By Ranjan Roy
20 April 2011,
Images of democracy in motion make for intoxicating television. The kid next to the soldier with his tank at Tahrir Square, the exhausted rebel in a Libyan desert and women and children out in Bahrain's Pearl Square. Next stop, democracy, the footage suggests as anchors hurtle to keep pace with the compelling images and churn out the two-minute revolution theory.
The painful truth is that the path to Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen emerging as western-style democracies could be torturous and long. And even worse for places like Bahrain and other rich Emirates where civil society has suddenly discovered it has a political mind.
A look at the map of West Asia shows many straight lines drawn across the barren deserts by European powers and civil servants in London to create nations that suited the post-colonial foreign policy needs of colonisers. Little heed was paid to the demographic heterogeneity of the region where an artificial nationality negotiated with the local satrap was imposed on the people. Since then, most countries have lived under autocratic rulers at best and tyrannical at worst. Nasser in Egypt was anti-imperial but not a democrat.
By far the most peaceful and educated civil society in the region is that of Egypt's. But even there, few institutions exist. The heads of state have donned military colours and have exterminated critics and opposition with the help of an all-powerful secret police and perpetrated a regime of fear. Corruption is endemic, made evident by the baksheesh culture that permeates all layers of officialdom; courts are arranged to favour the powerful and the upper middle class lives in negotiated comfort with the military. Will all this disappear in one fell swoop? Unlikely. Too many vested interests are entrenched, the biggest among them, the politico-military. Egypt is the best place to make the transition, though. It does have a parliament, a body of legislative rules and a set of laws that the courts can use.
Take the case of Libya, where US intervention looks menacingly like George Bush's regime change war in Iraq. Barack Obama has taken care to broaden Nato involvement but the first few rounds of US attacks muddied the waters and gave Muammar Gaddafi international oxygen to breathe fire against 'American Imperialists'. It's hard to sympathise with Gaddafi, but lifting all forms of control, undemocratic as they may be, will push Libya into violent chaos and reopen tribal faultlines. That the anarchy could be taken advantage of by Islamic extremists isn't unlikely, and dismantling the military overnight will remove a bulwark against mushrooming of terror outfits. The removal of the dictator will create a political vacuum in a country where no political elite barring Gaddafi loyalists has been allowed to flourish. Unlike Syria, where thanks to the Ba'ath Party, the political base is a tad wider, Libya has no second-rung of leadership to fall back on barring tribal leaders and military commanders.
In Syria, where tens of thousands are sitting in for Bashir Assad's ouster, the topography is even more complicated. Despite being overwhelmingly Sunni, Syria is a mosaic of competing faiths and cultures that have been papered over by a socialistic-sounding political system represented by the Ba'ath Party. If the order crumbles, it would expose chasms between the Christians, the Alawis, the Druze, the Ismailiyas and even the Greek Orthodox group. Flux in Syria could also lead to regional complications. The Damascus regime is viewed by many as a cat's paw for Iranian interests. Help to the Hezbollah in Lebanon, locked in a protracted war with Israel, also comes from Damascus and the Assads have a fair amount of clout in how the political structure in the fractured neighbour is arranged. It's insane to predict how things would shape up if Assad falls but violence is a fair certainty.
It's a shame that Bashir Assad didn't loosen up the political system fast enough to prevent this. The breakneck pace at which protests seem to be spreading won't leave him room for gradual change. That apart, the worst fear is that these regimes will fall in the hands of Islamic hardliners. That may or may not happen but the ground is fertile for such an outcome. In countries where regimes have been traditionally repressive, the mosques tend to transform into political arenas where dissidents and critics meet. That apart, the separation of the church and state isn't obligatory even in Islamic democracies.
Lastly, where the legitimacy of the existing ruler is destroyed by a public upsurge and there isn't any clear political succession in the works, clerics could assume leadership roles where none existed for them previously. Human societies crave order, and in situations of strife, clerics promising stability, whatever the terms of such an order are, could gain a mass following.
In Indonesia, when the 1997 Asian economic turmoil eroded dictator Suharto's credibility and finally caused his downfall, the leader of the tolerant Muslim country's largest religious movement, the Nahdnatul Ulama, Abdurrahman Wahid, was nominated as the successor. That Gus Dur, as he was popularly known, was a moderate leader with great respect for the minorities, helped Indonesia complete a transition to a modern parliamentary democracy that subsequently elected liberal leaders like Megawati Sukarnoputri as president. But that's not an outcome that's going to follow if in a vacuum, political space is usurped by religious hardliners with a conservative Islamic vision of civil society.
Source: The Times of India