By J. D. Gordon.
Many in the West have cheered the prospect of Western-style democracies taking hold in the Mid-East, siding with protest movements that have toppled autocratic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia while spreading like dominoes to Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Libya and Algeria.
That’s a natural reaction, given the fact that democracies have yielded successful outcomes in Western societies and embodied the concepts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
However, a closer look at existing social conditions in the Middle East and North Africa, combined with a quick glance at some past “democracies” ought to give one pause.
In condemning violent crackdowns, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay cited the root of anger as, “decades of neglect of people’s aspirations to realize not only civil and political rights, but also economic, social and cultural rights.”
While true, it doesn’t address why there has been so much neglect of people’s aspirations. As if a sudden switch to democracy might fix everything?
Realistically speaking, most Middle Eastern and North African countries don’t enjoy the social conditions that would fulfill such needs – regardless of the type government.
There religious leaders wield the type of power and influence over daily lives in ways we haven’t seen in America for centuries. And their standard fare is preaching intolerance, demanding subservience of women, and blaming the West and Israel for all their problems. In a society of devout followers, most people naturally become conditioned to view the West unfavorably, just as public polls show. Truly representative democracies under these circumstances would likely be deeply hostile to U.S. interests.
Those still pushing democracy for the sake of an egalitarian “power to the people” should at least take a look at some case studies. History is full of notionally democratic, yet also deeply troubled societies that do not have happy endings.
Germany, 1933 – As the elected leader of the Weimar Republic’s Majority Nazi Party, Adolph Hitler was appointed as Chancellor by octogenarian President Paul von Hindenburg to form a coalition government that would pull Germany out of the Great Depression. Citing the Reichstag fire just one month after to solidify his grip on power, Hitler shredded the constitution and outlawed all other political parties. Six years later WWII began, costing some 60 million lives.
Iran, 1979 – After a pro-democracy movement toppled the U.S.-backed Shah, the Mullahs quickly instituted Sharia Law — legitimized through a national referendum. Declaring that protests against the Ayatollah were the same as protests against God, Iran has ruthlessly suppressed any form of dissent ever since. Dedicated to its nuclear program in pursuit of regional dominance, Iran is just years away from producing the bomb.
Algeria, 1991 – In reaction to centuries of colonization and a few decades of secular yet incompetent autocratic leaders, Algerians elected the Islamic Salvation Front which promised to enact Sharia Law. Seeing the nightmare that unfolded in Iran, Algeria’s Army launched a coup and removed the Islamists from their elected posts. The result? A decade long civil war that killed over 150,000 people.
Venezuela, 1999 – Failing to take power in a coup, Hugo Chavez was elected by a populist movement fed up with poverty and a lack of social mobility. Since then, the murder rate has quadrupled, foreign investment has all but dried up, and chronic food shortages plague the nation.
Gaza, 2006 – Once Palestinians finally had the chance to pick their elected leaders, they chose Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization. Cut off from Western aid, Hamas wasted little time before firing rockets into Israel.
So what can we learn from all this?
First, though democracy may represent the ideal form of government, successful ones must be accompanied by the social conditions that can lead to positive results for its people.
Second, instant democracies in the Middle East and North Africa are most likely to result in highly antagonistic nations, given the prevailing anti-Western sentiments and climate of intolerance. This is particularly true if Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood come to power – either directly via general elections, or through steamrolling political opposition within their respective legislatures.
Navigating this crisis will be difficult for America, even with the wisest policy decisions from Washington. If the current administration’s waffling through the Egyptian chaos gives any indication of things to come, we may be in real trouble.
J.D. Gordon is a communications consultant to several Washington, DC think tanks and a retired Navy Commander who served in the office of the secretary of defense from 2005 to 2009 as the Pentagon’s spokesman for the Western Hemisphere. For more info: www.jdgordoncommunications.com