Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hope and Change in Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, . . .

If you want to remain hopeful, you probably wouldn't call the tide of protests sweeping the Middle East a "contagion," the term this morning's Los Angeles Times used to try to keep up with rapidly-moving events in the region.  Yet the term is probably apt to describe just how quickly the protests in Tunisia and Egypt have already begun to "infect" other countries.  In Jordan, the king has dismissed the cabinet and called for reforms.  In Yemen, massive protests against the government have already broken out.  In Syria, activists are attempting to organize similar demonstrations.  And in Sudan, which is already scheduled to be split in two, the central government of what will be only the northern, Arab half of the country has opened a dialog with protesters. 

The last time we saw such a wave of sweeping change was 1989 in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  We can only hope that the wave of protests in the Arab world will end as favorably as that last wave.  To make sure that this movement does not end badly, it's probably good to keep in mind that the issues are not as simple as democracy vs. authoritarianism.  As I mentioned in a previous comment on an earlier post, democracy is worthless unless you also have respect for human rights, and the rule of law. Otherwise democracy just turns into mob rule, and can be as intolerant and repressive as rule by a dictator. I've been thinking about Fareed Zakaria's book The Future of Freedom that I read several years ago,which makes the same point that building liberal institutions is more important than simply advocating democracy.  Think of how this country was founded, which might serve as a model.  The most important thing the Constitution provided was a mechanism for checks and balances among the branches of government.  That built on more than 100 years of experience developing those institutions during the Colonial period.  The next thing the Constitution needed was a bill of rights making sure that all citizens' basic rights would be protected.  Democracy was probably only a third priority, and it was only partially guaranteed by the Constitution. Voting rights expanded gradually thereafter, as the franchise was gradually extended to everyone, and as direct election of representatives was added to the Constitution by amendment.  And we still don't have direct election of the President even after more than 200 years of our experiment with republican government!

Most likely my ulterior motive for insisting that the rule of law and human rights are more important than democracy, is concern about how events in the Middle East will affect the State of Israel. There is a segment of opinion which I am sympathetic to that reacts to any news story by asking, "is it good for the Jews?" In the long run, properly functioning democracies in the Arab world should be good for the Jews, since right now Israel is the only functioning democracy in the region, but in the short run, Israelis have reason to be worried. There are elements in Egypt and Jordan, which have been suppressed for thirty years, who are unsympathetic to the thirty year old peace with Israel, one of the cornerstones of Israel's security. It would be dangerous to allow groups that want to scrap peace and scapegoat Israel for the problems of other countries in the region, to come to power. To deal with those valid concerns, as well as to provide the best future for the people in all the countries now experiencing legitimate upheaval against anti-democratic leaders, the movement for change must incorporate respect for the principles of non-violence, respect for the rule of law, and protection of human rights.

Those who are impatient with how cautious the Obama administration has been in dealing with upheaval in the Arab world should understand that they must take into account these same concerns, and others. We want to see a repeat of Eastern Europe in 1989.  We do not want to see a repeat of Iran in 1979.


  1. Amen. Nor do we want another Libya, Algeria, Lebanon, Yemen, Tunisia, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, or any of the other failed models that are the rule in the Arab world. Nor do we want Saudi Arabia, whose ruling oligarchy has ensured its survival by handing real power over to the most blood-thirsty, xenophobic, mysoginistic group of power-junkies-masquerading-as-religious-authorities on earth.

    Even gleaming, World-Cup-hosting Qatar, which claims a cosmopolitan population of 1,700,000, only allows 350,000 of them to be citizens. Now THERE is a democratic model for you!

  2. Our input has been given for decades. The fruit of that input if happening now. While the situation in Egypt is very fluid at the moment, whatever happens needs to be left up to the Egyptians themselves. Bush in Iraq and Obama in Afghanistan were/are trying to impose democracy. Democracy of whatever sort needs to be based on the conditions, culture and realities on the ground. Even democracy in America took many decades to develop. The current protests in Egypt are not "democracy" but part of the (long?) road Egyptians must travel to get there. Whether the US continues its support of Mubarak and other dictators in the Middle East or decides to change this decades-long policy, the people of the ME are not waiting around. My feeling is we will see more uprisings like the present ones.

  3. You can't "impose" democracy. By definition, if you have democracy, then the people are making their own decisions. And I guess that if people don't want to make their own decisions, they will just elect a new autocrat to make decisions for them. The mistake that you can make, though, is to push for elections before you have set up the institutions necessary to protect the rights of political and other minorities. Maybe that's what you are talking about.

    As far as US support of Egypt goes, we have hugely supported Egypt mainly because Egypt made peace with Israel. It wasn't really a question of whether we like or don't like dictators. I think that whomever takes over in Egypt--whether it's another dictator or whether it's a democratic form of government--knows that the US will not keep sending the same number of billions of dollars each year to Egypt unless they keep the peace with Israel.

  4. I started to respond to your comments and realized that I agree with just about everything you said.