Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 November 2003
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Post-democratic disorders

Democracy has always been a distant dream -- a breeze about to blow from the West but which never comes. The dream is now over, writes Gamil Mattar

Gamil Mattar It has been months since I made it to a public gathering. Then came one public gathering that I could hardly miss; a general assembly of an NGO that for years I dutifully attended. Speakers spoke to their own fields of expertise and linked these to current affairs -- domestic, regional and international -- and, off the podium, smaller groups milled about, discussing more of the same. For four days and five nights, I listened, chatted, and compared notes. By the time it was my turn to speak, it was the last day of the event and I had taken in the general mood, which was not much different from that of public opinion outside the conference room.

I conveyed to the gathering what I thought the mood was, adding my own interpretation here and there. The long and short of it is that the gap separating people -- individuals, groups and classes -- has grown wider than expected, and wider than was the case in earlier years. I quoted a senior political analyst who, describing the gap separating the Arab ruling classes from intellectuals, bureaucrats, and the working classes, said "we no longer have gaps, only widening schisms". Against all expectations of the global village -- the shrinking of distances and the onset of a uniform universal culture -- men, groups and nations are growing as distant from each other as never before. As individuals, we are beginning to accept alienation as an act of fate. We seek individual answers to questions that our class, country and world fails to answer. We face alone the threats to our security, the bouts of our anger, and the erosion of our rights. And no one is about to come to our rescue.

What brought us to this state of mind is our loss of trust in many of the slogans and principles which inundated our ears for years, in the policies pursued in our name -- and against our own interests -- for years. We hear of democracy, a lot. The Arab public has been told often enough that our countries are pursuing their own brand of national democracy and that we live in democracies tailored to our needs, suitable to our stage of political development. The margins of these democracies shrink or expand according to the changing tides of national crisis, the fluctuations of the economic situation, and the ups and downs of security threats. We all learned to dream of democracy, even without making its acquaintance, even without knowing what it could do for us -- or for America, for that matter. Life may have been devoid of democracy, but it was never devoid of hope. Democracy was always around the corner, its heralds walking through the gate. The first heralds arrived with the 1973 war, the dawn of Pax Americana, and more followed. With liberalisation, with the advent of free trade and the market economy, with the erosion of state control and the birth of a new class of businessmen, with every western -- US or European -- promise of economic and political aid, even with every regional crisis, democracy was promised. And we awaited, and waited.

Somehow, democracy never found us. Then its messengers started telling a different story. We now know that a new era is starting, an era of post-democracy; an era in which democracy is having a facelift, its norms being tailored to special needs, its laws revised. Democracy is no longer the jewel in the US crown, and an undying source of pride. It has become unsuitable for Americans -- and for us by association -- because a group of capitalist and religious extremists have taken over the United States. Instead of Western democratic values arriving in our land, they were expelled from America as the latter passed a barrage of laws and regulations breaching the privacy and civic rights of its own citizens. The US has detention camps that put to shame the worst detention facilities in our sadly undemocratic region. The US government is also preparing to stage military trials of its own, even while it denigrates our own military courts.

We in the Arab region, and the rest of the Third World, have long dreamed of democracy. But not for a moment have we dreamt of democracy introduced through invasions and military occupation. Nor have we thought of Israel as a model of democracy worthy of imitation. Nor have we accepted the arguments of neo-liberals who promise to spread democracy as an ingredient of their global imperial scheme. No wonder, then, that the neo-liberals in our region are morally and politically flustered. Our model has always been the US, but the latter is moving from democracy to post-democracy. It is turning its back on the right to dissent, on sovereignty, and on international law -- even when dealing with its old friends. Since it has proclaimed that "those who are not with us are against us," the US has been abandoning its own democratic legacy to pursue a new set of neo-liberal and imperial ideals.

Just as the hopes for democracy faded, so did those for peace. For almost two decades, peace has been the only tune politicians hummed in our region. And most Arabs remained faithful to the cause of peace even as Israel pursued policies of unabashed terror. Even when the US embraced preemptive strikes, threatened Arab countries with war or regime change, economic blockade, or military occupation, and even when it carried out some of its threats, we kept our faith.

But the Pax Americana never brought about global peace. America has intervened in various areas of turbulence and civil wars. But in almost everywhere it did, no real or lasting peace emerged. In some cases, things deteriorated.

Under the Pax Americana, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsened and Arab-Israeli peace treaties have become a laughable matter, a travesty of international norms. Terrorism took hold in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and even the United States. Tensions and turmoil spread to the point that no traveller anywhere can feel safe, Arabs least of all.

Terrorism has become a byword for Arabs and Muslims. Those who believe in the clash of civilisations must be pleased. Their voice has finally drowned out calls for dialogue and coexistence.

* The writer is director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.

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