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Transplanted Democracy Will Wilt in Infertile Soil

March 21, 2004|Shlomo Avineri | Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He participated in democracy-enhancement projects in Eastern Europe sponsored by the National Democratic Institute in Washington.

In his speech Friday on Iraq, President Bush cited the lessons of Eastern Europe. "In the 1980s, the example of Poland ignited a fire of freedom in all of Eastern Europe," he said, adding that Iraq and Afghanistan have now become democratic beacons to the rest of the Middle East.

The ambitious U.S. plan for democratizing the region is well intentioned, but it will fail. The reasons: a total lack of allies in the Middle East and completely different local conditions. It's true that decades of U.S.-sponsored programs in Eastern Europe helped bring about the fall of communism and eventually the demise of the Soviet Union. But the analogy is misleading.

In all the countries in which post-Communist democracies have been established, the major impetus for democratization came from within, from what has come to be known as "civil society." Poland had a history of internal dissent, which flared up in 1956 and 1968 before ultimately coalescing into the Solidarity labor movement, an alliance of workers and intellectuals in the 1980s. In Hungary, the insurrection of 1956 was followed by the slow emergence in the 1970s of the Hungarian Democratic Forum. Czechoslovakia had the "Prague Spring" of 1968, followed by the dissident movement Charter 77.

The movements also had charismatic leaders -- Lech Walesa in Poland, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, the lesser-known Joszef Antall in Hungary -- who helped galvanize public opinion. Crucial support from the outside was made possible through the Helsinki agreements, but outside help would have been useless if there were no local groups giving the process legitimacy and impetus. In the Soviet Union, with a traditionally weak civil society, democratization started from above, led by reformer Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Yet there too it received an immense push from grass-roots nationalist-oriented reform movements in the peripheral republics of the Soviet Union -- in Lithuania under Vytautas Landsbergis, in Georgia under Zviad Gamsakhurdia and lesser-known movements active in Estonia, Latvia and Armenia.

Nothing of the sort exists in any Arab country. In an era that has seen dramatic developments toward democratization all over the globe -- in Eastern Europe, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia -- the Arab region stands out as an exception. It has not produced one serious movement in support of democracy, nor have any of its leaders provided such a beacon. There has been no Arab Gorbachev, no Arab Walesa. To make Islam the culprit for this is wrongheaded. Turkey has for the last 80 years gone though a slow but consistent process of democratization -- albeit sometimes flawed.

Iran, a self-styled Islamic republic, provides daily examples of a vibrant civil society, with surprising pluralism even within an Islamic discourse. It has contested elections, student demonstrations and a combative press. It may appear at the moment that the conservatives are winning, but possibilities still exist.

Nothing like this is happening in any of the nations of the Arab League. Although many Arab countries have courageous individuals speaking out -- like Saad Eddin Ibrahim in Egypt -- nothing has coalesced into a meaningful mass movement.

This is surprising, since Arab countries are very different from one another: Some are small, others are large; some are rich, others are poor; some are traditional monarchies, others are military-based authoritarian regimes. But in none of them -- with the exception of some feeble attempts in a few of the less oppressive monarchies like Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain -- is there a movement toward democratization or a legitimate local base for such a movement.

The reasons for this are not obvious and have eluded even the courageous Arab intellectuals who tried, two years ago, to examine them in a U.N.-sponsored Arab Human Development Report, which pointed out the unique democracy deficit in Arab societies. The group called for further studies, and they should be undertaken, even if they may not sound politically correct. In the meantime, though, we should abandon the illusion that democracy will come easily to the Arab world. Importing it from outside will fail, as the U.S. occupation of Iraq is daily demonstrating. The provisional Iraqi constitution may sound fine, but the road to implementing it is long and rocky.

Change in the Arab world must come incrementally -- and from the inside. Civil society should be encouraged, and every move to a more open society in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt should be supported. But these things will have to emerge organically; they cannot be imported.

To imagine Western-sponsored democracies flourishing anytime soon in the Arab world is a dangerous illusion, doomed to bring about violent resentment and rage against U.S. arrogance and imperial hubris.

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