The Paradox of Arab Democracy

Iraq, Syria and Jordan have been at the very heart of the Arab Levant since the fall of the Ottoman empire (about one hundred years ago). Each one of these “nation-states” was constructed and adapted to the needs of the victors in WWI. They were led by the dictatorial strength of sectarian minorities, whose legitimacy was crafted artificially in the halls of the League of Nations and the foreign offices of European colonial powers. Iraq became a Sunni-dominated monarchy and then, following its overthrow, a minority Sunni dictatorship. Syria has been led for the last forty years by an Alawi ruling family who came to power in a military coup.

The new territory of the ruling Hashemite dynasty of the Arabian Hijaz was called “Jordan”. It was literally created overnight by a unilateral British partition of all the Jewish mandated land east of the Jordan River. In other words, the eastern Palestinian territory known historically as the province of Transjordan was separated from the main body of historic Judea, in order to satisfy the geopolitical needs of the British mandated power and its Arabian Arab client. The true geography of historic Israel/Palestine was truncated. In this original partition of Jewish Palestine the needs and desires of the resident Arabs, and the promises within an international legal framework to the homeless diaspora of millions of Jews, were totally disregarded. Within a generation most of those Jews would perish in the Holocaust.

Each of these core Arab countries of the Levant has been ruled by the iron fist of a minority, whose very rule has created an existential angst and a desperate fear of the powerless majority population. For Iraq, the overthrow of the Sunni minority by an US-led invasion (2002) ushered in an initial period of chaos, war and occupation. This was followed by a successful US-inspired political arrangement leading to the defeat of the terrorist grouping, only to be followed by a complete American withdrawal. This whiplash in US policy eventually caused a huge power vacuum in what appeared to be a promising start to the beginning of a functioning civil state (2008-2011). However, without an American military presence Iranian influence in Baghdad increased, and national unity disintegrated. Today we are left with a completely divided country whose very existence as a political community is open to question.

Syria followed the events in Cairo (2011) called the Arab Spring. But unlike Egypt, one of the oldest and most historic nations in the world, the fabric and mosaic of Syrian society eventually cracked along ethnic and sectarian lines into a brutal civil war. The national landscape of Syria dissolved as the ruling minority refused totally to give up its absolute political power. But it didn’t have to be this way. A political solution for Syria (at the same time as a functioning civil state in Iraq) could have turned the Arab Spring into full-fledged blossom. But the Obama administration turned its back on both the Syrian and Iraqi people. And without any leverage in either country, the maintenance and/or return of dictatorship was an inevitability. Unless the American President can turn the situation around in the next two years, Obama’s legacy will become one of the greatest policy failures in the entire history of US foreign policy.

For many years, the politically disconnected Sunnis (a majority within a majority in Syria) had no avenue of political recourse other than the mosque. The same was true for the Shia in Iraq. But even here, the brutality of these two regimes knew few limitations. As the government-sponsored massacres of the 1980’s showed, any protest against the Assad regime (even in the mosque) would be met with a most savage response. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was one of the most brutal dictators in world history. His overthrow was a great moment for Iraq. But the zigzags in American policy doomed the Levant to dictatorship. And so it went. As the people in Syria called for democracy and a civil state through non-violent protest, the demonstrators were met with snipers, torture and rape. Into the mayhem and chaos, any hope of human rights through citizenship in a civil society faded. With the advent of armed struggle, outside powers (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states) and the Assad regime itself made certain that a return of the most radical Islamism became the new reality.

Iraq and Syria, both of which held the seed of such great promise, have been let down by a US-led Western alliance whose rhetoric on freedom was much more potent than its staying power. But it is in Jordan where the greatest failure of freedom has been visited. The Hashemite dynasty has been an ally of Britain and the US since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It is a ruling family with a certain amount of legitimacy because it can trace its roots back to the Prophet Mohammad. Its rule cannot be compared to either Saddam or Assad. The Hashemites hold a reputation for relative moderation. Yet they represent a minority within a territory that has been artificially removed from its historic roots (Judea and the Arab population of Palestine). This has not always been the case. For a short eighteen-year period, from 1949 to 1967, Jordan occupied historic Judea (the West Bank, as it was called). The Hashemites made all the Palestinians on the West Bank Jordanian citizens. But what Jordan didn’t do, and what it still doesn’t do, is create a true civil society within a structure of moderate constitutional monarchy.

Today, of course, Jordan no longer occupies historic Judea. The Jewish state now controls Judea. But in Jordan, the majority of citizens are of Palestinian origin. And like other majorities across the Levant, they too suffer from the lack of democratic rights and responsibilities. Jordan’s so-called moderation should be updated to be inclusive of a true democratic structure. For the sake of continuity and reform, this transformation should be in the context of a democratic constitutional monarchy. But like the rest of the Levant, other forces are also in play. The paradox of Arab democracy is that, while the future of the secular dictatorships are clearly over, in places where the Islamist forces are strong, elections will not necessarily lead to the formation of true civil states. Jordan, like Egypt, is one such place.

To stabilize the Levant (and also Egypt), political solutions are needed to create civil states. The separation of mosque and state must find its own model, and most important, its own champion. But no model or political champion is on the horizon. King Abdullah and his American friend, President Obama, have been great disappointments. Certainly a model of constitutional monarchy can be crafted to include only political parties that accept the primacy of the civil state and the longevity of the peace treaty with Israel. This is not blind idealism, but the essence of a realistic understanding that without a pluralistic civil state, the fragmentation of the Levant will (over the course of many years of chaos) probably lead to an Islamic empire or caliphate. This can be in no one’s interest other than the most extreme Sunni or Shia actors. Can you imagine what that would mean for all the various minorities within the region?

To defeat ISIS or any other potential Islamic empire, a political solution is needed for both Iraq and Syria. That political solution can only be the civil state. The one leader in the region who understands this imperative is the one truly great Islamic leader in the entire Levant, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husayni Sistani. The ideals of the pluralistic model are his ideals. The Grand Ayatollah understands that the political realism necessary to alter the current murderous madness in Iraq and Syria has a humane democratic framework within a Judaic-Christian-Islamic individual conscience. For true Muslims, Jews, and Christians, all life must be sacrosanct, and all coercion removed from religion.

In a similar vein, the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict can only be achieved by an extension of the democratic civil state for all the citizens of Jordan. Let the majority rule, and the minority be protected through law. This is the way of the civil state. Certainly the Palestinian refugee situation can only find its true address within the geographical dimension of all historic Israel-Palestine. This must include both banks of the Jordan River. Two states for two peoples can only mean two democratic states, not two democratic states and a third state which is a minority-led absolute monarchy.

In many political circles, it is a commonly held belief that democracy in the Middle East will usher in, through elections, a variant of Islamism hostile to democracy itself. I call this phenomenon the paradox of Arab democracy. But I submit that there is an alternative paradox: That only within a democratic civil state can the true aspiration of Islam, the religion of peace, be allowed to come to complete fruition. Without civil states in the Levant and across the Middle East, anarchy and death will reign for decades.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).