Elections Killing Democracy in the Middle East

5 05 2014

Bouteflika A supporter of Egypt's army chief Field Iraq Elections

 

 

This is an important election year for a number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Egypt will hold elections on May 26-27, with the military dictator General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi likely to run. He has already gripped Egypt in an iron fist, while the courts do his dirty work sentencing hundreds to death without due process. In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to run for president in August, while journalists are arrested and the government promotes increasingly authoritarian policies that include tight controls over the judiciary. Rubbing salt into the wounds of millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and families of more than 150,000 dead in the Syrian civil war, the vicious dictator Bashar al-Assad plans to run for re-election in June.

Iraq just witnessed crucial parliamentary elections amid fierce violence flaring in Fallujah, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s track record has not exactly fostered a healthy democracy. He has long antagonized Iraq’s Sunni minority, and managed to provoke violent backlash in Anbar. According to a Washington Post article, entitled “Iraq’s Elections May Accelerate its Descent” (May 1st) –

Mr. Maliki built support among Shiites before the election by launching a military campaign against Sunni tribes in Anbar province; the result was the takeover of Fallujah by al-Qaeda and waves of bombings against Shiites in Baghdad. Without U.S. support, the army appears to lack the means to recapture Fallujah and other Sunni-populated areas, though Mr. Maliki, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, has resorted to using Iranian-backed Shiite militias. The prosperous, autonomous Kurdistan region, with its own oil reserves, has become a de facto independent state.”

In late April, Algeria has exhibited one of the most embarrassing and shameful sights when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, already in power for fifteen years, ran for a fourth term following a stroke and was sworn in while sitting in a wheelchair. This comes after the 2011 Arab Awakening revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, but Algeria has successfully suppressed similar uprisings and protests within its borders. However, the results are a gross blemish, analogous to the worst warts and boils on the ragged old face of Arab status quo, which convey only the Arab leaders’ obsessions with self-empowerment, stagnation, oppression, and authoritarianism. The delusion of these autocrats is boundless.

The only light in this dark tunnel is Tunisia, which has succeeded in nonviolently removing the Islamist Ennahda Party from power and preparing for new elections this year, while having revised the constitution once again. Democratization processes are not easy. They require not only smooth transitions in political leadership, but also substantive reforms of institutions and structures, with a lot of patience and determination. Clearly, Egypt and Libya, within their own respective contexts, have been impatient with the democratization processes. Leaders can be corrupt failures anywhere in the world, even in established democracies. But, the true test of democracy is the citizenry’s commitment to the values and principles of democracy. We have not seen this in the MENA region. In fact, egotistical self-promoting autocrats like General Sisi and Bouteflika and Bashar al-Assad eagerly want democracies to fail and collapse and be snuffed in the dust under the soles of their shoes. They also have powerful people supporting them, and in most cases that includes the military. They have been the circles of democracy assassins who rally around brutal dictators.

With all that Mohamed Bouazizi, the April 6th Movement, and hundreds, if not thousands, of others have sacrificed to change the face and stench of autocratic stagnation and status quo in the region, it is a tremendous tragedy that their revolutions, symbolism, and efforts have been undermined by the most diabolical people. The latter only possess self-interests, and are not concerned with the public’s welfare. The greatest irony is that so many of these self-interested autocrats and their supporters are using the tool of democracy, elections, to empower themselves. The counter-revolutions have been a slap in the face of the victims who died or were injured while trying to bring democracy, freedoms, and rights to their countries. When strokes and wheelchairs don’t deter a dictator, what can be said, but “what a shame.” But remember that it’s the circle of stakeholders around the dictator that is just as selfish, greedy, and ruthless. The proponents of real democracy in the MENA region face formidable challenges ahead. Their greatest test will be their commitment to democracy. The dictators and autocrats have shown their deep commitments to their brutality and authoritarianism. Stagnation and status quo will be the region’s future in politics, economics, and many other aspects of life if the “counters to the counter-revolutions” are not successful. And, those who are blindly supporting the likes of Sisi, Assad, Bouteflika, and a host of other oppressive and tyrannical dictators are dooming the entire region to a dark and wretched fate. Dictators deserve to be tossed into the dustbin of history, and the citizenry must commit to “never again!” Instead, we see countless people prepared to vote for new and old dictators. Has nothing been learned from the past several decades of tyranny?

The following quote by John F. Kennedy has profound wisdom for us all: “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”

 

The views expressed are personal.

Advertisements




The Militant Sunni Juggernaut & the Anti-Shia Hatred that Fuels It

10 01 2013

NYT2009041617260562C

Lashkar-e-Taiba

Stop Shia Killings

“Yes, we must finish them off.”  This was the response when someone from one of the Gulf Arab countries (to remain nameless) was asked about going after (i.e., killing) Shias following Bashar al-Assad’s fall in Syria.  I have predicted a Shia massacre, I even called it a genocide, in a post-Assad Syria.  This quote only confirms my fears and suspicions.

 Twenty-four hours after I heard this quote the vicious killings of mainly Hazara Shias in Pakistan took place in Quetta.  Ongoing violence in Iraq continues to target Shias there, and the Sunni-Shia hatred and violence in Syria has already spilled over into Lebanon, where they tortured and slaughtered each other with relish during the civil war (1975-1990).

 Ironically, it is the majority Sunnis in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf region, and parts of South Asia who sing the victim songs about how Iran is trying to “spread its ideology” and subjugate them all.  There is no denying that upon Ayatollah Khomeini coming to power in the 1979 revolution, one of his expressed priorities was to spread the Islamic revolution throughout the region.  However, given the fact that the vast majority of the regional demographics consists of Sunnis – with exceptions in Iraq and Bahrain – the fear of the successful spread of Twelver Shia ideology is unsubstantiated and grossly overblown.  And the regional actors know this.  Yet, they continue to fan the flames of sectarian hatred and fear.  I have come across numerous Sunnis from the Gulf region who don’t hesitate to judge Shias as “non-believers,” or “non-Muslims.”  Surely they have their counterparts among Shias, but Shias are greatly outnumbered, and in fact in Sunni majority countries they face increasing discrimination, prejudice, and even violence, not unlike many Christians in the Middle East and Hindus, Bahais, Ahmadis, and a host of other minority groups in Pakistan.  We must add girls and women too, but gender violence is a whole other can of worms.  I predict that persistent gender violence will trigger the true downfall of these regions, if they don’t get their acts together to protect girls and women.  But, that topic is for another article.

As much as we can try to attribute the recent attacks in Pakistan to what’s to come with US troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, the fact is that systematic targeting of Shias has been going on for a long time now.  Many refer to it as the “Shia Genocide,” and there is basis for this term.  Just look at the number of deaths and injuries, and frequency of attacks, which have been rising steadily in recent years.  The Pakistani government is unable (and unwilling?) to enforce law and order in general, let alone pertaining to sectarian massacres.  It seems not only helpless, but also oblivious in many ways, and that will be to Pakistan’s detriment, as if matters can get any worse.  And, with Pakistan, it’s not just the internal violence that is sucking the country into its own self-constructed black hole, but it seems the military is itching for a fight with India again with the border skirmishes in Kashmir’s LOC.  There is a real potential in the coming months and maybe year or so for the Pakistani military to step in completely and carry out yet another coup, especially now that the US will be less active in the region.  If things get even uglier with the Indo-Pak skirmishes, the Pakistani military just might see that as an opportunity to make its move on the Zardari government.  Let’s see what happens.  My predictions are not always right, but who knows what’s around the corner for the Af-Pak region?

 The outlook for these regions is grim, especially given that law enforcement cannot provide basic security for the general public.  Plus, rule of law practically does not exist, and if it does, it’s usually in favor of the wealthy and powerful elite.  Meanwhile, the bloodshed continues with impunity.

 While I in no way support the brutal Iranian regime (which also viciously represses its own minority groups), as a political scientist, I can assess that, with all these targeted Shia killings proliferating in the Middle East and Pakistan, and the inevitable fall of Bashar al-Assad in Syria (Iran’s only strong ally in the region), the clerics in Tehran can only see more reason to weaponize their nuclear program.  Ominously, that will result in a domino effect with the rest of the region acquiring the same nuclear status.  That is for certain.  Then, we will witness the Sunni-Shia rivalry armed with nuclear weapons.  That is one very scary thought.  But, since the regional governments do nothing to prevent the sectarian bloodshed now, that is the outlook we can expect in the future.

 The governments in these regions need to wake up to these dark realities.  They are so preoccupied with their own prejudices and self-interests, but this is truly at the expense of the masses.  Nothing can be gained from all the violence at the hands of militants, regardless of their sectarian identities and ideological orientations.

 The other open secret that everyone sees, but has not received due attention, is that most of the militants in these regions are hard-core Sunni extremists.  With all the fear mongering about Iran spreading its ideology, the majority of violent acts being carried out from North Africa, in the Middle East proper, and in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir are at the hands of Sunni militants, primarily espousing some form of Salafism, and many of whom, if not most, are supported financially by the Saudis.  When we peel back the layers of political, military/security, financial, and other variables in this scenario, we see that at the core of it all is the Sunni-Shia rivalry (i.e., Saudi versus Iran).  These militants have many other motivations and agendas as well, but one of the main priorities they embrace is to “cleanse” their societies of Shias and other minority groups.  The Taliban committed horrendous Shia massacres during their rule in Afghanistan.  This is nothing new.  The only thing that is new and alarming is the militant Sunni juggernaut sweeping across these regions unchallenged.

 NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views





Condemning Democratization in the Middle East

22 01 2012

One of the first comments we heard from the Obama administration in the early stages of Egypt’s 2011 revolution was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remark, “the Egyptian government is stable,” referring to the Mubarak regime.  Of course, this is a stark contradiction to the democratic and human rights principles that the US espouses.  It also contradicts the expressed objective to promote democracy in the region, as stated in the US National Security Strategy (NSS).  Since then, we have seen regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and major political reforms in Morocco, Jordan, and some of the GCC states.  One of the outcomes of all of these events and changes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2011 has been the electoral empowerment of various Islamist parties.  Now, the editorial and news pages of global newspapers are brimming with alarmist messages about the Islamists coming to power in the MENA.  And, those of us in the field of MENA Studies are hearing earfuls of complaints and “I told you so’s,” because of the Islamist tsunami.

I respond to these complaints with these observations and explications:

  • This is the price of democracy, and democracy has various components:  the electoral, civil / human rights, and some argue the civic duty component (i.e., citizens have the obligation to participate in the political process).
  • Open, fair, and free elections should translate into allowing any party, however unpalatable, to run for political office.
  • These countries in the MENA region have never seen democracy, which means that they will respectively undergo their own evolutionary processes, just like we did in US history.  The MENA countries are starting from square one in this regard.  American democracy took a long time to reach the maturity we have today.  Let’s not forget that American democracy began with slavery, a brutal civil war, racial segregation, a women’s suffrage movement in the 20th century, and a very bloody and painful Civil Rights Movement.  For the MENA region, I am dubbing the process, “Evolution after Revolution.”  And, evolution after revolution takes a very long time.
  • If anyone doubts the compatibility of Islam with democracy, consider the approximately 14% of Muslims in the 1.3 billion total population of India, the world’s largest democracy.  This core Indian Muslim population has accepted and embraced secular democracy since day one of India’s independence from British colonial rule, the creation of Pakistan notwithstanding.  We often forget this point.  I am quick to remind people, pointing to India on the map.  Of course, India’s post-colonial history has its own complexities and communal problems; no one denies that.  But, it’s still evidence that Muslims in India, in whatever nuanced manner, find Islam and democracy compatible.  Turkey is another example that has been repeatedly cited as a template for the 2011 Arab uprising.

This is not to say that some of the developments in the region don’t trouble me.  The rise of the Salafists in Egypt, in particular, bothers me to no end.  If Egypt veers in the direction of a Saudi-like theocracy, then I will indeed be biting my nails with anxiety.  However, even then, it will be up to the Egyptian people to redirect the polity towards a flourishing democracy.  The burden is on the Egyptian citizens.  The same goes for all the other countries in the MENA region.  Of course, these will be long, hard struggles for freedoms and rights.  Let’s go back to US history and remind ourselves that we also have gone through difficult struggles to bring our democracy to maturity, and even now, it is far from perfect.  No one should expect absolute perfection.  But, everyone should aspire to it nonetheless, keeping the eye on the prize:  democracy that encompasses all of the components – free, fair, and open elections, freedoms and rights, and civic participation.

Two major dichotomous arguments are circulating about this issue today.  One is the recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that calls on Western governments to, basically, suck it up and accept Islamist parties coming to power in the region, as this is what democracy embodies, and it is a better outcome than the status quo autocratic dictators in power for decades who have violated human rights for so long.

The other argument is that the Islamists have hijacked the “Arab Spring” fruits of the secularists / modernists / liberals’ labor.  Some say this hijacking threatens the rights and freedoms of women and religious minorities, and in fact, thousands of Coptic Christians have preemptively left Egypt already.

Today’s Haaretz has an article about the former argument, citing the HRW report:

“Western democracies should overcome their aversion to Islamist groups that enjoy popular support in North Africa and the Middle East and encourage them to respect basic rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Sunday.

HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said in the group’s annual report that the past year’s Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings across the region have shown it is vital for the West to end its policy of backing ‘an array of Arab autocrats’ in exchange for supporting Western interests.

The West should also be more consistent in supporting pro-democracy forces in the Arab world and elsewhere, he said in HRW’s 690-page report on human rights abuses worldwide.

‘The international community must … come to terms with political Islam when it represents a majority preference,’ he said. ‘Islamist parties are genuinely popular in much of the 
Arab world, in part because many Arabs have come to see political Islam as the antithesis of autocratic rule.’

‘Wherever Islam-inspired governments emerge, the international community should focus on encouraging, and if need be pressuring, them to respect basic rights – just as the 
Christian-labeled parties and governments of Europe are expected to do,’ he said in the introduction to the report.

He added that the international community ‘should adopt a more principled approach to the region than in the past. That would involve, foremost, clearly siding with democratic reformers even at the expense of abandoning autocratic friends.’”

The counter-argument, which actually does not completely dismiss the former argument, is presented in today’s Al Arabiya News by Raghida Dergham, saying –

“Mistaken are those who demand that power be handed over to the Islamists in the Arab region of change, even on the grounds that they have been brought to power by a democratic process that must be honored, and that there is no choice but to submit to the de facto situation until the Islamists are tested in power. This is because democracy has been abortive as a result of excluding women and the youths from decision-making, and there are dangerous indications that the personal freedoms of Arab women and religious minorities are being undermined in the age of the Islamist monopoly of power. The youths of the Arab Awakening launched the revolution of change, but the ballot boxes brought victory for the Islamist movements. While they had toppled their regimes jointly in 2011, they parted ways in 2012 battle over the fateful choice between the modern state and the Islamic state.”  (my emphasis)

I close with Raghida’s last paragraph, which, I think, sums up this discourse very eloquently, and leaves you, the reader, to contemplate how the “necessity of challenging monopoly” applies to your own political system.  The checks and balances in a democracy are not just a civic responsibility, but are also imperative for upholding all of the components of democracy simultaneously.  Consider Raghida’s words –

“The change coming from the Arab Awakening is going through a frightening phase that is causing much frustration, and yet there is something in the air preventing a downward spiral into pessimism – something that awakens frustration into the necessity of challenging monopoly.”

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.