STONE the crows! George W Bush was right! For years the 43rd president of the United States banged on about democracy and why it is a sovereign remedy for everything that ails nations governed by repressive regimes. It was a good reason to remove Saddam Hussein (a better one, it turned out than to destroy the weapons of mass destruction he had already removed), because mature democracies with well-informed electorates are less likely to allow their rulers to use anthrax on anybody.
But the left howled Bush down. The Second Gulf War was all about America’s intent to control Middle East oil, they opined, which is now a bit tricky for them given President Obama, as respected as George W Bush was reviled, says what his predecessor said, that the US has no interest in controlling Iraq’s resources. [i]
Well, even if it wasn’t about energy, who gave George the authority to impose his own ideas of democracy on other people, his enemies asked. It was cultural imperialism to assume Iraqis and Muslims in general understood, let alone approved of, ideas of democracy.
Such arguments look like nonsense on stilts now as people across the Middle East demand an end to authoritarian regimes; regimes which deny their citizens democracy and the government accountability that accompanies it. As Bush put it years back;
Time after time, observers have questioned whether this country or that people or this group are ready for democracy, as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own Western standards of progress. In fact, the daily work of democracy itself is the path of progress.[ii]
Whatever, the left replied. But if the US was so keen on democracy why had it done deals with oil-endowed dictators in the Middle East during the Cold War? Fair point, apart from the way it ignored the fact the standoff with the Soviets gave the US little option for 40 years but to accept the assistance of anybody who would stand up to the coms. Once the evil empire collapsed, the US could return to its roots and proselytise for democracy.
As President Bush put it:
Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.[iii]
But what will really drive Mr Bush’s enemies mad this morning is that things are looking up, along lines he advocated. From Tunisia to Syria, and from Egypt to Yemen, dictatorships have crumbled, or are cowering, as people assert their right to representative governments and all that follows from it.
Last week was the Arab world’s 1848, the year when the people of European capitals rose up against the autocrats who had relied on secret police and soldiers to keep kings on their thrones since the old-order was reimposed at the end of the Napoleonic wars.
And what is going on does not appear to have much to do with religion.
Tunisia and Egypt’s revolts seem secular. Certainly conservatives are suspicious; but Andrew Roberts’s warning of what will happen applies to every revolution from 1848 on, “we should abhor policy created by mobs, and assume that all revolutionary change will ultimately be for the worse, especially in a part of the world with so few model democracies.’’ [iv]
But while realists warn that religious fundamentalists will end up running the show, the protests to date are all about lack of employment and too much corruption in unelected regimes.
Although the absence of an opposition infrastructure in Cairo may mean the Muslim Brotherhood could end up in office, this does not mean the electorate wants a theocracy. And there are no Ayatollah Khomeini style clerics being met by adoring crowds at airports to take advantage of the sudden realisation of rulers there that it might make a wise change to spread the wealth a little more and order the secret police to ease up.[v]
Certainly Carl Ungerer is right to remind us that political movements which put religion above civil and political rights win elections in the Middle East – Hesbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. But democracy depends on more than elections; it requires the rule of law and free enterprise to work and, sooner or later, regimes that do not deliver on all three lose the mandate of the people and degenerate into tyranny.[vi]
There seems no doubt the Ahmadinejad Government stole the 2009 election in Iran, although it bought widespread community support with fuel and food subsidies.[vii] But even if it had won legitimately, that would not have made Iran a democracy, given the regime rules by the power of its paramilitary militia and the economic authority of its private army, the Revolutionary Guard.[viii]
And that is the point. Governments that are not governed by the rule of law, that do not leave the market to work unimpeded, which are not answerable to the people, inevitably atrophy. Monash academic Benjamin Macqueen explains what is going on:
… it’s not so much a political unrest, it’s more about unemployment and food prices and these sorts of things. All of that coinciding also with the real establishment of this incredibly young, incredible large young cohort in the Arab world, the population is very much weighted to people between 15 and 30.”[ix]
The crows don’t have a clue how it will all pan out, but they guess if ordinary people had their druthers Egypt would become a multi-party democracy, like Indonesia – where ordinary people quickly understood democracy immediately the Soharto dictatorship ended.
Just about every other state in the Middle East would follow. Religious fundamentalists believe that democracy is an affront to God but, as Iran demonstrates, it is remarkable what divine rule dictates and how the economic interests of the people in charge coincidentally coincide.
These revolts are as much a threat to theocrats as they are to autocrats. They demonstrate that people, all over the Middle East, intuitively understand that a complete democratic agenda is the only alternative to government by the men with the guns.
When Barack Obama made this point, in Cairo in 2009, he brought the house down.
I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.
These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere. [x] But Bush beat Obama to it:
As Americans, we believe that people everywhere – everywhere – prefer freedom to slavery and that liberty … Throughout history, tyrants and would-be tyrants have always claimed that murder is justified to serve their grand vision, and they end up alienating decent people across the globe. Tyrants and would be tyrants have always claimed that regimented societies are strong and pure, until those societies collapse in corruption and decay. Tyrants and would-be tyrants have always claimed that free men and women are weak and decadent, until the day that free men and women defeat them.[xi]
Bush may have been the most politically inept president since Buchanan but he understood democracy is the last best hope of mankind and he spoke up for it.
[i] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on a new beginning,” June 4 2009, @ www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-cairo-university-6-04-09 recovered on February 5
[ii] George Bush, Bush, Remarks at the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy,” November 6 2003 @ www.ned.org/george-w-bush/remarks-by-president-george-w-bush-at-the-20th-anniversary recovered in February 5
[iii] Bush, ibid
[iv] Andrew Roberts and ors, “Arab world reaches the crossroads,” The Weekend Australian, February 5
[vi] Carl Ungerer, “The Brotherhood looms large,” Australian Financial Review, February 3
[vii] Bernd Beber and Alexandra Sacco, “The devil is in the digits,” Washington Post, June 20 2009, BBC, “Iran’s cut in food and fuel aid raises protest fears,” @ www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12031383 recovered on February 5
[x] Obama, ibid