Can Democratic Rule Exist In The Middle East?

There are elections scheduled for today in Syria. But there is no need to hold your breath about the outcome. Odds are fairly good that the result will be similar to the last two elections in which Bashir al Assad swept to victory by sweeping margins (97.62 percent in 2007 and 97 percent in 2000).

While he may receive a smaller percentage of the vote, few in the international community will recognize the results as legitimate and, as Nicholas Blanford of the Christian Science Monitor writes, signals the final nail in the coffin of any negotiated agreement in the nearly three-year civil war.

Elections have been held in Algeria, Egypt and Iraq this year, but none would serve as an example of democracy in action. Middle East analyst Gerard Butt examines why the Arab Spring, which had potential for real change, has so far fallen short of its goals.

“Eliminating autocratic patterns of leadership in Arab countries will be a hard and long process. Reforms to public education systems, with the replacement of the culture of rote learning with one of questioning and analysis, would be a step towards encouraging open and rational public debate,” he writes.

What is missing, he adds, is politics in its general sense.

“There is a need for political visions of different kinds that encompass not only what is best for the nation but also the economic and social needs of the population. When elections become a contest among competing political visions, then the annual calendar of voting dates in the Arab Middle East will have real meaning,” argues the former BBC News correspondent.

In broader terms, Shadi Hamid says the fundamental question facing the future of democracy in the Middle East is whether the “democratic process, in the long run, will blunt the ideological pretensions of Islamist groups, forcing them to move to the center, back into the confines of the liberal democratic consensus.”

Hamid is the author of a new book, Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in the Middle East, which is excerpted in the last Atlantic magazine.

Although there are few religiously based states, they do not have a good track record in that respect.

“The few that do exist, or have existed, do not have a good track record. Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are the obvious examples, but they are of limited value in making sense of Islamism after the Arab Spring. None of them were democratic. Although they enjoyed various degrees of popular support, there was no, in Fukuyama’s words, real consent of the governed. In contrast, Islamist parties today are interested in fashioning religiously oriented states through democratic means and maintaining them through democratic means. They took this to levels of near self-parody in Egypt, where elections became a sort of crutch. Whenever the Brotherhood faced a crisis, its immediate instinct was to call for elections, thinking that electoral legitimacy would stabilize Egypt and solidify its rule. (It didn’t.),” Shadi Hamid writes in an article examining the future of democracy in the Middle East.

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