Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamil Mattar

A marriage made in hell

Washington's wedding of democratic evangelism to destructive military campaigns and quasi-racist wars has set democratisation back by decades, writes Gamil Mattar*

Have the brakes been put on the progress of democracy? Is, indeed, the process actually moving in reverse? To ask such questions would once have seemed implausible to the positivists who, with a sweep of the hand across a map of the world, pointed complacently to the countries that were advancing by leaps and bounds towards democracy or, if not by leaps and bounds, at least moving inexorably forward.

The train has started moving and has picked up too much speed to stop, they insisted. Democratisation is both a pledge and an imperative, they said. It was a pledge on the part of Third World governments to the international community which had declared it would no longer put up with non-democratic regimes. And it was a prerequisite for world peace. Peace is only possible between democratic nations which don't go around attacking other nations, said Bush. With Sharansky's book on democracy firmly tucked beneath his arm the US president promised that peace in the Middle East would follow in the wake of democracy. In so saying he raised the neo-conservatives' romantic, if not entirely innocent, banner, "make democracy not war", launched a campaign to impose democracy on the region using all the violence and coercion available to the world's only superpower, and drove the Middle East further away from peace than it has been for centuries.

The Arab public quickly sniffed out the hypocrisy in the Bush administration's appeals. There was too much wavering, procrastination and lack of coordination, and it was not long before the people lost whatever confidence they had in the efficacy of American support for democratisation in the region. This erosion of confidence occurred a time when voices from within America's ruling conservative right began to protest against the squandering of US material and political resources on policies that only seemed to augment the power and influence of Muslim fundamentalists in the Middle East. Washington stopped talking about democracy as a condition for peace and Bush stopped citing Sharansky as one of his primary sources of inspiration.

The tide of democratisation is once again ebbing in the Middle East. Nor is this a situation unique to the region. In the Philippines President Arroyo has declared a state of emergency following an alleged military coup. Most observers believe the coup attempt to be a fiction, suggesting that Arroyo has taken advantage of recent unrest in order to replace Major-General Renato Miranda as chief of the marines. The president of the Philippines, who used corruption in the army as a tool to secure her grip over the country, is now moving to make an accommodation with the army in order to remain in power. The Manila crisis underscores the extent to which the democratic experience in the Philippines failed to separate the military from politics and to offset the demagogic powers of the church and big business, the two forces that triggered the popular unrest that led to the overthrow of the countries two previous presidents.

This, then, is the Philippines that Bush has so frequently lauded as a model of democracy. That Nigeria, Uganda and other countries have won similar praise only makes one wonder what Bush means by democracy. Nigeria, apparently, is democratic because it has a government that came to power through elections. But Nigeria is riddled with sectarian strife that subsides for days then flares up for months. It has a separatist movement pushing for independence for the oil-rich Niger Delta. It could well be the most corrupt and crime-ridden country in Africa. Uganda, too, recently held elections, though they were hardly free and fair. They took place against a nightmarish backdrop in which the insurgent Rabb Army reigns by night while the government reasserts itself by day.

In Thailand, that new bastion of democracy and free-market economy, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the prime minister's abuse of constitutional powers and his encouragement of corruption, especially the nepotism of which his own family is the primary beneficiary. Nor is Thailand alone in confusing the worship of money and the sanctity of the free market over true democratisation and constitutional reform.

One of the aims of democratic evangelism, in its heyday, was to herald the victory of the "Bush principle". Many non-democratic regimes played along, holding elections so Washington could in turn welcome them to the democratic club. In most cases progress towards democratisation ground to a halt as soon as the ballots closed. In other cases the process went into reverse as forces not officially entitled to participate in the political process succeeded in circumventing obstacles to their participation, or the polls brought results of which both the domestic authorities and the Americans disapproved.

Elections were held in Haiti a few weeks ago. Once the results were announced the bloodshed resumed, to the extent that the US was forced to intervene to halt the chaos. Washington brought in legal experts who reread Haiti's electoral laws in such a way as allow Rene Perval to claim victory. Everyone -- the Americans included -- know that Haiti under Perval was a haven for drug smuggling and organised crime, in which government officials and the police are involved up to their necks. But what was important in that corrupt and poverty-stricken nation was that it emerge from the elections unchanged -- i.e. dependent upon the US and the UN for its security, for which read the safety of its ruling elite and of foreign interests. Yet Bush administration officials appeared on cue to announce Haiti was experiencing an unprecedented period of "democratic stability".

The Congo has a democratically elected government. Apparently it doesn't count that two-thirds of the country is under the control of rebel forces and that foreign companies and fortune hunters are sapping the wealth of a country that must count as the most plundered in history.

In Kosovo elections brought a new government to power. Not that it does that much. NATO forces still run the country. Washington, though, could not be happier about democracy in Kosovo, which is still deprived of its right to be recognised as a fully independent sovereign state.

King Gyanendra of Nepal has just held fraudulent municipal elections. He then called a halt to democratisation on the grounds that elections would bring terrorists and extremists to power. Washington says nothing against government corruption in Nepal, agreeing, instead, with New Delhi, its up and coming southern Asia ally, that Nepal is India's concern. New Delhi takes a similar position towards Burma. India has learned a great deal from watching the US protect dictatorial regimes while somehow keeping its democratic reputation intact. It has seen the US at work in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East in general, and learned much.

In Kabul a unique balloting process was held, bringing to power an equally unique legislature. Afghanistan outside of Kabul is another story. It exists beyond electoral processes, party plurality and democracy. In the rest of Afghanistan life goes on, just as it did before the Taliban.

Across the border Pakistani propaganda and American support of President Musharraf have failed to convince the rest of the world that Pakistan is a democracy simply because it holds elections. Yet while the Bush administration absolves Pakistan for its military order it heaps scorn on the religious order in Iran, though Iranian elections are freer and fairer than any held in Pakistan. It is Palestine, however, that holds the record for the fairest and most transparent election in the history of this region. But Palestine, along with Iran, has no place on the Bush list of democracies.

The Bush administration's greatest boast is that series of revolutions of many blossoms -- the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyz. Today, though, Moscow is more confident than ever that the chain reaction has reached its end, and the Russians are undoubtedly content that these revolutions changed nothing more than a few faces at the top. Policies remain the same. Corruption is as rife as ever.

In Ukraine an election campaign is currently in progress, and it is Yankovitch, the man whose vote rigging sparked the orange revolution in the first place, who has emerged as front runner. Yankovitch now accuses his opponents of attempting to rig the elections to keep him from reaching power by democratic means. Meanwhile, he still tells his supporters that democracy is impossible in poor countries.

Another global phenomenon is the campaign against "tyranny by democracy". Vladimir Putin's NGO law, for example, aims to keep the activities of local and foreign human and civil rights agencies under his thumb. In Tajikistan the government has taken measures to prevent foreign embassies and agencies from establishing contacts with local individuals and organisations. The Chinese Communist Party has taken a firm stand against the "IT invasion," lashing out against the spread of immorality which, it says, serves as a screen for Western interests. In Zimbabwe the government has expelled the representatives of foreign NGOs and closed down the offices of many local civil society organisations. Ethiopia kicked out the representatives of foreign funding agencies and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has pledged that the country will experience no revolution, of whatever hue. Eritrea has suspended the activities of several NGOs and USAID agencies while in Latin America, the Organisation of American Unity rejected a US-sponsored bill calling for a body to monitor Latin American governments' respect for "democratic ethics".

Meanwhile, the drive of Arab governments to repel the democratic invasion has been resumed with renewed vigour, with some regimes busy recuperating authoritarian territory many believed had been lost forever.

There are many reasons behind the rising anti- democratic tide. Bush's foreign policy and his government's flagrant human rights violations top the list. Washington's determination to turn Iraq into a model of democracy to be emulated throughout the region has also set the cause of democratisation back by decades. All any anti-democrat now has to do is point to the disaster the US has wrought in Iraq. Washington's erratic fluctuations between ideological fervour and pragmatism have also been inimical to the spread of democracy. When Washington turns a blind eye to the anti-democratic behaviour of some of its allies while lashing out at other countries for the same sins, one cannot avoid the conclusion that Washington is manipulating the appeal to democracy for its own ends. Such cynicism, sadly, is contagious. Another reason, impacting the Middle East in particular, is growing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim feeling on the part of the West. This, combined with growing Western support for Israeli terrorism, compounds suspicions over US intentions and frustrates the efforts of Arab democrats.

Whatever the cause -- or causes -- behind the retreat from democracy, there is no doubt that the US has squandered immense moral capital by wedding democratic evangelism to destructive military campaigns and quasi-racist wars. This mad concoction has, more than anything else, placed freedom and political rights out of the reach of many of the world's peoples, particularly those in the Middle East. Now, in the name of the war against terrorism, anti-democratic governments are being given ample time to absorb lessons from the first campaign to promote democracy and to entrench themselves behind stronger and more sophisticated defences than ever in the case of any renewed democratic offensive, however far off that might seem.

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

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