Not in the near future

Democratization of the Middle East is a hostage to far more factors than can be explained in one article. The question of democratization has already generated serious and interesting debates. Some believe the Middle East has adequate potential and could be “democratized” from within. Others strongly support the idea that the region should be pushed toward democracy by external forces. A third group is of the opinion that only a democracy imposed from the outside can change the existing situation and enlighten the hearts and minds of the people as well as its leaders and elites.

I have a different take on the issue. Personally I belong to the pessimist/realist camp that does not believe democratization of the Middle East is going to happen any time soon, if ever. In particular, a democracy imposed by external forces cannot prevail unless some fundamental changes are made in the ideologies, belief systems, mindsets and political culture of the region.

There are also common myths and wrong sensitivities that have to change. Modification of mutual perceptions in the Middle East will greatly help the process of democratization.
For instance, the Israeli perception of the Muslim world should be adjusted. Not all worst-case scenarios that are regularly written to frighten the people of Israel are correct; nor will they take place as preached by the hawks of Tel Aviv. Rhetoric is different from applied policy and Israel should take Palestinian frustration into consideration. As long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not sorted out, Israeli democracy cannot be a regional model.

On the other hand, an increasingly common canard in the Muslim world is that the Jews run the world! The belief is so strong that even Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammed brought it up in his remarks at the meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in October 2003 by saying: “The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.” Stories like this make the people of the Middle East more irreconcilable and radical and it is the duty of Israel to modify this picture.

Democracy constitutes a big change in a region that is by no means prepared to change. It is not a domino effect that begins in one spot and then spreads all over, nor is it a game that can be won by military might. Democracy is a process rather than a revolutionary incident. It cannot wash away the status quo, but once accomplished it can have a revolutionary impact on society.

Many leaders of the region have striven to create a revolutionary order or establish their position as the regional icon representing the Arab or Islamic nations, but have never tried to transform the society into a democratic one. Almost all of them have resisted change and attempted to create a nation loyal to their personality and ignorant about democracy–a tendency that has devastating effects on democracy per se.

During the past century none of the innovative ideas brought from the outside world have been fully implemented. An example is the Iranian constitution of 1906, written on a European model but never fully implemented. The revolution in 1979 even rolled back that imitation constitution in favor of an absolutely different phenomenon called the Islamic Republic.

There are additional factors that negatively affect the process of democratization. For one, all leaders, here like elsewhere in the world, wish to remain in office for as long as possible. This trend in the context of the Middle East has brought about lifetime presidents or monarchs dressed as the presidents of republics. As long as this tendency persists democracy will not be honored. Each leader will swear "democracy" before election and forget about it afterwards.

Then too, while support and opposition exist in all societies, in the context of the Middle East there is a forced support as well as a fake opposition phenomenon. This needs to be replaced by a culture of tolerance and civil society. The former is artificial and supports leaders where they are in need. It often gives rise to armed groups and organized terror squads that kill the opposition in the name of security.

Regarding the latter, rulers know that the opposition exploits their failure to punish them. Therefore their tendency is to oppress and coerce any potential opposition and replace it with a fake opposition that buys the regime time and credibility. Look at the “Islamic human rights” organizations appearing in some Middle Eastern countries as opposed to human rights activists who are often suppressed and banned.

Further, the greater the real opposition the more cautious the leader. This vicious circle impedes democratization of the Middle East because cautious leaders concerned about the status quo will not ease their grip on power.

Finally, leaders expect democracies to recognize them as the most legitimate system and the latter often give in because of their interests. But external powers can have positive impact pushing the process of democratization forward by not supporting corrupt leaders unless they accept dramatic changes. By recognizing corrupt leaders, the external powers sacrifice ideals like democracy for their interests. In the long term they will create new enemies within a population that is starving for democracy.