Why facade democracy will never work in Muslim countries

When Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak announced earlier this year that last month’s presidential elections would be the first ever to permit other candidates to stand directly against him, the announcement was greeted in the West as part of the “democratic dividend” of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. According to the American neo-conservative mythology, one of the reasons that Muslims are so anti-American is that they live under repressive dictators who blame the West for all that is wrong in the world. In keeping with this remarkable understanding of contemporary history, the US’s main object in invading Iraq was to restore freedom for the Iraqi people and make Iraq a beacon of democracy in the Muslim world, and an inspiration to other Muslim peoples around the world to embrace freedom, democracy and the altruistic American hegemon that can provide both. The logic was that the example of Iraq would prompt Muslim peoples to demand democracy, as people in the former Soviet bloc did in 1989, and force repressive Arab rulers to permit political reform as the only way of averting popular unrest.

During a visit to Cairo in June, shortly after the multi-candidate elections were announced, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice sought to emphasise US claims to be championing democratic rights in the Arab world by publicly lecturing Mubarak on the need for further liberalisation. She pointed out that there were two essential prerequisites if the elections were to be internationally recognised as free and fair: that they should be monitored by international observers, and that Egypt’s repressive state of emergency laws should be repealed. Neither of these conditions was met; the elections were monitored only by state observers and the state of emergency remains in place, with the Ikhwan al-Muslimun (Islamic Brotherhood), long recognised as Egypt’s largest and most popular opposition group, remaining officially banned and therefore unable to run any candidate against Mubarak.

Despite this, and numerous other problems with the elections, which were widely recognised in the Arab world as nothing more than a political farce providing Mubarak with only the thinnest veneer of legitimacy, George W. Bush greeted the elections last month as a triumph for America’s foreign policy, saying during a speech in San Diego that “Across the broader Middle East, we can see freedom’s power to transform nations and deliver hope…” He compared the elections in Egypt to those “in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories… [where] people have gone to the polls and chosen their leaders in free elections. Their example is inspiring millions across that region to claim their liberty and they will have it.”

In fact, all we have seen in Egypt last month has been a repeat, albeit perhaps in a slightly refined form, of a political process widely recognised in the Arab world, that of “al-democratiyya al-shakliyya”, usually translated as facade democracy. This refers to the establishment of institutions and processes that have all the trappings of normal democratic politics without making any genuine difference to the established power structures in the country. Egypt has long been recognised at the classic example in the Arab world. It has several political parties, including the ruling National Democratic Party, regular elections to parliament and now a directly elected president (he was previously elected by parliament and then confirmed by referendum), although no-one believed for one moment that there was any prospect of him accepting defeat, shaking hands with his successor and quietly moving out of the presidential palace. In reality, no-one regards this apparatus as any real check on the power of the establishment; rather it serves not to make government accountable to the people, but as to secure and legitimise the position of the ruling NDP, the military elites that control it and the civilian elites that have decided to hitch their fortunes to its wagon. Instead of providing channels through which the Egyptian people can influence their government, these political institutions and processes provide only channels through which those in power can distribute patronage and manipulate the people they are supposed to lead.

This is the sort of democracy that the US is now promoting in other Arab countries, although the progress in places like Jordan and Saudi Arabia is too limited for Bush yet to count them among his success stories. And the Egyptian example demonstrates that no further loosening of the reins of power is intended there, despite Rice’s pious words. There was, notably, no objection to the fact from the Ikhwan, recognised as Egypt’s main opposition movement, is not permitted to operate freely or to contest the elections. As in the past, the establishment has used the system to manipulate its allies and supporters; it clearly intends to use it also to manipulate its opponents, by promoting some — secular and nationalist groups — over others, particularly Islamic ones, which might prove more of a genuine challenge to the powers that be, as FIS demonstrated in Algeria in the late 1980s: an example of political liberalisation under Western guidance getting out of hand. It may well be that Egypt, having pioneered the system of pro-Western facade democracy, is now regarded as stable and secure enough to allow further limited reforms without the risk of the process getting out of hand and actually permitting any genuine expression of the popular will, which would of course be Islamic and anti-American.

This is, of course, the key problem for the West. Although they speak of the democratic ideals of popular and accountable governments that reflect the values and wishes of their people, they know that the wishes of Muslim people are bound to oppose Western interests. They also know that the political elites in Muslim countries are not secure or powerful enough to manipulate open political systems to their ends, as the capitalist and corporate political elites can do in America and other Western countries. In Western countries, we see the limits of democratic freedoms whenever those in power feel threatened, for example by Muslim dissidence in America, Britain and European countries today. Faced with a genuine political challenge, such as the widespread opposition to their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Western states exploit incidents such as the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, and the bombings in London on July 7 this year, to enact illiberal and repressive legislation against “extremism” and “threats to national security” which actually target political opposition more than terrorist activities.

Although the West likes to boast of democracy as a Western gift to the world, reflecting the values and culture of the secular West, it actually owes more to technological advances of modernity, which enable more and more people to be informed about issues affecting their lives, particularly through improved means of communication, and more and more people to aspire to influence the forces that define their lives. This popular involvement and empowerment, which may take different forms, is the real essence of democratisation, rather than liberal ideals such as freedom or equality, or political institutions and processes such as parliament, parties and elections. This is why, in places such as Egypt now, as in the Soviet Union and East Germany during the communist period, and in Iraq under Saddam Hussain, it is possible to have “democratic” political institutions without any sign of genuine popular involvement or empowerment. And that also the situation that exists in western countries, albeit in more sophisticated form: a reality that is now being increasingly realised by Western people.

In recent centuries, ordinary people in Western countries have gradually been persuaded to adopt the political ideals and culture of liberal democracy, making them easy targets for elite manipulation using liberal democratic institutions and processes. The problem for the West is that the masses in Muslim countries have not accepted these political ideals and culture because they have a very strong and powerful indigenous alternative, the political ideals and culture of Islam. When Muslims talk of wanting democracy in their countries, they do not mean, a few westernised exceptions apart, that they want to import western-style secular liberalism, as the West likes to assume; they mean that they want freedom from oppression and repression so that they can establish political institutions reflecting their Islamic political culture and ideals, through which they can achieve independence from foreign hegemony, and popular participation, empowerment and accountability, on their own terms.

This is what the Muslims of Iran achieved through the Islamic Revolution in 1979, inspired by the leadership of Imam Khomeini. As has been said before, the Iranians were fortunate in that they caught the Western power unawares and were able to take control of their country, albeit only at immense sacrifice and cost. It is not a coincidence that, from then until now, Iran has the highest levels of popular participation and political empowerment of any Muslim country in the Middle East. Since then the West has been far more aware of the risk posed by Islamic movements and has done whatever it had to to neutralise them, from the sheer brutality of Algeria to the political manipulation of countries like Jordan and Egypt. Nonetheless, the political instincts of the Muslim ummah remain unchanged, and Muslims will only accept such forms of political reform as enable them to establish Islam in their societies.

That is why attempts by Mubarak and his like to establish democratic facades for their authoritarian regimes are bound to fail, as are attempts by the West to introduce secular and liberal understandings of democracy into Islamic and Muslim political discourse.