Democracy in the Arab world

By The Hon. David Kilgour on February 16, 2011

As more and more Arab countries turn their backs on autocracy, Canada can be a key player in encouraging democratic governments to take hold.

In the 22 member states of the Arab League, many people now appear to be turning their backs on autocracy, declaring to themselves and the world that governance of, by, and for the people is a universal value.

The end seems closer for democratic window-dressing, pious declarations of good intentions, and unfair elections like the one in Egypt last year, where the governing party’s majority in parliament jumped from 75 to 95 per cent in the first round of voting.

Hosni Mubarak reportedly once described the Egyptian army as democratic because army commanders weighed opinions from their officers before making decisions. How ironic that the army’s conduct in the huge popular uprising against Mubarak has thus far been mostly exemplary, with soldiers marshalling citizens amicably through the street protests in Cairo.

Egyptians have had enough of tyranny, corruption, and torture by the interior ministry, and have indicated that the recent looting was done in part by secret police seeking to create the impression that, without Mubarak, the country would fall into chaos. Why, they ask, do roughly 36 million Egyptians live on less than a dollar a day? And why are 90 per cent of the unemployed under 30 years of age? In terms of gender equality, Egypt currently ranks 124 out of 130 nations surveyed.

In the Economist’s 2010 democracy index of 167 countries, Egypt ranked 138, Tunisia 144, and Yemen 146. What must the citizens of the Arab League countries that fared even worse – Saudi Arabia (160), Libya (158), Djibouti (154), Sudan (151), and the United Arab Emirates (148) – be thinking now?

Many diverse populations around the world have cast off tyrants in the past. An estimated 85 of those tyrants were toppled by popular protests, and about 62 of the countries in question have since become democratic (in the broader sense of the term), despite some reversals in recent years.

The experiences of new, emerging, and restored democracies offer lessons for the rest of the world. One of the most important is the need for national reconciliation in often difficult transitions – as in the case of South Africa under Nelson Mandela, for example. Those who commit crimes should be held accountable in courts, and anger must not descend into violence and score-settling.

For members of the Arab League – all with large Muslim majorities – a major issue in terms of democratic governance will be how to apply the direction given in the Qur’an: ''commanding right and forbidding wrong.”

When Indonesia, the largest Muslim democracy, held parliamentary elections in 2009, support for fundamentalist parties declined. Most voters seemed concerned about good governance, jobs, and economic development. Overall, support for fundamentalist parties fell from 39 per cent to 29.5 per cent. In the later presidential election, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won re-election easily; his strategy of co-opting the good governance agenda and launching a wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign was well received. Similarly, in Malaysia’s 2008 elections, most of the electorate voted for parties that promised good governance. Parties that had purely religious agendas did poorly. Voters, two-thirds of which are Muslim, resoundingly rejected the ruling party in four major states, despite its attempts to appeal to religious sentiments.

On Feb. 2, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who ordered violent attacks on pro-democracy protesters in 2009, claimed weakly to have encouraged the uprising in Egypt. Independent observers say the common cause for which people are rallying is not religion, but democracy, and that the Tehran regime is increasingly fearful of another democratic uprising at home.

There are several initiatives Canada could take to encourage democracy in the Arab world. One is to improve our own governance, for instance by improving the dignity of low-income Canadians.

As well, in future dealings with despots, our government should be clearer about Canadian values, including independent media, pluralism, an impartial judiciary, and transparent, accountable, and responsive governance. We should no longer permit persons connected to authoritarian regimes – such as Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of ousted Tunisian president Ben Ali – to become permanent residents of Canada.

We should deliver aid to countries with corrupt governance only through civil society organizations in the receiving country or through international NGOs. Building good governance institutions, including human-rights organizations, should be a major focus. CIDA is currently disbursing $20 million to Egypt and $1.3 million to Tunisia every year. With the strong likelihood of severe food shortages arising almost immediately in both countries, CIDA should announce a special food relief and deliver it quickly.

In essence, what Egyptians, Tunisians, and others in the Arab world are doing is eschewing the West’s security and stability concerns in favour of their own democratic and development aspirations. Their cries of “Hurriyya” (liberty) have so far not been accompanied by anti-western ones; instead, many Arab democrats appear to be looking to the West for unequivocal support for meaningful democratic change.

Canada has the potential to play a major role in the Middle East if the Harper government now opts to make such support a foreign-policy priority. If nothing else, the government should be inspired to do so by the dignity Egyptian democrats have shown in the face of Mubarak’s thugs in Tahrir Square.

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