By Jamal Khashoggi
7 October 2014
It was normal for Gulf interior ministers to meet in Jeddah last Wednesday to discuss the situation in Yemen as that other country in their backyard. They were rather late at holding this meeting. Developments in Yemen are a result of hands being lifted off the country for years now, and they are also a result of just settling with the famous Gulf initiative without looking after the details in Yemen itself. The result of the meeting is a general statement warning Iran of intervening, supporting the collapsing Yemeni government and condemning the use of arms. However, it did not provide a magical formula for Yemen.
Truth be told, the only magical formula for Yemen and other Arab republics is democracy but I don't expect the Gulf Cooperation Council or the Arab League to make such a specific decision. Why? Because most Arab countries have problems with democracy that must be finalized by politicians first before being finalized by political intellectuals and elites who have now buckled under a general collapse which has struck many Arab countries. No one has presented an alternative mission in the Arab world other than war, confrontations, appeals, condemnations and hopes.
The Gulf States said they "would not stand idly by sectarian foreign intervention in Yemen." What's meant here is clear; they are referring to Iran. However, Iran will not completely settle in Yemen unless Houthis take over complete governance. Directly intervening to prevent the Houthis from doing so means an expanded war which no one wants or means supporting one party against another and this means a Yemeni civil war.
A civil war does not serve the interest of Gulf countries and their stability. Therefore we're left with the magical wand of democracy to prevent Houthis from solely governing and to protect Yemen from sliding into a civil war that serves no one and that will negatively impact its neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, which shares the most borders with Yemen.
Democracy or Civil War
Some might say "this is a suggestion full of contradictions as neither Saudi Arabia implements democracy nor do the Yemeni people know how to practice democracy." However democracy for Arab republics is not a choice. It's a duty and the only possible cure for survival - not from this state of backwardness, corruption and tyranny, but from what's far more dangerous: civil wars and complete disintegration. Therefore, it's a choice of either democracy or civil war. The sole leaders who governed Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Egypt under the fake guise of democracy and achieved a form of “stability” in their countries via the power of security forces will not re-emerge after being toppled in the real popular revolutions of 2011. Proof of this is loud and clear amid internal fighting currently destroying Syria, Iraq and Libya. Yemen is heading towards this path of a civil war if no one looks after it. These three countries (Syria, Iraq and Libya) would have avoided this fate if they had resorted to liberal democracy.
Another excuse often said claims the people on the ground “are not ready for democracy” but this evades the only solution left for these miserable people. The truth is that even if people are not well-informed about democracy (the corrupt regimes who governed them are to blame for this), they've actually quickly learnt it. Proof of this was the high voter turnouts in elections in the post-revolutionary Arab countries. More proof is the post-Saddam Iraq. Those who failed and proved they are not ready for democracy are the political elites and intellectuals who didn't accept democracy's results and incited strife in their societies, mobilizing those behind their selfish desires, emptying democracy of its essence and hiding behind the tyranny they once complained of be it the military, a sect or a tribe. Those are the ones who need to learn democracy and not the citizens whom they label as "mobs" just because they haven't voted for them.
A Crisis Of The Ages?
Yes, we lack a mature culture when it comes to democracy. This is an old crisis that has just recently re-emerged. It's linked to the problem of balance between "mature governance" and not violating the will of the ruler. This problem is what led to incompatibility with democracy despite many early approaches of which the first was the Ottoman state and then with the Khedivate of Egypt. But all these approaches were experiences that continued to stumble until the 2011 revolutions. They continue to stumble and there are still people among us who say democracy does not suit us. This culture of rejecting or tampering with democracy did not only give birth to people who reject democracy but also gave birth to people who accuse others of infidelity for practicing it and who kill whoever accepts it and practices it. Our crisis with democracy is bigger than we think. Learning it and accepting it will be painful but escaping from it towards civil fighting is more painful.
In order not to give up and surrender to those saying democracy must be postponed until people learn about it, we must remember that democracy in Europe did not crystallize in its current formula until the 19th century and needed decades and wars until it stabilized. Europe did not finalize its battles with other western ideas which competed against it until recently and particularly in 1991 as the Soviet Union, the last fort of communism in Europe, collapsed. What collapsed before the Soviet Union was fascism which resembles the idea of the "fair tyrant" and which resembles those who justify tyranny in our countries.
The other perceived contradiction questions how Saudi Arabia sponsors Yemen and other miserable Arab republics’ democratic transitions when it's not democratic itself? The contradiction here is a theoretical philosophical one. Saudi Arabia is not in a state of collapse to require this "medicine" - although there are remedies for reform which, if Saudi Arabia would adopt, would be good and preventive for the country. However on the level of republics, this "medicine" is a must. It's the only possible solution which opposing parties can agree on. Democracy is a struggle and a competition but should not be played out through arms and at least not through civil war as no one can guarantee that partisans in Yemen won't resort to arms now and then.
Democracy is not exactly fair and it won't cancel out injustices and dangerous social problems even in progressive democratic societies like the United States, France and Switzerland, as Francis Fukuyama – the godfather of democracy– said in his book "The End of History and the Last Man." His book was translated to Arabic and published by the Egypt’s Al-Ahram Publishing House years before the Arab Spring. However it's clear that few liberal political elites read it, and those who read it aren’t convinced.
The Houthis will not be able to control all of Yemen unless through civil war, and their rivals will not be able to expel them unless through civil war. Libya’s General Haftar will not be able to cancel the Brotherhood in Libya unless the current civil war continues and the Brotherhood will not cancel Haftar unless they win this civil war. The same goes for Iraq, Syria and other countries. The only solution is for them to sit together under the sponsorship of bigger brothers. If it's not the stable Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries who sponsor this, it will be the United States or the European Union (this happened in Libya), and they'd raise a banner saying "disagree with each other all you want but don't you dare go to war and start killing." They'd lay the proper foundation to elections, devolution of power and commitment to democracy. The alternative to this is war like the case is now.
The only party that's not invited for democracy is "Salafi Takfirism" currently embodied in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS rejects democracy and accuses those who accept it with infidelity and allows for their killing. I mentioned them as a reminder that in the absence of democracy, they are one of the shocking alternatives besides civil war.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.