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A Democratic Revolution in the Middle East?

Can democracy gain a sustained foothold in the Middle East?

March 29, 2005

Can democracy gain a sustained foothold in the Middle East?

The weeks since the Iraqi elections on January 30, 2005 have been the most dramatic moment the Middle East has known in 30 years and more.

The domino effect of elections in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq — and rammed home across the Arab world by al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya TV — seems to have inspired one of those magical transformations in consciousness like those that happened in 1776 or 1848 or 1989 — where almost anything seems possible.

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven," was William Wordsworth's thrilled reaction to another such turning point of history, the French Revolution of 1789.

But wait. History carries no guarantees. The democratic and liberating spirit of the American Revolution of 1776 endured and prevailed. In contrast, the French Revolution soured into the guillotine, the Terror and the military dictatorship of Napoleon.

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 has been one of the greatest and most inspiring moments of the cruel 20th century.

However, another such European moment born of a similar spirit of national and political liberation, the revolutions of 1848, famously became in the words of historian G.M. Trevelyan, "the turning point at which history failed to turn."

The revolutions of 1848 fell apart in quarrels between the cities and the peasantry, between the emergent new working class and the bourgeoisie — and between ethnic groups.

The old regimes rallied, recovered their nerve and by 1849, the armies of Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Empire had crushed the hopes of the previous year.

That could also be the fate of the current mood in the Middle East. Just as the revolutions of 1848 could never quite decide whether they were about liberalism or nationalism, so the current turmoil in the Middle East is really about at least four separate phenomena.

The first, to be sure, is the fluttering hope of democracy in a region that has known little of it.

At long last, there is the prospect of being ruled by a government which ordinary Arab men and women helped elect — and a government that could then be dismissed and replaced, if the voters so choose.

The prospect of a government being peacefully and calmly dismissed by something other than death of a ruler or a military coup is a heady one in the region.

The second phenomenon is about religion — and whether the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood and other grass-roots movements that have emerged from poverty and Islamic welfare systems, like Hamas and Hizbollah, will be given their chance at power.

Islamic movements are not popular across the Arab world solely because some form of religious awakening is under way, although it may be.

Rather, they are popular because being a good and devout Muslim has been one almost acceptable way of recording dissatisfaction with the current government — and because these grass-roots Islamic movements have worked hard and cleverly among the poor and built up strong reservoirs of support.

The third is the power of the example, brought by cheap TVs that were made in Asia, of how first the Japanese, then the Taiwanese and South Korean and now the Chinese and the Indian people are becoming technologically advanced, industrially powerful — and ever more prosperous.

Even the oil-rich Arabs of the Persian Gulf, accustomed to patronizing the Indians and Pakistanis and Filipinos who run their service industries, have woken up to Asia's new industrial revolution.

They still have no real clue of what it means for an Arab world that remains under-industrialized, under-educated, under-employed and under-performing in the global economy.

The socio-economic system of the Arab world has simply failed to deliver, despite all that oil wealth. That is an explosive situation, not just because of a vast pool of illiterate unemployed.

There is an even more dangerous pool of unemployed young graduates, a potential middle class with no work — and little hope.

The fourth crucial theme of the current wave of yearning in the Middle East is about the liberation and empowerment of the Shia, Islam's great minority, which many Saudis consider its most dangerous heresy.

And it is the Shia who brings us to the most dangerous element in this mix, the fact that the Ayatollahs of Iran are determined not to have anything to do with the new wave of hope in the Middle East. Except, that is, to take advantage of the new Shia dominance of Iraq and of the Shias' demographic clout in Lebanon.

Iran's Ayatollahs have crushed their own democratic reform movement and their free press. They have betrayed the democratic hopes of the revolution that overthrew the Shah, replacing it with a religious autocracy that ignores or fixes elections.

It was said of the short-lived German parliament in Frankfurt in the revolution of 1848 that they never decided whether their priority was German unity, freedom — or power.

The Iranian Ayatollahs have chosen power — and above all nuclear power. So far, they have been able to deflect or out-maneuver the ill-coordinated attempts of the United States and its European allies to block their plans.

Indeed, Iran's top nuclear official recently warned in Tehran that any attempt to impose sanctions on Iran by referring their nuclear plans to the United Nations would trigger a new oil crisis with supplies blocked to Europe and the United States.

"It would be playing with fire," Iran's nuclear program director Hassan Rowhani told a Tehran conference on nuclear technology and sustainable development. “The first to suffer will be Europe and the United States themselves,” Rowhani went on.

Iran's Ayatollahs may have the power to stop this whole movement that the Middle East is calling 'the Arab Spring" dead in its tracks.

They can throw Iraq and probably Lebanon into chaos at will — and can probably unleash upon Israel a new assault by suicide bombers that could derail any prospect of a settlement with the Palestinians.

And yet, the credentials of the Ayatollahs are pitifully few. They have failed to modernize the Iranian economy and failed to give a decent education to its people.

Meanwhile, they have squandered the oil wealth on nuclear dreams and building the corrupt 'economic trusts' of the clerics and their cronies.

But like the old Russian, Prussian and Habsburg empires of 1848, they certainly have the ruthlessness, and may have a veto, over whether this historical turning point for the Middle East turns out well — or whether it even turns at all.