Long march to freedom

by John Quiggin on March 5, 2005

As mentioned here, there has been a general increase in repression in Iran in recent years, and several bloggers have been arrested and imprisoned Similar repression is taking place in Bahrain. You can keep up with developments and suggested actions with The Committee to Protect Bloggers.

This is worth thinking about in relation to the current euphoria about positive developments in Lebanon and Israel/Palestine (and some positive gestures in Egypt and Saudi Arabia), and attempts to tie all this to US policy in Iraq.

In the long run, freedom is on the march, and has been ever since its most determined enemies were defeated in World War II. Democracy has stood the test of time, while those who thought they could do better with armed force (generals impatient with squabbling politicians and communists impatient with incremental reform) have failed.

The Islamic world has lagged behind in all this: until recently there were no Islamic majority states that could be described as fully democratic. On this score, developments in Turkey and Indonesia have been more significant than those in the Middle East[1]. Probably the most significant development in the Middle East is not the recent political stirrings but the rise of independent media, most notably Al-Jazeera, but also blogs and other websites. Hence the importance of protecting these media from those (including Allawi and Khamenei) who would suppress them.

Within the long-run trend to greater democracy around the world, there have been frequent reversals, and the (apparently) successful suppression of democratic reform in Iran is one of the most notable and depressing. It’s hard to imagine that the current rulers can stay on top forever, given that it is now obvious to everyone in Iran and outside that they lack any real popular support, but they don’t look like giving up power in a hurry.

It would be easy enough to make a case that the Iranian regime is being strengthened by the threat of US military intervention, since the normal effect of external threats is to discourage domestic dissent. But, as I argued a year ago, there’s little evidence to support this. The trend towards repression was under way well before the invasion of Iraq, and even before Bush’s election.

The same is true of most of the positive developments that have been putatively linked to the invasion of Iraq. Libya began creeping in from the cold when in turned in the Lockerbie bombers in 1999. The recent progress in the Palestine-Israel dispute owes much more to the fortuitous passing of Yasser Arafat than to anything else. And while it would take a real expert to properly explain events in Lebanon beginning with the recent assassination, it seems safe to conclude that the main factors are Lebanese rather than external.

The places where the stance of the US has played a role have been Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Undoubtedly, rhetoric about letting freedom ring translates into pressure for (at least symbolic) steps away from repression by prominent US allies/clients. But even here the Iraq invasion has been ambiguous. It’s nearly four years since S11 and the pressure for liberalisation exerted on states like Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia has been very modest in that time. The fact that these states have served as convenient locations for torture[2], basing and resupply in the war on Terrorism/Iraq undoubtedly helps to explain this.

In this context, pressure on Syria for a complete withdrawal from Lebanon is all very well. The US is in a much stronger position to insist on fully democratic elections in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and should either do so, regardless of the short-term consequences, or get out of the Middle East altogether.

fn1. Of course, Turkey is partly in the Middle East, but the positive developments there are clearly related to Europe: events in Iraq, particularly the prospect of an autonomous/independent Kurdish state represent a test of Turkish democracy rather than a stimulus to democratic reform.

fn2. Egypt and Pakistan have been the preferred locations. But, as the Maher Arar case showed, even Syria will serve if it is mutually convenient

{ 21 comments }

1

dsquared 03.06.05 at 12:02 am

Libya began creeping in from the cold when in turned in the Lockerbie bombers in 1999

Particularly as, much of the evidence suggests, the people they turned in were almost certainly innocent of the actual bombing, which was carried out by our (at that time) mates the Syrians. The fact that Qadaffi was prepare to be complicit in a frame-up of some of his own citizens ought to have alerted everyone to the fact that our version of freedom was on the march.

2

praktike 03.06.05 at 1:37 am

Ah, but see, the problem is that your Iranian thesis is probably wrong, because it wasn’t until last year that the bottom fell out and the elections were completely exposed to be a sham. That Khatami blinked in ’99 is certainly significant, but thinks have certainly gotten worse since then, and it’s hard to deny that the siege mentality plays a role. If you pay attention to Khamenei’s speeches, it’s a lot of the “internal enemies” and “spies” kind of stuff that speaks to a retrenchment in the face of a perceived enemy.

3

Dan Simon 03.06.05 at 1:47 am

pressure on Syria for a complete withdrawal from Lebanon is all very well. The US is in a much stronger position to insist on fully democratic elections in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and should either do so, regardless of the short-term consequences, or get out of the Middle East altogether.

I keep seeing this over and over again among left-wing commentators–democratization in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, or even Iraq is not the real test of America’s strategy. When the US gets Egypt and/or Saudi Arabia to democratize, then we can say that America is serious about democracy in the Middle East.

Your argument, John, is that these are the countries where the US has the most influence. Now, I can understand pointing to Egypt–the US sends it billions of dollars in foreign aid, after all–but Saudi Arabia? it probably wields more influence on the US than vice versa.

More to the point, why should American influence be the criterion by which to judge ripe candidates for democratization? Surely better standards would be (a) the awfulness of the current government (that is, the degree of improvement that democratization would achieve), and (b) the likelihood of democratization succeeding in the target country.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Lebanon is under an extremely repressive foreign occupation, and has a democratic history to look back on. Iran and Iraq have had large, prosperous, well-educated middle classes on which to build democratic stability, and Iran even flirted briefly with democracy in the 1950’s. Meanwhile, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have zero democratic history, weak middle classes, and no substantial political opposition apart from radical Islamist theocrats. Why on earth would you consider them the acid tests for democratization?

4

Walt Pohl 03.06.05 at 6:33 am

Dan, it’s not a acid test for democratization, it’s a test for vindication of Bush’s policies. These two are not the same thing.

5

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.06.05 at 7:02 am

On the flip side we could suggest that applying democratization pressure is tough to do successfully in Egypt or Saudi Arabia because we have a history of being tight with their governments.

6

praktike 03.06.05 at 7:46 am

“When the US gets Egypt and/or Saudi Arabia to democratize”

hmmm … when WE get THEM. Interesting concept. How should we do this?

7

Austroblogger 03.06.05 at 1:12 pm

Hmmm
Anyone in the room remember Spain and Portugal in the 70s?
Portugal is now a democratic member of the EU and went through a civil war to get there. When Franco died, Spain was faced with a huge crisis and it was the courage of her King (read my lips: K.I.N.G.) that eventually ensured transition to the democracy the spanish people presumably wanted. My point is this. Democracy when enforced by external powers assumes the role of tyrant. The end does not justify the means and the means used can ruin the target.
I doubt if the marines blundering around spain would have helped anyone. It certainly wont help the Iranians. Persuasion yes, coercion no: One should not seek to instrumentalise democracy, it will get very ugly, very quickly.

8

Andrew Boucher 03.06.05 at 2:54 pm

“In the long run, freedom is on the march, and has been ever since its most determined enemies were defeated in World War II.”

This has nothing to do with the U.S., I suppose.

Anyway, I think that American pressure on Egypt or Saudi Arabia without pressure from Europe (gasp!) as well would be next to useless.

9

guy 03.06.05 at 9:26 pm

Dsquared, can you clarify:
Particularly as, much of the evidence suggests, the people they turned in were almost certainly innocent of the actual bombing, which was carried out by our (at that time) mates the Syrians.

AFAIK the Syrians were close to the USSR up until the latter’s collapse — they weren’t “our mates” in the same way as, say, the Egyptians or (for a time) Saddam.

10

mw 03.06.05 at 9:40 pm

What I think people are missing is what I would call the ‘Kansas Effect’–remember when Kansas was going to ban the teaching of evolution in schools but, in the end, did not? It seemed to me that one of the most powerful forces against it was that people were laughing their asses off…what a bunch of yokels! Well, nobody state or country wants to feel as though the rest of the world is snickering at them for being backward.

How does that relate to Iran? Iranians, with justification, think of themselves as the most advanced, educated society in the region. When they had a form of democracy and their neighbors had none, they could feel they were occupying their proper place.

But now, their neighbors in Afghanistan and Iraq are developing genuine democracies unlike the Iranian sham version. I remember reading the comments of one Iranian woman about the elections in Afghanistan–something to the PEASANTS have gotten democracy before we did!”

No people, no nation is at all happy about being perceived, about feeling backward. Rulers who lead a country into that kind of position tend to become vulnerable.

11

Dan Simon 03.06.05 at 10:05 pm

Dan, it’s not a acid test for democratization, it’s a test for vindication of Bush’s policies. These two are not the same thing.

Well, insofar as I argued that pushing hard to democratize Egypt and Saudi Arabia as soon as possible is an unwise policy with a very low success probability, it doesn’t matter much what you think it’s an acid test of–it’s unlikely to be a good one.

Now, if your point is that the crude propaganda version of the Bush administration’s policy–“let’s do everything possible to democratize the entire Middle East right away” is unwise, then I’m happy to agree with you. Then again, the Bush administration’s policy in action is quite a bit more subtle than its broad political presentation. It also seems much more likely to be effective.

I suppose you could say it’s a matter of understanding the nuances….

12

John Quiggin 03.06.05 at 10:55 pm

“Saudi Arabia? it probably wields more influence on the US than vice versa.”

This is correct, but it’s obviously open to the US and to the Bush Administration in particular to change this for example by seeking to cut oil use by the US and cut off the peddlers of Saudi influence within its own ranks.

That is, unless you think, with Michael Moore, that the Saudi “influence” is tantamount to control. This might be true, but I hope not.

13

Dan Simon 03.07.05 at 6:44 am

John–my point wasn’t to suggest that Saudi Arabia has enormous influence on the US, only that whatever it has is probably at least as great as America’s pretty negligible influence on Saudi Arabia. It’s true that the Saudi government spends lavishly on lobbying and public relations in the US, and probably gets a certain amount of pull that way–particularly among academics and State Department Arabists. But for the most part, the US and Saudi Arabia, for all their supposed friendship, basically deal in oil and arms, and otherwise go their own ways.

I don’t see how reducing domestic oil consumption would significantly affect Saudi influence on the US, unless the reduction were so drastic as to massively damage the US economy. As for “the peddlers of Saudi influence within its own ranks”–I agree that there is no shortage of such charlatans in Washington, and the less power they have, the better.

But what does any of this have to do with my point that the Bush administration’s Middle Eastern democratization policy seems so far to have been very deftly handled, and to have achieved remarkably good results?

14

John Quiggin 03.07.05 at 9:39 am

Dan, to return to the topic of the post, do you think US policy towards Iran has been “deftly handled, with remarkable results”?

How about Syria (Syria proper, as opposed to recent events in Lebanon)?

15

Brendan 03.07.05 at 11:31 am

What democratisation policy?

Could I ask everyone please to ignore the rambling gibberish that fills the Western media about Mubarak’s ‘breakthrough’? Instead turn to the Arab press, where people have a much firmer idea or what these ‘reforms’ mean?

‘Most political analysts agreed that these requirements would make it extremely difficult for independents to run for president. Mohamed Farid Hassanein, a former independent MP who resigned from parliament last year, said the proposed conditions not only discriminated against independents, but would also unleash the floodgates of “bribery and kickbacks. Getting the backing of elected MPs and members of municipal councils means that candidates will have to spend money on bribes everywhere.” Cairo University constitutional law professor Tharwat Badawi called the proposed amendment “a sham”. He said it was “insignificant”, because it gives elected MPs in the People’s Assembly, Shura Council and members of local municipal councils an upper hand in the type of candidates that can run for president. “It’s a fact,” Badawi said, “that all parliamentary institutions and local councils are dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which means that the proposed amendment is just cosmetic, because in any case it maintains the NDP’s monopoly over political life.”

Badawi said the amendment would spur the NDP into trying to win as many parliamentary seats as it could, so it maintains the majority required to nominate its desired presidential candidate. “As usual,” he said, “the NDP will maintain this majority by rigging parliamentary elections, and using the Interior Ministry to manipulate [the situation] in its favour.” That was also why, Badawi said, the NDP was always so adamantly against any foreign monitoring of presidential and parliamentary elections. “They allege that this monitoring is a breach of Egypt’s independence, but the fact remains that it is an NDP manoeuvre [meant to protect] the rigging of elections in its favour.”‘.In any case, all of those who spoke to the Weekly agreed that President Mubarak was the only candidate who could easily meet all the conditions stipulated by his proposal.’

For the Bush administration, incidentally, to take credit for the Palestinian elections is one of the most breathtaking acts of hypocrisy I have ever seen.

http://www.time.com/time/columnist/karon/article/0,9565,1034169,00.html

http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/732/eg1.htm

To those who argue that this is a ‘step in the right direction’ I ask this: say Saddam Hussein had promised ‘multiparty’ elections but in such a format that he would be guaranteed to win (which is essentially the situation here) would people still be mindlessly appluading this ‘democratic breakthrough’?

As far as Saudi Arabia goes, ignoring for a second the ridiculous ‘elections’, this article is worth reading.

http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0712-06.htm

16

Steve 03.07.05 at 4:10 pm

“The places where the stance of the US has played a role have been Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”

Bizarre. But not Afghanistan, where the US physically removed a regime of lunatics and created conditions for a democratic regime? Not Iraq, where the US physically removed a regime of one lunatic and created conditions for a democratic regime?

Why do I feel like I’m back in graduate school?

Steve

17

Dan Simon 03.07.05 at 4:19 pm

Dan, to return to the topic of the post, do you think US policy towards Iran has been “deftly handled, with remarkable results”?

How about Syria (Syria proper, as opposed to recent events in Lebanon)?

Policy towards Iran has been pretty ineffective, it’s true. But I’d say it’s also been pretty deft, given that it had to navigate quite carefully between joining in with Europe’s shameless pandering to the Iranian theocrats, on the one hand, and pointlessly attempting to accomplish something despite that pandering, on the other. Too European an approach would have undermined America’s efforts elsewhere, while too much confrontation would merely have provoked Europe to make its pro-Iranian, anti-American alignment explicit, with even worse results.

As for Syria–well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. There have been pro-democracy rallies there. Who on earth would have expected that?

18

John Quiggin 03.07.05 at 7:24 pm

“Not Iraq, where the US physically removed a regime of one lunatic and created conditions for a democratic regime?

… Why do I feel like I’m back in graduate school?”

Perhaps because you’re having trouble reading the material. Go back to para 2 and try again.

19

guy 03.07.05 at 11:29 pm

Brendan wrote:
To those who argue that this is a ‘step in the right direction’ I ask this: say Saddam Hussein had promised ‘multiparty’ elections but in such a format that he would be guaranteed to win (which is essentially the situation here) would people still be mindlessly appluading this ‘democratic breakthrough’?

Mubarak’s regime is less brutal than Saddam’s was, and the political opposition is more robust in Egypt than it was in Saddam’s Iraq, so I don’t think the cases are exactly comparable.

I don’t understand why the phrase “step in the right direction” (appropriately prefaced by “small”) is so objectionable to you. Not great, but better than nothing.

20

Brendan 03.08.05 at 12:26 am

By the early 21st centry/late nineties, Saddam’s regime was not, in fact, particularly brutal by the standards of the region (let us never forget, Saddam was at his most evil when he was our friend).

Moreover, there was an established and well organised opposition, based around the Shias, and the Kurds, amongst others: Saddam had to gas them (with our help) to crush them: Mubarak has never had to resort to such activities.

The fact is that Saddam promised:

‘Allowing US inspectors to visit Iraq to inspect for WMD;

Holding free and fair elections within a specified period of time;

Concessions to the US in the oil sector and “business dealings”;

Concessions to help the Arab-Israeli peace process;

Handing over Abdul Rahman Yasin, a top al-Qaeda suspect wanted in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. ‘

Note especially point two, which goes far further than anything Mubarak has promised or will promise.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3247461.stm

Of course Saddam was a lying Nazi bastard, but then so is Mubarak so whats your point?

21

Brendan 03.08.05 at 12:33 am

Incidentally, why aren’t you praising George Bush’s new Nazi friend in the region General Pervez Musharraf who has recently promised ‘true democracy’ and promised to give not merely the label of democracy but the essence of it.

“I shall not allow the people to be taken back to the evil of sham democracy,” he said. He also promised ‘a free press and religious tolerance.’

Great news eh? I thank George Bush!

Oh shit…just looked…that was said in 1999. Damn. Still it was a step in the right direction, no? Why do you find that so difficult to admit?

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/477689.stm

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