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Dreaming about Arab democracy

The very real threat of future socialist or theocratic dictatorships

Five months after the Arab uprisings began, it is now possible to glimpse the likely outcomes for the region. These are decidedly mixed and ominous.

A pressure group called the Muslim Brotherhood has had a growing lead in the Egyptian protest movement and their presence is highly influential in other regions of North Africa, including Libya. In addition, Hamas, a well-known extremist movement already in power in Palestine, is one of the more radical outgrowths of this group.

The probability of a pseudo democratic-Islamist tyranny –similar or worse than Iranian theocracy– emerging from the originally peaceful protests turned into armed rebellion is a real threat to stability in the Middle East, to the maintenance of peace in the region and the world and to the safety of millions of people in that region and beyond.

On the other hand, a more optimistic view sees in the popular overthrow of autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt raised hopes of a widespread shift towards open and pluralistic regimes, ushering-in economic change and ending generations of relative stagnation in the Arab world. However, the cultural and political reality prevailing in the region shows that prospects for a comprehensive democratic breakthrough are unfavorable, despite the considerable and real enough advantages and economic gains possible, were them to take place.


This week, the Economist Intelligence Unit "puts only a 20% probability on this outcome. Equally likely is a return to autocracy and repression. The most likely outcome of all, with a 60% probability, is a shift in most countries towards some form of hybrid regime, with political change failing to deliver genuine accountability or popular participation in government decision-making."

This is an appalling view, but realistic. Democracy is not to be expected.

It is always dangerous to generalize when talking about the Arab world because of the diversity of the objective conditions characterizing each country within this region. Therefore, what happened in Egypt and Tunisia has neither comparison with what is happening in Libya nor is reasonable to match the political reality or the culture of these countries. Much less if we try to extrapolate these events and experiences upon the reality of what is actually happening in Syria, Bahrain and/or Yemen.

In the case of Egypt, the ongoing revolution illustrates the promotion of the "announced" collapse of the neoliberal system, challenged in all its political, economic and social dimensions.  It sounds very familiar as Chavez's battle cry for his 21st Century Socialism in the Americas. In fact, these are massive movements following similar paths.  In the case of the Egyptian people, the popular movement combines three active ingredients: 1) a "re-politicized" youth of their own volition shaping so-called “modern” forms they proclaim to be "inventing", 2) a coordinated force of the radical left and 3) a very well-organized  Muslim Brotherhood.

These three elements fail to add-up to any kind of democratic outcome.  Rebel leaders can be identified with Kefaya and El-Ghad movements, in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood.  While the Brotherhood promotes some sort of socialist theocracy, Kefaya was born in part from the intifada in the Palestinian territories in 2000, and it gained radical’s support by joining the fierce opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. It drew on an eclectic base that included communists, Nasserists and Islamists while its spokesman was Abdel-Halim Qandil, editor of the Nasserist newspaper al-Arabi.  El-Ghad was founded by Ayman Nour, a lawyer and former member of Egypt's parliament, famously imprisoned for speaking out. The 10-member steering committee formed at the height of the Cairo protests earlier this year included several representatives of Kefaya, along with Nour of El Ghad, and Qandil, representing the Nasserist party, plus Osama al-Ghazali Harb of the liberal Democratic Front, established in 2007.  These two movements are considered the “moderate” counterpart to the Muslim Brotherhood.Democracy?

In the cases of Libya, Syria and Yemen, these events are even more confusing and chaotic.  Who are the rebels?  What do they want?  What is their model of government?  The presence of al-Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood fighters are admitted by Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, the Lybian rebel leader proclaiming that the rebellion counts with jihadists who fought against allied troops in Iraq.  It is also a fact that the rulers of these countries have clung to power for too long, ignoring the rights of their people.  From an ethical standpoint, it is very simple – the rulers and kings of the Arab countries should do justice to the offices they hold.  But they don't.  Such a situation seeds extremist views and solutions.

On their part, free and democratic countries have a responsibility to uphold the principles sustaining human rights.  But they are being careful –perhaps too careful– to take action and defend the rights and lives of the oppressed.

Is it right for humanity to standby in plain view of a dramatic escalation of Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown on the protesters in which more than 1,500 people have already been killed?  Thousands of troops are crushing the mostly unarmed protesters in several cities and everyone may anticipate the bloody aftermath.  In the meanwhile, the international community is not taking any effective action.

Libyans finally took up arms to resist the carnage unleashed against his own people by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The international community had been appeasing the dictator for too many years and is now watching from the sidelines while the civil war evolves and more and more people die.  Free countries decided to “help” at arm’s-length with runaway bombings day after day for weeks.  It is a lukewarm military intervention that has only served to prolong the misery and add to the deaths count – an intervention that does not favor the moderates among the Lybian insurgents.  NATO has the power to put a swift end to these tyrannies in support of their people's rights.  What is restraining decisive action?

The international community is responsible for whatever happens or does not happen.  They know that such violent struggles for power can only lead to the victory of the strongest. Such is not the path to freedom. Under these conditions, democracy is only a dream.