Do Arabs want democracy?

By Tom Putnam | May 08, 2011

When youth in Tunisia and Egypt revolted against their governments at the beginning of this year, the West believed their ultimate goals were the formation of a democratic state in their countries. That concept generated excitement in the West: Maybe the world was flattening after all and maybe humanity was uniting with common goals. But as events continue to unfold in North Africa and the Middle East, the question becomes: Is democracy truly a universal desire in the Arab world or are there other interests involved?

Currently, the international focus is on Libya and its dictator Muammar Gaddafi. His tribe is, and has been, in control of that country for decades and there are other friendly tribes associated with Gaddafi, largely because of his largess to them. But who are those Libyans who are revolting against Gaddafi? They are tribal in nature also. Do they want democracy?

Lately we hear that some are associated with Al Qaeda and they are battling to overthrow Gaddafi and install their ultra-conservative form of Islam. Curiously, they seem to be untrained and lousy soldiers. They require military air support, which they have gained from NATO; but when that support is absent, Gaddafi’s army counterattacks and the rebels flee from ground they have just captured. As yet, there has been no ground support from the US and its NATO allies. But the word now is that the U.S. has Central Intelligence Agency agents on the ground. Is that a beginning of increasing ground involvement? If Gaddafi is eventually deposed or eliminated, what will replace his regime? Could the replacement be less desirable to the West than the current one? Gaddafi was involved with the Lockerbie airplane bombing. Western hope for a Democratic Spring could be fading.

There continues to be unrest in other Arab countries, most importantly Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. What will happen, if and when, those regimes are overthrown? It would appear that Syria and Bahrain are battling back and holding fast. Only Yemen may be on the ropes and Al Qaeda has significant influence in that country. What influence will they have in a new Yemen? Do the tribes revolting in those countries really want democracies to evolve, or do they want their own tribes to have control?

And, are tribal nations able to form democratic states with equal rights and opportunities for all? Tribes have been the major source of influence, governance, and development in that part of our globe for centuries. In addition, they have had lingering animosity against the West since the Ottoman Empire was overthrown and the West developed artificial borders for new nation states. Those borders did not consider the individual tribes and their religions (Sunni vs. Shiite) and they were mixed but frequently did not blend. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are excellent examples of those Western-derived nation states. It will be interesting to see if the new democracy that has been established in Iraq will eventually aid the Sunnis and Shiites in forming a truly democratic state. Of course, there is always Iran right next door and the West fears what mischief it might create under these circumstances. Iran also has significant influence in Syria and Lebanon with Iranian financed Hezbollah being a major participant in both countries.

The festering Israeli/Palestinian situation is certainly not helpful at this time. Israel was blessed by the peace treaty that Egypt signed roughly a decade after the 1967 Six Day War. The Israelis revealed their superior military might and training in that war, which undoubtedly fostered the peace agreement. In addition, Jordan signed a similar treaty in 1994 to try to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

With turmoil welling up today in many countries in the Middle East where ruling heads are deposed or remain in power through the use of military force over their own populations, collective eyes will likely return to Israel. If those countries then become allied with Iran, Israel could really be in a bind. What are the U.S. and its Western allies expected to do. Will that be the beginning of World War III?

The West has enormous opportunities here, and enormous responsibilities. We need the finest minds looking at these individual evolutions, and reason the best way to successfully bring all parts of our world together. When you consider planet earth and its significance in the universe, it would be much better if all of us could live under conditions of real and responsible freedom, freedom to move about as we wish, freedom to meet with each other as we wish, freedom to recognize or not recognize in our own ways a supreme being and be in harmony with each other, and freedom to let our children meet with children from other societies and learn about their lives.

How might all this happen? First of all, keep the hope alive that we are beginning to see the evolution of tribal nations that will allow them to accept democratic principles. We must develop ways for human beings to be in contact with each other and discuss their various problems and desires. Cyberspace has shrunk our planet much more than airplane travel or telephone communication did in the 20th Century. Students in all countries should be encouraged to study abroad for at least one year and learn about other societies. Countries should work to finance that adventure which will help to evaluate and resolve future human conflicts. As we are seeing today, the youth are tomorrow’s future. Let us educate them and encourage them to be responsible and innovative.

However, I am afraid that as long as we have human beings as the predominant animal on our planet, there will always be potential for conflict. That is just human ego. We must continue to study and search and reach for democratic coexistence. Are we seeing the beginnings of a Democratic Spring, or will it become, silent?

Comments (2)
Posted by: Lawrence Butler | May 17, 2011 04:30

Tom, Really liked this column.  The internet and social media have changed the fundamental rules of how information and influence flow,no place more so than here in the greater Middle East.  Governments no longer control acess to information as in the past (with a few exceptions such as North Korea).  Investing in getting our kids (and their kids) out and about in the world is our best response. How the Arab spring evolves into summer is up to the people there, but there is a common aspiration for liberty and opportunity -- even among tribe members. Arab democracy won't exactly resemble ours, any more than ours looks exactly like European democracies, but it will be better than living under repressie regimes that kill their own people.



Posted by: James M Thomas | May 12, 2011 03:46

We need to take the advice from Star Trek and adhere to the Prime Directive.  The foreign policy espoused by Wolfowitz and company has nothing to do with the Arab Spring and neither does Israel.



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