Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Republic of Slick

A December editorial in The New Republic, “Ought and Is,” rightly exposes hollow arguments against democratization made by Arab leaders at the recent American-sponsored Forum for the Future in Morocco. The conflict with Israel is no excuse to stymie calls for free elections, and the quest for economic progress in Arab countries need not slow political reform.

But it’s worth pointing out that neither argument enjoys the acceptance it used to in many Arab societies today. The internal debate between ruling cliques and their subject peoples has grown more sophisticated, especially over the past few months, in light of baby steps toward change by North African heads of state on the one hand and TV images of Ukraine’s non-violent revolution on the other. As a recent opinion poll and live debate on Al-Jazeera demonstrate, Arabs are overwhelmingly fed up with their leaders’ political window dressing, but remain complacent anyway, due in part to the opiate of slick new sales pitches for the status quo. American diplomats should enter the debate on Arab politics armed with a response to the regimes’ latest hits, not just the golden oldies; even “blame Israel” has been remixed.

It was the TV talk show Al-Ittijah al-Mu’akis (“The Opposite Direction”) that opened one week back in December with a breezy run-down of recent election results in Arab republics Bush rarely mentions: Tunisia, where the “incumbent” won 94.9% of the vote; Algeria, where the landslide was a more modest 83%; and Mauritania, whose president squeaked by with 67%. It is widely believed in these and other authoritarian Arab states that election results are a foregone conclusion – the President always wins, even though the days of 99.98% victories may be over – and that Arab elections are essentially tantamount to a coronation of the ruler. The host asked viewers to call and e-mail in their opinion of whether Arab elections are “a waste of time and money.” 91% said yes, they are – burdening the pro-establishment voice among the show’s two guests with the task of changing their minds.

Burhan Bsayyis, a Tunisian writer who supports the country’s president, Zein El-Abdin bin Ali, rose to the challenge. He made the case that Arabs should embrace their ersatz elections and strive to achieve change by somehow working within the system. He did so not by scapegoating Israel, but by indirectly validating a core pro-Israel argument: “It is just as when Bourguiba went to the Arabs of Jericho,” he said, “and told them, ‘Accept the legitimate international resolutions, even if they are unjust, then ask for more!’” He was referring to the landmark visit of former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba to Jericho in 1965, wherein he urged the crowd to recognize Israel and accept a peace settlement. History proved Bourguiba right, the TV guest suggested, because if only they had played ball with the Jews then, they’d have had a Palestinian state by now. So too, he concluded, should Arab societies play ball with their governments today. Vote in any elections, however skewed the result, he urged, “then ask for more.”

The argument apparent won over a few television viewers. The running audience tally on whether Arab elections are a waste of time and money slid one point, to 90% in the affirmative.

But Bsayyis’ tiny gain was short-lived. His opponent accused him of deceiving the audience with “smoke.” Arab elections are an obfuscation of democracy and not a component of democracy as they should be, said Sa’d Jabbar, a London-based Moroccan lawyer affiliated with the Center for North African Studies at Cambridge. That’s a particular tragedy in North Africa, he went on, where Arab societies are more ripe for democracy than elsewhere in the region. “We are qualified,” he said, “more than any other Arab peoples, to begin a democratic process.” He cited the presence of an educated middle class, the region’s history of close contact with the democratic societies of Europe, and guarantees of free speech and assembly in most North African constitutions – freedoms granted in writing but not applied in practice. Jabbar’s call for democracy to replace the present dictatorships was no less idealistic than Colin Powell’s speech to Arab leaders in Morocco. But Jabbar was addressing Arab societies, rather than their leadership, and he used minimalist rhetoric – urging North Africans simply to demand that their rulers respect their own constitutions – an approach that evidently found favor. Within minutes, he had neutralized his Tunisian opponent’s modest gain in the ongoing TV poll.

Enter the hot button issues. Bsayyis countered Jabbar with a series of arguments light on reason but laced with emotional impact. “Fine, you can have a ballot box,” he said, “like you have in Afghanistan, and you elect Karzai. But are you going to tell me that’s a democracy? Look what’s happening in Iraq: over 200 political parties, 1000 newspapers, but are you going to claim there’s a transition to a real democracy in Iraq?” In the Al-Jazeera milieu, these are not questions worthy of exploration; they are meant to be rhetorical, and their politically correct answer is “no.” Jabbar did not even bother to respond. Bsayyis then invoked the memory of Algeria’s civil war following its aborted democracy experiment in the early ‘90s: “Do you want us to embark on a democratic experiment that could result in 100,000 dead, like in Algeria? Do you want us to allow a freedom of the press that could result in vituperation and calumny that could pit the society against the state and result in violent conflict – civil war?” With this emotional appeal for stability at any cost, Bsayyis won over a slightly larger segment: now only 87.3% of the running audience poll agreed that Arab elections were a waste of time and money.

He went on to cite baby steps toward democracy in recent months by heads of state across North Africa: Bin Ali’s decision to allow a presidential challenger to win nearly 4% of the vote, Mubarak’s release of some Egyptian Jihad activists from prison, the Algerian president’s effort to promote “national healing.” But he did not manage to persuade more viewers to poll his way. The “waste of time and money” vote climbed back to 90% and stayed put for the rest of the hour. Yet another Arab landslide.

Implicit in this TV back-and-forth was the obvious, unasked question of whether Al-Jazeera audiences should try and overthrow their governments. Judging by the poll results, you’d think much of the Arab world was on the brink of revolution. The example of Ukraine’s nonviolent election vigil, invoked repeatedly by the program’s host as well as London-based Sa’d Jabbar, seemed to offer a way forward. But as callers phoned in their comments later in the segment, a less radical picture emerged. One caller said he despised the status quo but felt compelled to protect it anyway, because the alternatives are worse for Arab societies, and because democracy only serves the interests of the West. “I prefer the presence of a dictator,” he said. “Democracy has killed 100,000 Iraqis in a short period.” He also contended that the West has double standards on Arab democracy: “Bush demanded that the world have nothing to do with Arafat, may God have mercy on him, even though he was popularly elected, while demanding that the world deal with Ayad Allawi, even though he came [to Iraq] on an American tank.”

No caller embraced the Tunisian guest’s defense of Arab establishments, and one went so far as to lambast him for it. (“These rulers hold spend our nation’s money on weapons and entertainment and travel and the building of palaces,” a Saudi man said. “… They do not believe in abdicating under any circumstances.”)

And yet, Bsayyis deserves a pat on the back in Tunis. Not for having won the debate, which he didn’t, but for achieving the one goal Arab elites who defend their regimes take seriously: placating their societies. They adjust their pitch book to current events and evolving popular sentiments, and they do so artfully. American diplomats are yet to craft a serious rhetorical response.

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