10.08.2005

The Return of Politics in the Middle East

Ending the political status quo in the Arab countries, in my view, is indispensable to the reform process in the Middle East. This status quo is based on power monopoly of the governing regimes with deliberate paralyzing of the civil society by even violent means. The international overlooking was essential part of implementing this policy.

Muhammad al-Rumayhi in his Al-Hayat article is arguing the significance of the activation has been done in the political life of both Iraq and Egypt as a central part of the reform and democratization process.

This article was included and translated by the Middle East Democracy Digest of The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

Here is the article in full:

Baghdad and Cairo: The Return of Politics

By Muhammad al-Rumayhi
Translation by Tony Badran
Al-Hayat
September 14, 2005
Web site: http://www.daralhayat.com/opinion/09-2005/Item-20050913-50ca5151-c0a8-10ed-001e-064cf321723e/story.html

Despite the apparently striking difference between the two, there is a link between the pending Iraqi constitution and the results of the Egyptian presidential elections. The events in Iraq and Egypt represent the frontlines of a necessary battle in our Arab lands. The battle calls for the return of politics and opening the door for competition. The results in Egypt and Iraq will ultimately influence other countries in the region. They are at the heart of the battle for progress in the march for democracy in our Arab world.

Let us overlook for a moment the current debate concerning the satisfaction level in some sectors of Iraqi society with the proposed draft of the constitution, the ongoing debate about the timing and mechanisms of reform in the Egyptian elections last week, the disagreement over the percentage of voters and the way with which they were brought to the polling stations, and the debate concerning the percentage of boycotters. Regardless of these important points of debate, the Egyptian elections and Iraqi constitution will certainly affect the long-term end result: the return of politics to our countries.

The Iraqi constitution and Egyptian elections are two incredibly important events. Objections will not diminish their importance and meaning for an Arab world whose elite is striving to implement rational solutions to the problems it is facing, in order to fend off “the worst”.

“The worst” would occur if the frontlines of the battle become muddled in such a way that no one could distinguish friend from foe, or the short-term from the long-term. This would further remove politics, invite coups, and result in confusing the concepts of democracy. For democracy is not an absolute truth, nor is it a fixed doctrine. It does not transcend space and time. Rather, it evolves with a long-term process of political activity. In the end it accomplishes three goals: the spread of tolerance, acceptance of diversity, and social justice.

This cannot be achieved without a culture of tolerance and dialogue, enshrined through practice and institutions. Democracy will not take hold in the Arab world all of a sudden just because the Arab elites want it. The reality on the ground is that the heavy cultural legacy of years of totalitarian rule has narrowed the ways of politics and opened the doors of exile and prison. This culture works on two levels: repressing the people, and softening them with brilliant slogans. Few among the people realize that they are empty slogans, and many believe them, due to ignorance on one hand, and the tools of misinformation, on the other. These slogans appear categorical and final, indisputable and exclusive. These regimes become prevalent through their controlling grip on the economy. They create an enemy, external or internal, which they use to inflame the masses. Furthermore, the personality of the leader creates a fear that silences all voices.

Faced with this active and mental control, no one expects “the people” to become rational and democratic overnight. A widely aired example of this adherence to the decisions of the forefathers is the statement by a simple farmer to President Mubarak during one of his last electoral tours: “For God's sake, Chief, won't you dissolve the People's and Shura Councils; they have done nothing for us.”

No one expects breaking out of the cocoon of authoritarianism to be simple and smooth, or without victims and setbacks. After all this chronic repression, the cover is lifted, and the sun shines through. Many cannot bare the light, as they are used to the darkness. There is a reported story in academic circles about a discussion that took place between India's former Prime Minister Nehru and President Abdel Nasser, where the former asked the latter: “what do you do with the opponents?” Nasser replied: “we put them in jail. How about you?” It is said that Nehru responded: “we put them in Parliament.” I cannot confirm this incident, but its repetition in politically active Arab circles signals a desire for political activity, instead of ostracism (takfir) and the risk of being smeared as traitors.

President Putin, according to the constitution, should not run for a third term. Yet the Russian people want him to stay since they do not trust anyone else. The Russian people have spent 70 years living with a form of dictatorship that they fear leaving behind. No one expects a quick legal or political concord with a form of plural democracy.

Why do some of us then seem surprised at what is taking place in Iraq, or more surprised at the popular percentage won by President Husni Mubarak in last week's elections? What is happening in Iraq, and what happened in Egypt, is a natural result of a chronic culture of repression, the beneficiary of many excuses, which only knows one President who holds all powers, and whom the media provides with a magic cover.

The Iraqi constitution and the Egyptian pluralist elections are historical acts. They are seeds that, once planted, can grow. But they could also be suffocated and die. Such a stage in the progress of a people is crucial, and any error could cause ruinous results. There are several examples from history where such a critical transitional stage led to civil wars and foreign interventions.

But what we are seeing is new to the Arabs. Would it have been imaginable for instance for a group of Iraqis, after the removal of Abdel Karim Qasem in the early 60's, to march in the streets carrying pictures of him without being squashed for doing so? Yet this is happening in Iraq today, where from time to time we see demonstrators carrying the pictures of Saddam Hussein. Some think that even the current violence in Iraq is a violence of expression, which has been lacking for a long time, and which will soon turn from the violence of guns to ballot boxes.

The guaranteeing of public freedoms in the Iraq constitution, the independence of the judiciary, and the distribution of national wealth are some of the bright highlights of the new constitution. It may not be the ideal that some have hoped for, but it is not as bad as some have made it out to be. As for the political discussion that took place during the presidential election campaign in Egypt, it shook the political stagnation and presented many issues to the public, and has become the major precedent. There is a new political ceiling in Egypt that no one can deny. Nor can anyone deny the sacrifices of the Egyptian elites during the years of repression in order to reach this new ceiling.

Some people forget that it was only in 1964 that equal rights were extended to women in the US, and that the first Muslim to be elected in Britain was in the late 70's, despite the fact that Queen Victoria's private physician was a Muslim. In other words, democratic process is slow, but its human shortcomings are few.

Some may long debate the background, reasons, and motives of the writing of the Iraqi constitution, and the reasons, timing, and goals of the competitive elections in Egypt. But that debate remains captive of the moment, looking long at the trees but not noticing the forest. There is flow in our region towards justice, which the Arab nationalist state, in its various forms, has long failed to achieve.

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