Brian Whitaker writes:
“The Arab world’s much-heralded collective push toward democracy is now in jeopardy,” an article for McClatchy newspapers in the US informed its readers at the weekend.
The fact that autocratic regimes in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen are fighting back with lethal force should surprise no one. The more surprising thing is that Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt – two leaders previously regarded as firmly entrenched – were toppled after such a short struggle.
Nor does the fightback mean, as the article’s headline suggests, that the outlook for democracy is dimming across much of the Middle East. Looking at the region as a whole, the prospects have never been brighter.
But there is another – far bigger – problem with this revolution-in-jeopardy analysis. By focusing on “democracy” and the ousting of dictators, it ignores a large part of what the Arab revolt is about. It’s the same mistake that George Bush made with his calls for democracy and “regime change” in the Middle East – calls that were directed mainly against the regimes deemed hostile towards the US and paid little attention to the desires of ordinary Arabs.
Arabs don’t talk much about democracy as such, and they tend to be cynical about elections. They do talk increasingly about “freedom”, though what they mean by it is not quite what Bush meant. They want freedom from corruption and political cronyism, and the freedom to make their own choices – an end to repression and government attempts to control the minutiae of people’s lives.
Democracy may be one way of working towards that but it is rarely seen as a goal in itself, and while regime change is certainly an important part of the revolt, its younger activists (at least) have their eyes set on changing whole systems, not just the political leaders.