Why countries in the Middle East are regarded as resistant to liberal democracy

RSS Author RSS     Views:N/A
Bookmark and Share          Republish
A true democracy is one in which members of a given state preserve the right to make decisions about issues affecting their lives. They exercise this right through representation or directly. Liberal democracies leave the highest form of power to the people. Laws are supposed to be passed only when they represent the view of the majority. Elections should facilitate the choice of the most popular leaders and the process should be conducted fairly through a neutral party. These leaders should not continue ruling if they lack approval from the majority. True democracy is seen when rights of citizens are respected. The government must not hinder a citizen's right to associate, their freedom of religion, their freedom to criticize leaders etc. Also, true democracies must not oppress vulnerable groups like children, women or the disabled. Lastly, a democratic society is one where the rule of law is respected. This means that no single person should think that they are above the law even if they hold senior positions. The purpose of law is to keep everyone under check even when one maybe the head of state. No one should be falsely imprisoned, tortured or treated unfairly in a true democracy. (Morislav, 2005)

The Middle East is a region that has been associated with lack of democracy. Cases of referendum, public consensus and secularism are said to be very rare in the Middle East. The region's population is predominantly made up of Muslims. This is the governing principle behind most of their political institutions. When examining the state of democracy in the region, one needs to look at all the reasons behind government actions. There is a need to gauge practices within specific countries against the background of true democracy. (Fisk, 2005)

Presence of hereditary rule
The Middle East is characterised by hereditary emirates. Such a system of governance acts as a serious impingement to liberal democracy. One such country is Kuwait. The country is ruled by a royal family called the Al-Sabah. The most senior leader in this family is called the emir. He possesses supreme powers and controls the running of the country without consultation. Parliamentarians are elected by the people but they are only allowed to pass laws after referring to Al-Sabah. Actually, most proposals made are from the royal family. In addition, appointments to ministerial posts are done by the emir. He is under no obligation to choose from the elected members of parliament or from members who do not belong to the royal family. This is the reason why most ministerial posts in Kuwait are limited to Al-Sabah affiliates. In this country, very little power is left in the hands of parliament or the people; the executive is above the rule of law and much has to be done to make the country a true democracy. (Dunne, 2004)

There are many other countries in the Middle East that may have some form of hereditary rule even if it has not been instituted. For example in Libya, the current president; Qadhafi would like to hand over power to his son and is preparing him for this task. The same applies to Egypt where Mubarak is teaching his son leadership tactics. Saddam Hussein would have trained his brother were it not for resistant forces. Such a hereditary system will guarantee these authoritarian leaders some degree of control especially after they have handing over power. (Zambelis, 2005)

Elections lack validity and weak party systems
A liberal democracy should respect all members of society as equal. This is rare occurrence in the Middle East. In a country like Egypt, elections are a mere formality. The country has been weakened by one party rule such that few individuals can stand up against the current president's tenure. In Kuwait, elections are only left in the hands of men as women are not allowed to have their say. In Libya, the president does not believe in political parties. (Fisk, 2005)

Most countries in the Middle Eastern region lack strong political parties. This minimises choice available to the people. In Kuwait, political parties have been outlawed. Even in countries where political parties exist, most of them are associated with militias and other armed forced. For example in Iraq, there are Feedayeen, Al- Aadah, Iraqi Communist Party and The Baath Party. All these latter parties have minimal sectarian influence and citizens within the state have little or no say in the running of those parties.

Presence of Islamic governments
Some countries in the Middle East ascribe to Islamic rule. One classic example is Iran. In the year 1979, there was an Islamic revolution that saw the establishment of a unique governing system. The Iranian system gives supreme powers to a council of Islamic elders called ‘vali-e-faqih'. The members of this council are not elected by citizens. They are superior to the president and to parliament. Although the latter two parties are elected by the people, final decisions are made by the ‘vali-e-faqih'. This council is responsible for ensuring that everyone follows Islamic law and that candidates standing for positions in politics adhere to Islamic law. On top of this, the country's Judiciary system also rests upon the Council of elders as they make appointments. (Dunne, 2004)

The biggest problem with such a system is that there is little room for public opinion. The conservatives (represented by adherents to the council's decisions) are very rigid and impose their will upon the people. In the year 1997, the country elected a reformist (reformists oppose the council/conservatives and its decisions). The conservatives reacted very aggressively to this; first of all, they stopped the production of newspapers written by reformists. To add insult to injury, they arrested most reformist supporters. Conservatives made sure that they put a stop to all their activities through imprisonment without trial. Presidents in Iran are only allowed in office for a period of two years. After the reformist left office, the conservatives seized back control from the former. Such a governing system prevents expression of liberal ideas with the view that adherents to those principles are betraying the Islamic cause and are aping the ways of the Western World. Such systems rarely care about democracy and continuously impose their rule upon the people. (Ottoway, 2002)

Islam is incompatible with democracy
As much as many residents in the Middle East would like to deny it, the religion of Islam is governed by principles which cannot be merged with liberal democracies. First of all, the religion holds that God's law is the most supreme and any other laws are inferior to this. Therefore man cannot come up with laws to govern himself; he must rely on the divine wisdom of Allah. Such a view has brought about negative repercussions to the masses. First of all, Islamic countries segregate women. It is a common feature for women to be stoned once one of them has been accused of committing adultery. Such countries beat up their women for failure to wear the full Muslim dress. Some states may imprison those who convert to other religions other than Islam. The very nature of Islamic law's supremacy is the laedimg cause of problems in the region. (Lewis, 2004)

The problem is compounded by the factions that exist within the religion;
• Shiites
• Sunnis
• Secularists
These divisions are the major causes of violent acts in the Middle East. Some residents may argue that atrocities committed by the International world are the ones responsible for the suffering of the locals. But when one examines the issue deeply, one realises that the real problem lies within countries' borders. Shiites and Sunnis have been at war for a very long time. Most car bombings, hijackings and even killings occur when one faction organises an attack against another group. (Lewis, 2004)

Most countries in the Middle East have a lot of Islamic representation in their political systems. For example in Iraq, there has been a division between the Shia and Sunni Islam groups. Ever since the 1980s, there have been problems in Iraq. During Saddam Hussein's reign, there was authoritarian rule because he decided to exclude the needs of all other groups except the Sunni Arabs. He oppressed the will of the people until his rule was terminated in the year 2003. But despite this change, there are still some serious divisions that are present within the country. First of all, there is minimal representation of the Sunni Arabs in parliament and the executive. Consequently, insurgencies have been common among members of this formerly powerful clan. This is because the current prime minister comes from the Shia community. The Kurdish succession is also another faction. Iraq needs to streamline all these three groups and ensure equal representation in parliament. But because this has not yet been attained, then we can conclude that there is minimal democracy in the country. (Lewis, 2004)

Tribal groupings within States
The Middle East is characterised by numerous tribal groupings. Different clans possess diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. Each group would like to have representation from their own community. When a certain clan takes over, then it is quite common to find that the rest will try to fight them off through warlords. Such communities fail to comply with rules created by members of another clan and this undermines his powers. This can occur even if he was elected fairly. The region is characterised by Sheikhdoms. Most of these Sheikhdoms have been known to be authoritarian. (Pratt, 2004)

Hostilities that exist between different tribes have been in existence for a very long time. It will take a lot of radical change for people's frame of mind to change. Therefore, animosities between rival groups will always occur; this is why democratic institutions are failing in the Middle East. (Zambelis, 2005)

A classic example exists in Yemen. There were two separate tribal groups; North Yemen and South Yemen. These groups engaged in a seventy day war and eventually the North won. Therefore, they considered members of the South as political prisoners and this attitude has affected the way the country is governed. The two groups are under one government but much has to be done to be to unite this two groups

Presence of authoritarian rule
The Middle East is characterised by leaders who are not rightfully elected into office. Most of them inherit their positions. Countries that claim to adhere to democratic principles through elections still leave a lot to be desired. Some leaders alter election results so that they can continue to stay in power. Others create a sense of fear among the masses. They make the people believe that all other possibilities are misleading and that they are the only ones who can govern. Most people in the Middle East are unaware of alternative ways of doing things. For example, most of locals treat their leaders as the ultimate heroes. They believe that these rulers are the only alternative they have and that no one can oppose them. Examples of such leaders include;
• Saddam Hussein of Iraq
• The Taliban Imams of Iran
• Gaddafi of Libya
• Ayatollahs of Iran
• Mubarak of Egypt (Ottoway, 2002)

Such leaders have treated the masses horribly by denying them their basic human rights. But at the same time, they have blinded the people to these oppressive tactics. Despite their suffering, some people in Iraq called Saddam Hussein a hero. Other rulers use even worse tactics to ensure that they remain in power. For example, some leaders eliminate persons who voice out their opinions. Such leaders make the people believe that it wrong to stand out against poor leadership. Taking an example of Egypt, There was a human rights activist named Saad Eddin Ibrahim. After the currant leader realised that he was a threat to his rule, he organised for his arrest and the activist was consequently silenced. In this country, the president has supreme powers. No one is allowed to oppose him. During elections, his candidature is endorsed by parliament and then he is elected through referendum. This is the reason why Mubarak has been in power for the past twenty four years. This leader is allowed to pass decrees as he pleases and can therefore alter laws to suit his political ambitions. (Pratt, 2006)

In Egypt, people started developing some resentment towards the prolonged rule of Mubarak. This was why they formed a movement called ‘Kifaya' which means ‘enough' in English. Some of the demands put forward by the movement include; regulations of the number of terms which president is allowed to hold in office. The movement also demanded for direct election of the president instead of endorsement by parliament. Lastly, they wanted to terminate emergency laws which restrict national security. Eventually, the president yielded to these demands but there was one serious problem. The country had been subjected to a one party system for so long such that there was no presidential candidate who could stand up against Mubarak and win. This is the reason why he won again. Because of increased pressure from the US and other parts of the International community, Mubarak will have to step down. However, he will not be leaving empty handed, he has introduced his son - Gamal Mubarak to the political scene and very little can be done to prevent Mubarak's heavy handedness in the politics of Egypt. (Pratt, 2006)

Another example of authoritarian rule is in the State of Libya. Libya has been under Muammar Qadhafi's rule ever since the late sixties. A decade later, he introduced a Socialist system in which all forms of political parties were to be abandoned. This was topped up by the abolition of parliamentary democracy. He believed that the greatest system is one in which people are represented directly. This was to be achieved through the use of popular congresses. He called this the ‘Jamahiriya'. This has brought about many problems for the people of Libya. For example, their industrialisation sector has collapsed after industrial workers took over companies.

Political reform is one of the biggest challenges for this nation because of the Jamahiriya system. The country lacks the ability to move forward because their leader does not believe in elections. He assumes that all the people in the country have been granted power and there is no need to move backward (he considers elections a backward move). Qadhafi has assumed that his system is supreme and is therefore hindering change in Libya. Hope in Libya will only occur after Qadhafi is eliminated. But this will still not be a guarantee because there will be many struggles. Most people will want to exert their influences since they will realise that they now hold the power to make their own decisions. (Dunne, 2004)

Controlling mass media
Most countries in the region control the information reaching their people. Governments have supreme rights to broadcasting stations and many of them lack the ability to be independent. Information reaching local communities is regulated thus chances of enlightening the masses are minimal. This is part of the reason why some locals consider their leaders supreme or hero-like. (Sadiki, 2004)

Although the republic of Yemen is viewed as a democratic state, there is very little in practice to enforce this belief. The country has been characterised by the continuous harassment of journalists who report negative stories about the government. Yemen's government has also been notorious for imprisoning journalists and questioning publications. Such actions have instilled a sense of fear among members of the republic. Some journalists no longer report true events because they know the negative consequences that will occur. Lack of press freedom is a big sign that democracy has not yet been achieved. (Ottoway, 2002)

The Middle East resists liberal democracy because of a number of reasons. Most of these countries have hereditary rule. It is possible to find that leadership is limited to certain families as is the case with Kuwait. Besides this, most countries are characterised by weak party system where they either don't exist or represent leaders' interests alone. (Benziman, 2003)

Central to the Middle Eastern problem is the Issue of Islam. The principles of this religion are not compatible with liberal democracy as women have no say in society and Minor offences lead to severe punishments like flogging. The divisions between Muslims have also caused tensions in the region thus undermining the democratic cause. Some countries like Iran have instituted an Islamic council which answers to no one and controls the country's decisions. Shiite and Sunni insurgencies have been the main problems troubling Iraq. (Fisk, 2005)

The lack of democracy in the Middle East is further compounded by tribal groupings that have considerable rivalry among themselves: Yemen has witnessed this first hand. There is considerable autocratic rule in the region. Most leaders make themselves out to be heroes. Examples include Saddam Hussein and Qadhafi. By doing this, these leaders make the people blind to their atrocities. Such leaders are also notorious for undermining press freedom and members of the population are largely uninformed.

Morislav Kolar (2005): What is democracy? Retrieved from; http://www.whatisdemocracy.net/definition_of_democracy.html accessed on 5th March
Lewis, B. (2004): What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
Pratt, N. (2006): Identity, Culture and Democratization: The Case of Egypt; McGraw Hill
Sadiki, L (2004): The Search for Arab Democracy: Discources and Counter-discources; C. Hurst & Co Publishers
Benziman, U. (2003): Democracy in Israel and Palestine; Haaretz newspaper 18 May 2003
Dunne, M. (2004): Integrating Democracy Promotion into U.S. Middle East Policy; Carnegie Paper No. 50, p 8
Pratt, N. (2004): Bringing politics back in: examining the link between globalization and democratization; journal of International Political Economy 11(2), pp. 331
Fisk, R. (2005): What Does Democracy Really Mean In The Middle East? Whatever The West Decides; The London Independent (8th August)
Zambelis, C. (2005): The Strategic Implications of Political Liberalization and Democratization in the Middle East, a journal examining Policy in the Middle East
Ottoway, M. et al. (2002): Democratic Mirage in the Middle East; Carnegie Endowment for Ethics and International Peace, Policy Brief 20 (October 20th)

Report this article

Bookmark and Share

Ask a Question about this Article