With the Afghanistan collapse, the time has come to revisit an ongoing obsession among Western politicians and pundits: the promotion of democracy in the Arab and Muslim world.
The fundamental flaw in Western thinking has always been the assumption that democracy is some sort of a plug-and-play program that can be rapidly and successfully activated in any country. This type of thinking resulted in the disastrous experiment in Iraq, where the war and subsequent “rebuilding” process killed more than 800,000 people. It also left the oil-rich country, nearly two decades after the invasion and imposition of a “democracy,” devoid of even basic security for its people and often lacking in essential services like electricity and water.
This flawed thinking was further exposed as we saw the much-heralded Tunisian experiment come to a grinding halt after a decade of “democracy” that produced 10 governments in 10 years, continuously deadlocked, corrupt, and unable to deliver any of the inflated promises that politicians had to make to get themselves elected. Concurrently, for the last two years we have been witnessing the implosion of Lebanon’s corrupt, bankrupt, sectarian “democracy” led by criminal warlords that not only has succeeded in stealing its people’s savings from the country’s collapsed banking system but has now failed to deliver even the most basic elements of daily life such as fuel, electricity, and medicine.
And now with the disastrous Afghanistan collapse, we have another failed experiment in democracy leading to state breakdown, and the return of a medieval Taliban regime to power.
Will all this trigger a rethink in Washington, DC, about governance in the wider Middle East? Maybe numerous failed experiments in democracy set against the stability and prosperity delivered by Arab monarchical rulers for over 100 years will lead the West to appreciate that autocratic forms of governance, while unfashionable in the West, have been by far the most successful in the region.
Accepted dogma in the West ignores the centuries - in the UK, a millennium since the Magna Carta - of turmoil and bloodshed that ultimately forced its exhausted people to accept the rules and outcomes of democracy. The people of Europe, after all, only finally achieved widespread democracy in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Western Europe itself had only achieved it after 1945, under a US occupation.
The Western focus on democracy in the Middle East has obscured what could have been a much more productive and substantive focus on better governance - not so much how a government gains or holds power, but how it governs and delivers basic services and legal rights. Placing the focus on governance would enable the establishment of realistic metrics for any government to work toward. This could involve ensuring, first, the delivery of basic services such as security, electricity, and water - which many governments today do not even deliver - then medical care, education, and jobs, followed by working to ensure the fairness of the legal system - a level playing field - with the ultimate goal of ensuring freedom of speech and other freedoms.
It should not be overlooked that successful democracies need to be underpinned by a relatively narrow political spectrum in society like that between the Republicans/Conservatives and Democrats/Labor Party in the US and United Kingdom. Even Trump’s alt-right movement tested this balance in the last administration in Washington, and the divide between communism and fascism in the first half of the 20th Century in Europe made the accommodation of a democratic process impossible.
Such a wide spectrum unfortunately pervades the Middle East today, where radical Islam, such as ISIS or the Taliban, competes with Westernized political and social liberalism, a divide that simply does not lend itself to any compromise. Hence the fact that only autocracy has been able to deliver the stability required to guarantee the basic right of security and the services required for daily life.
The art of the practical and the possible should be the focus here, rather than the loud, self-righteous, and often cynical virtue signaling that so many in the West love to indulge in. The daily lived experiences of the region’s people are the ultimate proof of concept. The absolute Arab monarchies, even the ones without oil wealth such as Morocco and Jordan, have, despite all their faults, delivered a better experience to their people over the last century than any other form of government.
They took their countries, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula, out of the dark ages of massive underdevelopment and brought them into the 21st century with a good standard of infrastructure, education, and medical care underpinned by decades of stability that allowed these gains to be retained by society.
They also provided them with globally respected passports that facilitate travel, trade, and education for their people, a privilege that Westerners take for granted but one that the millions of Arabs and Muslims lining up at Western consulates, or post the Afghanistan collapse at Kabul airport, in mostly futile quests for visas understand very well. While all this progress has hardly been accompanied by any political freedoms, it has at least delivered the critical building blocks of a modern society.
Today post the Afghanistan collapse, its people, the people of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and so many others in the region’s failed, and failing states can only look upon the citizens of these autocratic monarchies with envy given what their own regimes, theocracies, and “democracies” have deprived them of and destroyed.
Ali Shihabi is an author and commentator on Middle Eastern politics and economics with a particular focus on Saudi Arabia. His website is www.alishihabi.com. He tweets @alishihabi
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