This month marks two years since a young Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in response to humiliation suffered at the hands of a municipal officer, and in the process ignited the so-called “Arab Spring” across North Africa and the Middle East.
Much has transpired in the two years since that fateful December day. Major and minor demonstrations against governments have taken place from West Africa to the Gulf emirates. Regimes have been overthrown in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. And in Syria a civil war is raging that already has claimed over thirty thousand lives with no sign of stopping anytime soon.
Yet for all the revolutions, demonstrations, violence, and unrest one thing remains conspicuously absent and elusive. Democracy. Democracy in the Western sense of the word, which encompasses respect for the rights of women, religious minorities, homosexuals, and members of the political opposition.
This naturally begs the question, why?
When the Arab Spring revolutions began, the Western media enthusiastically embraced the protesters and hailed them as the spearhead of democracy in the Arab world. So intoxicated were the media by the idea of a youthful “Facebook revolution” fighting for democracy that they forgot to ask what these “democrats” actually believed in. Time magazine even went so far as to name “The Protester” its “Person of the Year.”
The media were not the only ones besotted by the lure of an ostensible democratic movement in one of the most repressive regions of the world. President Obama was so taken by the movement that that he abandoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who for three decades had been a stalwart ally of the U.S., kept the Israel-Egypt peace treaty intact, and served as a firewall against radical Shi’ite Iran in the Sunni Arab world.
Obama did not even allow Mubarak to implement a nine month transition period to allow for a peaceful transfer of power. Instead, Obama insisted that Mubarak resign immediately. Mubarak’s departure set the stage for an early June election and a likely Muslim Brotherhood victory due to their superior capacity to organize rapidly and their large support base.
And it is with the issue of elections where the story of the failure of democracy in the Arab world truly begins.
That is because the West in general yearns to bring freedom, democracy, and a better way of life to people the world over. This impulse to bring freedom to oppressed masses is as understandable and noble as it is often wrong-headed.
This belief is especially strong in America. The essence of this belief was captured by president George W. Bush who once said, “I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom.”
But the aspiration for freedom has always been a dicey proposition at best. Consider recent history.
During Germany’s internecine war years of 1919-1933, the Weimar Republic, a democracy, was established. It soon crumbled under the weight of economic privation and political extremists on the left and right. But perhaps most significantly, Germany had no history rooted in any democratic traditions. Its history was one replete with the rule of Kaisers, essentially emperors or “Caesars”.
So when German society came under duress, it was a seemingly natural transition to turn to a single, strong leader. In Germany’s case that transition came in the person of Adolph Hitler.
Another democratic failure occurred in Gaza in 2006. The terrorist group Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. By all accounts the election was fair and democratic. Yet beginning that same year Hamas and Fatah were killing each other on the streets, with Fatah being expelled from Gaza until this day.
Members of Fatah were not the only ones to suffer under Hamas’ rule. One only need look to the last round of fighting with Israel in Operation Pillar of Cloud. Those democrats in Hamas summarily shot six people for allegedly “collaborating” with Israel. While some people spit or stomped on the corpses, one body was dragged through the streets of Gaza in a macabre motorcycle procession.
As a result of the democratic Hamas takeover, Gaza has turned into a global jihadist incubator for every group from the Iranian backed Islamic Jihad to Al-Qaida elements. And since 2001, the Gaza strip has continuously served as a launching pad for thousands of rocket and missile strikes against Israel. Prior to that, the preferred method of terrorism was terrorist infiltration into Israel proper.
Egypt has fared no better. Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood narrowly won in a democratic election this year. And for all the fanfare accompanying modern Egypt’s first free election after the fall of an authoritarian regime, serious fears remained that the election would follow the all too common theme in undemocratic societies, “one man, one vote, one time.”
Those fears have now solidified into reality. After receiving heaps of praise from the Obama administration for negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas to bring Operation Pillar of Cloud to a conclusion, Morsi felt confident enough to confer on himself sweeping powers that are above the scrutiny of any Egyptian court.
And despite massive popular protests around the presidential palace described by the naïve Western media as a second Arab Spring, Morsi and the Brotherhood remain more entrenched than ever, their Islamist agenda marching forward.
So what are the lessons to be drawn from the so-called Arab Spring?
To begin with, Western countries must learn that absent a democratic temperament among its people, a society is highly susceptible to use the mechanisms of democracy -that is, voting – as a conduit to elect the worst kind of despots.
Voting must be the culmination of the underlying democratic values of a society, not merely a gateway through which fanatics seize power under a veneer of legitimacy.
To think that a Western style democracy can take root in the Arab world otherwise is nothing short of insanity.