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October 19, 2006



Re Arab support for "democracy." In today's discussion, I think it's important for scholars to start being much more precise when we use this word. It's not "manifestly true" to me anyway that representative government based on electoral process is a critical priority of most people in the Arab world at this point. Iraq was certainly a blow to that model, but so too is Israel, where the gerrymandering tendency at the heart of electoral model comes out with exquisite clarity. What large segments of the populations in many Arab countries clearly want is the civil rights tradition of democracy -- the open society -- and my sense is that they are now more than ever quite conflicted as to how this might best be achieved. They also want the prosperity that seems to be associated with "democratic" states, though the old argument about which way the causal arrow runs is still pretty much alive as far as I can see.

What Iraq may well do is at long last depose the United States from its postwar sinecure as standard bearer of democracy in the world--a post it fulfilled with the same self-interest and hypocrisy you'd expect from any great power. Hopefully, post-Bush the democratic ideal will be less easy to confuse with American interests, since people's automatic bullshit detectors are set on a higher sensitivity level. If there's a silver lining in the Mesopotamian catastrophe at this point, maybe that's it.

the aardvark

m-a: re the manifest truth of Arab desire for democracy, a whole bunch of different public opinion surveys are absolutely clear - the idea of democracy as a form of government is overwhelmingly supported, usually with margins in the 90% range. Mark Tessler and Eleanor Gao have a good review of these finding in the Journal of Democracy. You make some good points about the complexities of how to achieve it, though, and the ambiguities - you have to go deeper than public opinion surveys to get at that. And how urgent a priority democracy is, compared to - say - economic improvement is another question. And as to US hypocrisy in espousing it, that's a whole different kettle of fish.


Sorry to be downbeat, but it's pretty grim these days. I read that article, and my response now is again lukewarm. The construction of the survey does not capture the real issue at work in trying to chart the prospects of political movements, which is risk management, i.e., the need to choose in real time between a number of social and political objectives that are often incompatible over the short to medium term.

It's all very well to say that "Democracy is the best model" in abstract and general terms, but when a person --> population is deciding whether to affirmatively move in that direction, catastrophic breakdowns in public order (Iraq), gaming the system (Israel), the long legacy of perfunctory electoral behavior in dictatorships across the Arab world and elsewhere all mean a real disconnect between the essentialized "democracy" purveyed in that survey and people's sense of what it would look like in practice. Note for example that the two parts of their article (one in which there is just one big "democracy" and another in which it could include, for example, Iran) are basically in conceptual conflict. Furthermore, I'm a bit suspicious that they chart summary data from their Question 2 Option d ("Democracy may have problems, but it’s better than any other form of government") and not from the more interesting questions where people are actually asked to consider the trade-offs (which are, especially in light of Iraq, looking pretty descriptive).

All in all, even when sampling issues are ignored, that 90% figure strikes me more as a rah-rah than a useful consideration of people's thought proocess: one of those pro forma footnotes that nobody actually reads. Ninety percent of Arabs would might say they want a case of ice cream in July, even if you warned them it was fattening, but the question is whether they think your offer is credible, and what they do when you tell them they have to provide their own freezer--not to mention when fistfights break out over whether it ought to be chocolate or vanilla, or when the cops come by and try to get it delivered to the local zabtiya.

On those terms (and given conditions in the Middle East right now, poor refrigeration, fistfights and confiscation is what we're working with) no human being is likely to "choose democracy," let alone enough to make a political impact. Not even Americans, we seem to be discovering.


According to Juan Cole, a study showed 90% of the Arab world said they consider democracy a good form of government. In contrast, only 89% of Americans responded that democracy is a good form of government.


Good point, Sulayman, spoken like a true scientist. (By the way, I like Sulayman's Log for the humanity of it, and also "What would the moon reveal to the world" on your blogroll. When I read her Staten Island Ferry story,I wept.) Moloch is right too. They are bandying words...


Hi Abu,

>> mainstream Islamist movements ... commit to constitutional guarantees for minorities

But, what about guarantees for Muslims? What about guarantees to protect privacy so we don't have vice squads busting parties or monitoring internet surfing?? I'm much more concerned with overarching freedoms for all rather than minorities, however we may define that. A moderately Islamic party guaranteeing public secular neutrality would get my vote; a regime bent on forcing thier specific interpretation on Muslims like me, even if they leave "minorities" alone, would get my rifle.


It's simply a question of trust, as OmarG points out. Guarantees may not be guarantees anyway, like election promises. Reminds me of a Yes, Minister line:

'Yemen, what government is that?'

'It's the Federal Democratic Republic of Yemen, Prime Minister.'

'Oh, they're Communist.'

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