Democratization Efforts

Democratizing the Arab World: America’s New Challenge

In addition to a common language, history, geography and culture, 200 million Arabs in 22 North African and Middle Eastern countries share a common bond of suffering under military dictatorships, totalitarian regimes and unconstitutional monarchies.

Almost five decades after the wave of independence swept through the Arab world, the political regimes of the Middle East have failed to deliver on their promise of democracy. In most Arab countries, the military has managed to steal the fruits of independence. Military commanders have become autocratic rulers and military discipline has become the rule of law. In the Emirates of the Gulf, the rule of the family is the norm. There are no political parties, no trade unions, no freedom of speech, and no individual freedom apart from that which the ruling families choose to offer their people. Arab women in these Emirates still struggle for the right to vote, to be elected, and even to drive cars at the beginning of the 21st century. Governments are still committing crimes against individuals and their societies while chanting songs and slogans extolling freedom and democracy.


The failure of the political regimes of the Arab world to deliver on democracy, coupled with their failure to deliver on economic development and their failure to respond to rapid social change have made many of their impoverished masses begin to think of an alternative way of life. As more than half the entire Arab population is illiterate (59%; and among Arab women, it averages 74%), thinking of an alternative way of life for many involves a retreat to the past rather than working toward a vision for the future. Looking to the past, many Arabs have found an ideology, which embodies both self-fulfillment and satisfaction and carries a simpler message.

In the absence of democracy, social and economic development and social justice, their search for an alternative way of life has led them to Islamic fundamentalism, which has become the refuge of vast numbers of unemployed Arab graduates and countless millions of Arab miserables fed up with the daily burdens of their lives and tired of waiting for unfulfilled promises.

As a result of their inaction, those who now rule the Arab world face the ultimate dilemma – either democratize their societies (and risk losing their power) or lose their societies to religious fundamentalism (and risk losing their lives)…and the gray area between the two options (i.e.: a peaceful transition of power and authority to the rising reform-minded, educated Arab middle class elite) is fading fast.

Transferring the machinery of government to a middle class coalition would involve permitting a free press in their countries and entering into serious political debate. In the Arab world that means opening up the “Pandora’s Box” of democracy – questioning the reasons for the failure of the current Arab regimes to raise the living standards of their citizens; changing state priorities; discussing the benefits of economic liberalization, privatization and development; recognizing the vast anomalies that exist within Arab society; instituting broad educational reform measures and raising literacy standards; systematically eradicating government corruption; introducing free elections; debating the status of women in Islamic societies; questioning the reason for the emergence of growing numbers of “street children” in the Arab world; and discussing issues relating to open access to information, communications, professional organizations, trade unions, fair laws and the judiciary.

The core of their fear today is that the current social and economic crisis in Argentina could trigger a mass revolt in their own lands. Each Arab leader has an abiding knowledge that most Arab countries are developmentally closer to Argentina than to any country in the Western world.

To do nothing, however, in the face of this increasing unrest, poverty, unemployment, corruption and growing disenfranchisement in their societies will inevitably lead to the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in their countries.

The rise in popularity of al-Jazeera TV, based in Qatar, adds further concern to their fears, for the populistic appeal of the station finds fertile ground in the squalor of the Arab world. Amir Taheri, writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, presents ac chilling overview of al-Jazeera’s real message.

Beaming its broadcast to millions in the Arab world, its programs and documentaries glorify terrorists as heroes of Islam. In so doing, it portrays a false reality – that Islamic fundamentalists dominate Arab politics (which is not so) and are the only ones with a credible program of reform in societies badly in need of change. Over and over again on its airwaves, the slogan “Islam is the solution” is seen and heard creating the unspoken impression that only by becoming “more Islamic” can Arab societies ever hope to escape poverty, tyranny and corruption.

It reinforces what many of the illiterate Arab masses already believe – that radical Islam is on the rise in all Arab countries and is secretly supported by the majority of Arabs; and that there is an implicit struggle being waged between Islam and the Judeo-Christian world. As such, it favors Islamic militants (as opposed to Arab moderates) on its programs, offers to become Osama bin Laden’s voice to the Arab world, assumes that the average Arab is profoundly anti-Western and anti-American and feeds into that belief, and creates the impression that “America and the influence of Western culture have caused all the Arabs’ woes including the presence of incompetent and corrupt regimes in the Arab world.”

And the disenfranchised listen.

Thus, in matters pertaining to the Arab regimes of the Middle East, the issues reduce themselves to “guns or butter,” and many are too hungry and too angry to wait for the latter. Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world can only succeed if the Arab status quo remains.

Either democratization will sweep through the Arab world (coaxed on by US foreign policy) and the living standards of the masses will gradually rise, or any hope for a better Arab future will be swept away by Islamic fundamentalism and the region will descend into the Dark Ages. America’s war on terrorism is intertwined with the issues of Arab democratization. We cannot defeat one without promoting the other.

In most Arab countries. A new urban middle class is taking shape, and is looking for an alternative to the religious paranoia of the Islamic fundamentalists, and the corrupt ineptitude of the ruling cliques. The Arab middle class in the Middle East has no voice and is not permitted to share in the rich diversity of opinion that exists within the Arab world. In fact, there is no section of the Arab world that is more isolated than the democratic left, the democratic right and the moderate center. The Arab middle class represents the Arab world’s best hope for the future, and America’s best hope for a stable region.

America is not simply at war with Arab terrorism and al-Qaeda. It is at war with Arab poverty, illiteracy, corruption, totalitarianism and disillusionment for these are the ultimate sources of terror that the Free World now confronts.

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