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Monday, Feb. 25, 2002

Rarefied democracy of the Arab world


LONDON -- Bahrain produces little news of interest to the rest of the world, but now something remarkable has happened there. On Feb. 14, Emir Sheik Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa declared that Bahrain will henceforth be a democracy where he will reign only as a constitutional monarch. If he keeps his promise, Bahrain will be the first genuine democracy in the Arab world apart from the longstanding exception of Lebanon -- which has one of the most spectacularly corrupt political systems on the planet.

There are lots of sham democracies in the Arab world run by military men, like Egypt and Algeria, and some monarchies where there is a facade of democracy, like Jordan and Morocco, but many Arab countries don't even bother to pretend. They are just absolute monarchies like Saudi Arabia. There is no other region of the world where democracy is so startlingly absent. But Hamad seems to be serious.

"We are keen to resume democratic life as soon as possible for the glory of Bahrain, its prosperity and development," said the emir, who wishes to be known as the king from now on. "Resume" is a sore point, since the limited democracy that once existed in Bahrain was shut down by Hamad's predecessor almost 30 years ago. Repression grew steadily until it peaked in the 1990s in a brutal crackdown against the Shiite underclass in Bahrain, who were demanding an end to discrimination in favor of the Sunni minority. Since Hamad came to the throne in 1999, however, things have actually been different.

He has already freed political prisoners, allowed exiled dissidents to return and form political parties, dismantled the vicious state security police and appointed women to the ruler's consultative council for the first time. Now he has called free elections for October in which every Bahraini citizen, man or woman, Sunni or Shiite, will have an equal vote, and in which women may even be elected to office. He will retain a final veto, but he sounds genuinely committed to using it only in an emergency.

Full marks, but here's the question: why is this such a startling exception to the rule? It's good news that 400,000 Bahrainis in a tiny island state in the Persian Gulf are now joining the two-thirds of the human race who live in more or less democratic societies, but why do all the rest of the 250 million Arabs (apart from a few million Lebanese) live in nondemocratic countries? Police states, most of them, if we are being frank about it.

It can't be because they are Muslims. Some Muslims, like the Turks, have lived in functioning democracies for decades. More recently, others have overthrown their dictators and taken democracy with their own hands, like the 140 million Bangladeshis and 200 million Indonesians. Even Pakistan, despite all its problems, has managed to be democratic for about half of its history. In fact, every one of these big Muslim countries has even elected a woman as prime minister, which is rather more than some big Western democracies like the United States and Germany have ever done. There is clearly no incompatibility between democracy and Islam.

Nor are the Arabs a backward people who are still struggling to learn the ways of civilization. On the contrary, they are the heirs of one of the most creative and successful civilizations in human history. Yet they have not only lagged behind the global trend toward democracy that has doubled the number of people living in democracies in the past 20 years; they have not participated in it at all. Most surviving tyrannies, like China, have at least experienced popular attempts at democratization like Tiananmen Square, but where are the Arab equivalents?

There are none. The closest you get, in the Arab world, is outbursts of radical Islamist rage like the assault on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1978 or the convulsions that have beset Algeria for the past decade, but those examples are not close at all.

Nowhere in the 17 Arab countries (or 19, if you include marginal cases like Mauritania and the Palestinian Authority) have we seen the kind of disciplined popular movement, bringing about a democratic transformation by nonviolent action, that has become almost the norm elsewhere. From the Philippines and Bangladesh in the 1980s, to East Germany, the former Soviet Union and South Africa in the early 1990s, and on down to Indonesia and Yugoslavia in the past few years, people all over the world have shown the will for democracy and mastered the techniques to acquire it, but not the Arabs. Why not?

I don't have a good answer for this, but it does seem like the right question to ask. The Arab-Israeli confrontation on its own does not seem a sufficient reason, especially for Arab countries far from the scene of the action. Western support for existing regimes, however despotic, in the name of "stability," is doubtless a factor, but it should not be enough to thwart change everywhere. There is something profoundly wrong in the Arab world, but nobody can satisfactorily explain what it is.

Even the Bahraini miracle, when you look closely, is not all that promising as an example for other Arab countries. It is democratization from the top down, by a ruler who is certainly enlightened and well-intentioned, but it is happening in a society so small and closely knit that for all practical purposes it is a big village. And it will all remain a bit of a charade unless and until Hamad finally works up the nerve to fire his uncle, who has been prime minister of Bahrain since 1971.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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