Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Thu, Apr 23rd, 2015

So Much for Democracy

The neocons that decided to liberate Iraq from a dictator claimed that the time and region were ripe for democracy. There are few words as overused and abused in political vocabulary as this ideal legacy from ancient Athens.

Most modern orators conveniently forget that in Athens it was only men, and only certain men, who could vote and participate in the governing process. It took well over a century for the democratic United States of America to allow women and Native Americans to vote. But somehow the planners of the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq thought that guns could yield roses and a plebiscite would usher in a regime friendly to the liberators. Thousands of deaths later in a region where insecurity has bred the most extreme forms of butchery, democracy remains a cruel joke. There is still no democracy in the Arab world where kings, emirs and dictators call the shots nor is this likely to change in the near future, especially given the fabulous wealth of many of the regimes.

Photo by: Filippo Minelli

Photo by: Filippo Minelli

recent survey of Arab youth found that the future for democracy remains bleak. The survey was conducted by ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller and involved interviews with some 3,500 men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 from Algeria, Egypt, the GCC countries, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia, and Yemen.

It is estimated that there are some 200 million Arab youth, but if this survey is representative, we may be in for a permanently frozen Arab Spring. Almost 40% agreed that democracy will never come about in these countries, and a mere 15% cited the lack of democracy as the major problem in the region. In 2013 some 43% thought the lack of democracy was an obstacle, so the events of the past two years have clearly had a negative impact as political realism sets in. Almost three-fourths see extremism, especially ISIS/ISIL, as the biggest threat, but less than half thought their governments could effectively handle the terrorism being carried out

So why is democracy in such low regard today? The dramatic failure of the aspirations inspired by the Arab Spring, which largely involved youth, is clearly a significant factor. Libya is in freefall, Egypt has returned to a military-backed dictatorship, Yemen is in shambles after a massive bombing campaign that has literally stoned this part of the Arabian Peninsula into even greater poverty, Bahrain is ruled by a feisty minority with little regard for human rights, and Syria is a political cadaver. The wealthy states of the GCC have becoming shopping malls for everything from Gucci bags and Bentleys to tomahawk missiles. Like it or not, the only functioning democracy in the region is Israel, whose apartheid policies are hardly worthy of praise. Lebanon is a unique case where one elects top officials according to one’s sect.  Elections are still given lip service in Turkey and Iran, but they are fraught with restrictions.  Where is this seed of democracy going to take root in such a hostile environment?

Woman casting her vore in the 2012 Presidential Elections and Constitutional Referendum in Egypt (photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Woman casting her vore in the 2012 Presidential Elections and Constitutional Referendum in Egypt (photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Another reason for the dip in support for democracy is the blatant hypocrisy of major powers like the United States. When America toppled Saddam, there were actually quite a few regional dictators they could have done the same thing to. The continued uncritical support for Israel’s ethnic partitioning and marginalizing of Palestinians alongside military support for regimes like Saudi Arabia (which carries out more beheadings than ISIS) suggests that the current definition of democracy is pure Machiavellian rather than Jeffersonian. It is hardly surprising that many Arab youth look at American involvement in their region as demon-ocracy rather than an expression of the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. “Democracy” has become merely a slogan to be bandied about for political points and not for human rights. It is actually surprising that as many Arab youth still dream of the possibility of democracy as the survey found, some 36%.

The focus on politics belies a far more critical concern to Arab youth, and not just youth in the Arab World. Some 81% said that they are concerned about the lack of jobs. The youth of today, especially outside the GCC, face a rough uphill climb to find any kind of job. The economies of the Arab “Sprung” states are unable to provide adequate work opportunities for the rapidly expanding young population in the region. Going abroad to work gets harder and harder, especially with little education. When faced with no way to earn a living or start a family, youth are ripe for conversion to extremism and crime. The ticking time bomb in the Middle East is not some trumped up cosmic conflict between Sunni and Shi’a but the lack of a future outside the rich GCC countries. As long as the GCC countries pad their ministries and government institutions with local graduates, the youth here can live quite comfortable lives and consume their way into the future. But in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Iraq the future promises yet more hardship. One can live a good life without democracy, but not having a job is the kiss of death. And death remains an everyday threat.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.

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