A Deepening of Democracy in the Islamic World

Though few would have ever predicted it at the time in the last quarter of the 20th century, there was a great march towards democratic governance the world over. This great march began in of all places in Portugal on 25 April 1974 in a nearly bloodless military coup that overthrew the Estado Novo, a 48 year old fascist dictatorship. The events of that Spring in Lisbon are now remembered as the Revolução dos Cravos, the Carnation Revolution. The coup began in the early morning with playing of two songs on Lisbon radio: first spun was E Depois do Adeus, Portugal's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 sung by Paulo de Carvalho, to signal the start and José Alfonso's banned song Grandola Vila Morena to signal its success. In the wake of the coup by junior military officers tired of endless and unwinnable wars in Africa and Timor Leste, the citizens of Lisbon came out into the streets and placed carnations into the barrels of their rather nervous army. Though it would take Portugal another five months to unwind itself of its Empire and the country would struggle through some political instability, the country would make the transition from an authoritarian dictatorship to a liberal democracy at the end of a two-year process of a communist-dominated military administration.

Portugal was followed by the fall of the Greek Junta in July 1974 and following the death of Generalísimo Francisco Franco in November 1975 Spain would begin its transition to a liberal democracy. Few were sanguine for the prospects for democracy in southern Europe. The British historian James Cleugh would write that "Spain is not, and will never be, a 'democratic' country." James Mitchner, the American author, predicted that after Franco would come another Iberian tyrant. And as for Greece, observers, then and now, wondered if the passion of Greeks for killing one another has really ceased.

These events in Europe happened in the wake the brutal overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in September 1973 and the collapse of Latin America's most established democracy by the auto-golpe of Juan María Bordaberry, who closed parliament and imposed direct rule from a junta of military generals in Uruguay bringing to a close 71 years of continuous democratic rule in the Banda Oriental. And so it was unclear in which direction the world might be headed.

Democratic rule over that last quarter of twentieth century came to be established in some unlikely places - the Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, and Eastern Europe - in addition to being reestablished and ever more firmly across South America. Yet democratic rule has largely eluded the Islamic world. That's begun to change.

Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic country, has now rattled off three successive evermore transparent elections. In April, Indonesia had its fairest parliamentary elections ever increasing the position of secular parties at the expense of Islamist parties. This summer the country is poised to re-elect its current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on July 8th. Again few Indonesia observers would have predicted a stable non-military government in the archipelago post-Suharto.

The Maldives, another Islamic archipelago, too has made history this week holding its first ever free and fair parliamentary elections. Last year, opposition candidate Mohamed Nasheed unseated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who had been Asia's longest serving dictator.

And in yet another archipelago, that of the Comoros, Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi is the second democratically-elected President in succession. Nor is democracy limited to Islamic archipelagos. A number of countries in Africa with either large or majority Muslim populations have established or tenuous democracies. Senegal ranks amongst the more established with Nigeria and Kenya among the more fragile. And of course, Turkey, Malaysia and Iran are democratic regimes, albeit each having limits to freedom and expressions of popular will.

But in the Arab world, the core of the Islamic world, democracy has proved elusive. I suspect that in Iraq we are now seeing the emergence of a Dawaist dictatorship replacing the Ba'athist one that the US deposed. Still there are hopeful signs in the smaller Gulf states.

In October 2002, Bahrain held its first parliamentary election in decades with large female participation. And in Bahrain second parliamentary elections in November 2006, sixteen women were candidates with one winning election though she ran unopposed. King Hamad Bin Issa would appoint five more women bring the total to six. Indeed one woman, Alees Samaan, who is a member of the Christian minority, also became the first non-Muslim to act as speaker in predominantly Muslim Bahrain.

And this week in Kuwait celebrated its most vibrant elections ever ousting 21 incumbents and electing four women to Parliament for the first time ever. The story from The Economist:

Just since 2006, batterings from the 50-member parliament, which has tended lately to be dominated by Islamists and conservative tribal leaders, have sent five successive governments tumbling like ninepins.

Growing frustration with this game prompted a lower turnout in a general election on May 16th, but the results have raised hopes of change for the better. Overall, 21 incumbents lost their seats, among them several prominent Sunni Islamists. Parties are officially outlawed in Kuwait, meaning that candidates run as independents. But the affiliations of many are widely known, making some trends clear. Representation of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has shrunk from three seats to one in the incoming parliament; an arch-traditionalist Salafist Islamist group has dipped from five to two. At the same time, the number of Shia MPs has risen from five to nine, closer to the minority sect's 20%-plus share of the population.

Most eye-catchingly, enough of Kuwait's 385,000 eligible voters shook off traditional habits to elect women for the first time since they gained full political rights in 2005. Four women, all with doctorates from American universities, and only two of whom cover their hair as a sign of piety, won seats, and by convincing margins. Masouma Mubarak, a dean at Kuwait University, who had faced stiff Islamist opposition when holding ministerial rank in three cabinets, easily outpolled all rival candidates in her district. This is a first for the Gulf monarchies--bar a woman in the nearby kingdom of Bahrain who stood unopposed in a tiny constituency; a female has also been elected to the United Arab Emirates' federal council, but the voters are themselves handpicked by the authorities.

Our attempts to remake Iraq have likely failed. I doubt there is much good to augur for Afghanistan and even less for Pakistan. Most of Islamic Central Asia (the exception seems to be Kyrgystan) is mired in nepotistic dictatorship. Saudi Arabia is a revolution waiting to happen. May Allah be merciful. Jordan and Qatar are constitutional monarchies that slowly opening up. The key is Lebanon whose parliamentary elections are scheduled for June 7th. A preview from the Wall Street Journal:

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived here Friday in the home stretch of a political campaign pitting a Western-backed coalition against a bloc led by Hezbollah.

Mr. Biden's trip follows a stopover last month by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The back-to-back visits underscore the regional stakes in Lebanon's parliamentary elections scheduled for June 7. The vote, which will determine who has the upper hand in forming the next government, is the first election since a Qatari-brokered deal last year ended a political stalemate between the two sides. The race is expected to come down to a handful of battleground districts.

A strong showing by Hezbollah and its allies could be interpreted across the region as further encroachment by Iran and its proxies. Israel and many Western-allied Arab states have grown increasingly concerned about Tehran's influence in the region.

"We are part of the big game," says Boutros Harb, a member of parliament for the West-leaning bloc. Mr. Harb is seeking to keep his seat in the closely fought Christian district of Batroun, a Beirut suburb.

Hezbollah, a Shiite political and military group backed by Iran and Syria, accused Washington of interfering. "The U.S. high interest in Lebanon triggers strong doubts over the reasons behind it," the group said in a statement Friday. The two high-ranking visits "constitute explicit meddling in Lebanese affairs," the group said.

Mr. Biden said he didn't come to take sides. But after meeting with President Michel Suleiman, he told reporters he would "urge those who think about standing with the spoilers of peace not to miss this opportunity to walk away from the spoilers."

In May 2008, Hezbollah's militia briefly seized swaths of Beirut, during the final throes of an 18-month political stalemate between Lebanon's Western-leaning government and an opposition umbrella spearheaded by Hezbollah. The muscle-flexing forced the government into a series of political concessions, including granting the opposition veto power.

Lebanon's 128 parliamentary seats -- which are all up for election in June -- and its top government posts are allocated along sectarian lines. That limits the power of any one group, including Hezbollah and its allies, no matter who winds up ahead next month. Big decisions must be made by consensus. Lebanon's president, Mr. Suleiman, is a popular former army commander largely seen as independent.

Still, any gains by Hezbollah, which Washington and Israel designate a terrorist group, could cause regional concern. They could also jeopardize U.S. assistance to Lebanon.

Let them be. If Hezbollah does well in these elections then who are we to argue with the wishes of the Lebanese people? A democratic Lebanon is in the interests of the region and will go a long way to deepening democracy in the Islamic world.

Tags: Bahrain, Democracy in the Middle East, Kuwait, Lebanon, The Islamic World, The Maldives (all tags)



Re: A Deepening of Democracy in the Islamic World

The most important element in fostering the spread of democracy is non interference in the political process of sovereign nations by the US and others. Americans are always pontificating about the inability of Latin Americans to develop democratic institutions when the US overthrew the oldest and most stable democracy in Latin America ( Chile ) and installed dictators and trained death squads all over the hemisphere.

We repeated this policy in Gaza when after demanding elections we tried to engineer a coup of the democratically elected government. This practice of 'protecting' our interests has brought us the Ayatollahs, Osama and a never ending stream of unintended consequences and blow back while making the world less stable, less secure, poorer and costing the lives of millions.

by hankg 2009-05-24 03:29AM | 0 recs
Re: A Deepening of Democracy in the Islamic World


Democracy can work and is a popular idea everywhere, but you can't impose democracy at the barrel of a gun, it has to come from the ground up.  And we also have to accept that democracy isn't perfect, sometimes the bad guys win, or perhaps more dimplomatically, the guys we don't want to win come to power.  We have to accept the results, as long as they are free and fair, and work with whoever is elected, or we lose all credibility.

Also, let's remember that there was a democracy in the middle-east not that long ago-Iran, and it was overthrown by American and British efforts and replaced with the Sha.  We see how that worked out.  Likewise, the Mubarak government in Egypt is one of our strongest allies in the region, but is a brutal dictatorship detested by a majority of its subjects, but we never condemn Egypt on such grounds and don't apply any nuance when calling those fighting against the government "terrorist" or "islamic fundamentalists", another example of why we lose credibility in the region.  And this is the state Obama has chosen to give his speech to the Muslim world?

Bottom line, if democracy in the middle east is going to take off, it needs noninterference on our part and in calls for us to give a honest critique of human rights abuses and tyranny (which we are yet to have) of unpopular governments there, even if they are our allies.

by ARDem 2009-05-24 02:19PM | 0 recs
great post /nt

by John DE 2009-05-24 08:44AM | 0 recs

The U.S. needs to work with whomever gets elected. Yes some elections are fairer than others and yes it's important to be aware of those differences. But in the final analysis it's best to work for a better process than to work for better results.

by Jeff Wegerson 2009-05-24 04:58PM | 0 recs
Re: A Deepening of Democracy in the Islamic World

Let us hope the U.S. can restrain itself if Lebanon elects a government we disapprove of. Democracy and demography mean the country's Shia simply will take a larger role -- and they seem to largely feel themselves represented by Hezbollah. The old confessional division of power is being trumped by different birthrates (and emigration rates) among the communities. Democracy in Lebanon will intrinsically force renegotiation of the balance.

The U.S. won't like it; but we'd better lump it.

by janinsanfran 2009-05-25 12:11PM | 0 recs


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