are everywhere in the region. Middle Easterners will always be there, as witness the history of all previous imperial powers. The Palestinians in historic Palestine are growing, perhaps substantially exceeding Israeli Jews in the next 25 years. If the current trajectory persists, the victims, because of potential widespread destruction in the Middle East, will be both Israeli Jews and Palestinians, for this will not end well nor come to a peaceful conclusion. In this historical moment, it’s in the hands of the US and Western powers, but not for much longer.

Picture the following alternative reality yet again: an Israel coexisting with Palestine, working energetically with Arab democratic states and movements to construct the various facets of confederal arrangements, from Egypt to the eastern Mediterranean to Iraq. Supranational institutions to enhance economic cooperation and integration and accommodate the region’s diversity. A popular US, unequivocally in support of Arab democracy, dignity, human rights. The disappearance of global al-Qaida terrorism virtually overnight. This is not only possible, but also eminently realistic. It must first be imagined.

(12 February 2011)


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