[This is my second blogpost for the Daily Telegraph, where the comments are quite interesting.]
Fouad Ajami, in a characteristic disdain for political correctness, once described the Arab world as “caught between prison and anarchy.” But the vast majority of post-Saïdian anti-Orientalists, in characteristic submission to political correctness, have been telling us all for decades that in the vibrant civil society of the Arab world, democracy is around the corner, especially in Palestine. Indeed, and ironically, George Bush’s neo-con inspired invasion of Iraq was based on the notion that, the dictator toppled and democracy introduced, democracy would spread as dictatorships fell like dominoes across the region. Despite the consistently repeated failure of these expectations, nothing seems to dent the near-religious belief in democracy’s spread to the Arab world among Western liberals who insist on projecting their own mentality on others (see Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand, chap. 4). Thus when protests spread through the Arab world last December, journalists were quick to dub it the “Arab Spring,” a harbinger, they enthused, of democracy spreading through the Middle East.
Those of us who have studied not just the institutions of democracy – constitutions, judiciaries based on equality before the law, elections, legislation – but the culture underlying it, are not so jejeune and optimistic. Social contracts demand mutual trust and an expansion of the field of the “us” to include more than one’s clan or tribe; a free press demands exceptionally high capacity for hearing public criticism; meritocracy demands that merit trump old-boy networks; successful law courts demand the renunciation of private justice/vengeance; productive societies demand respect for manual labor and an adoption of the principle for wealth accumulation of “make not take”; sustained positive-sum relations demand a restraint of envy at the success of others, and a renunciation of Schadenfreude – joy at another’s failure (Heaven on Earth, chap. 8). Unlike the way many Westerners think of it, democracy is not a computer program that you can download into any society and have it work. It’s not that everyone has to adopt these traits, just a critical mass of mutually enforcing players. But that alone is so difficult, and democracy such an astonishingly difficult accomplishment that, in the worlds of one of its most perceptive students, Eli Sagan, it’s a miracle.
So what can we anticipate coming out of the removal of the Libyan dictator Gaddafi: will it bring, as Ajami’s formula would lead us to believe, a shift from prison to anarchy? Or, as so many of us would like to believe, a shift from authoritarian to more democratic society? Given the stakes (oil wealth) and some of the players (tribal and Islamist), it’s hard, but not impossible, to imagine a vibrant democracy emerging. When the rebels cheer Western airstirkes on Gaddafi’s positions with “Allahu Akhbar,” as Barry Rubin points out, it means that they attribute success not to Western assistance, but Allah’s. Indeed, the greatest tension looks like it will be between loyalty to tribe and the accumulation of wealth and power on the one hand, or loyalty to Ummah, and the accumulation of theocratic power on the other. And, of course, this doesn’t even address the problem of the “brotherhood against democracy” that, for its own reasons opposed Gadafi, but also for its own reasons will hardly encourage real democracy. For the “modern,” technologically savvy, “pluralist,” players in whom the media invests so much of their time and their hope, to come out on top of such a struggle seems improbable. And the systematic mismanagement of these trends by Western policy-makers certainly does not help the prognosis.
As an exercise in thought experiment that might help us understand how alien democratic thought is even among the allegedly “modern” players in the “Arab Spring,” imagine a Libyan group saying (without being assaulted by raving demonstrators), “if we want democracy, then we should be establishing close relations with the only operative democracy in the region, Israel, and abandoning the conspiratorial scape-goating nonsense that Arab oppressors have been feeding us for decades about how they are our enemy. There are exceptions. And their proliferation would offer strong evidence that some have managed to rise above the kind of face-saving, vengeance-taking mentality that makes democracy so hard to sustain. Don’t hold your breath.