Democracy in the Middle-east – a Moral Conundrum

October 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

democracy grief war middle east

The Arab Spring of 2011 revealed an inconvenient truth. The world watched as governmental regimes in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen were brought to their knees by a discontented population. Dictators such as Mubarak and Gaddafi were ousted, or worse, killed. The revolution promised reform, and freedom from the regimes that violated their given powers at the people’s expense. The outcome, however, was less than satisfactory. The countries involved are either embroiled in bitter, complex conflicts, as in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq, or are resigned under an almost identical political system, as in Egypt.

With the exception of Tunisia, revolutionary attempts have succeeded only in being the spark that plunged the region into inter-conflict. From a Western perspective, this is baffling. The Arab Spring almost parallels similar revolutionary processes that European nations went through centuries ago. We have failed to spread our chief export to the Middle-East; democracy.  The question is why?

Sectarian Division

The Middle-East is a region divided by ethnic and religious differences. The main schism is that between the Sunni and Shia Muslims, a division that can be traced back to the period after prophet Mohammad’s death. Calling the relationship between the two Muslim sects tense would be an understatement; conflicts between the groups have culminated during the Iraq war and, more recently, the Syrian civil war, where an Alawite Shia minority dominates the Ba’athist regime under Assad. This bias has often been to the detriment of the opposing sect. The Kurds, who are a major ethnic group in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, have been the subjects of significant suppression and even genocide. Besides these groups, many smaller ethno-religious minorities exist, along with various political, insurgent and mercenary groups vying for control of the region, especially at the outbreak of the Arab Spring of 2011, and the consequent Syrian civil war.

How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation?”

Paulo Freire

These countries highly value familial, ethnic and tribal ties, and thus established governments will be operated based upon this. Such bias can obviously jeopardise the democratic process. Under Saddam (a Sunni), Shi’ite Muslims suffered abductions, torture and murder. The Alawite Shi’a government has similarly suppressed the Sunni majority in Syria. In Iraq, attempts at democratisation have all but failed. Despite multiple elections, the government has slipped into a corrupted, authoritarian role. Instability in the region has failed to provide the framework individuals require to become involved in a political democratic process. The experiment is a failed one – clearly a democratic revolution is unlikely – so we must look to more stable, long term solutions to deal with the immediate problems in the region.

With the Levant in the midst of war and chaos, we can say that Ba’athist regimes, whilst corrupt and totalitarian, and in many cases brutal, provided the stability that the region entirely lacks. Compared to lack of economic or social structure that recent conflicts have brought to the region, they were the lesser of two evils. An authoritarian approach has clearly worked better for such divided countries than any attempts at democratisation. It is clear that, with Iraq and Afghanistan being the main examples, attempts at forming a democratic government have led to ineffectual establishments plagued with corruption and in-fighting, especially vulnerable to ambitious political/religious groups. It is not ideal, and abusive leaders (such as Assad and Saddam) must be held accountable for their actions, but a transitional, more absolute form of government might be preferable in order to gain some form of stability, and provide a more solid backbone against insurgent organisations such as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) who undermine the region, and jeopardise its people and their futures.

Western Invasion and Occupation

Simply put, in our attempts, the West failed to truly understand the complexity of the situation in the Middle-East. From the League of Nation’s insensitive dicing up of the region after WWII, and Britain, France and the USA’s subsequent presence in the region, to the Iraqi war, the Afghanistan war and their occupations, as well as military intervention in Syria, Western forces have acted brashly, with over 500,000 dead since the Iraqi invasion of 2003. The US and its allies have been fighting the symptoms, not the cause of the problem. Their presence, far from securing the stability democracy requires to flourish, sparked a deep-seated animosity for the West. Their extensive (and expensive) training and restructuring of the Iraqi army has proved to be lacking. ISIL, a terrorist organisation with alarming ambitions for an Islamic Caliphate spreading from Syria to Iraq, routed 30,000 US-trained and equipped Iraqi soldiers with 800 men.  Some argue that while the US should never have invaded, the fact that they left in 2011 was even worse; the instability we are seeing in the country could have been prevented by residual troops keeping the peace.

Many Muslims have grown to associate the idea of democracy with the West, and while some may think of the West as a protector against oppressive regimes and organisations, so many more – especially in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria – associate the West with the death, chaos and destruction that has taken its toll on their country in our doggedly blind pursuit of ideals such as liberty and freedom. It is quite clear that, after over 10 years of occupation in Iraq, such full-on assistance has created a resentful reliance between occupied and occupier that, once broken, proves disastrous.  Intervention should be minimal, and mainly humanitarian and advisory in nature from here on out. Only then can countries in the Middle-East possibly develop the stability necessary for democracy to flourish.

Free countries, as constitutional law expert Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde once wrote, flourish in conditions that they themselves are unable to guarantee. Without a cultural learning process — like the one undergone by Europe over the centuries — the toppling of a dictator and the holding of elections are not sufficient to establish democracy. As such, the West should value functioning states to a greater degree in the future.

Christiane Hoffmann

Closing Thoughts

A painfully simple lesson has been taught to us; the Middle-East is not ready for democracy, at least not as we conceptualise it. We must cultivate conditions that will, first and foremost, reduce violence and conflict, and encourage stability. Allied forces must take a more diplomatic, hands-off approach in future involvement. The US must temporarily forgo past tensions with big players such as Iran – who are one of the only functioning, relatively stable states in the region – and encourage their involvement in ousting dangerously ambitious groups such as ISIS, who threaten Iran’s very border with Iraq. Colonial borders are archaic and damaging. Groups such as the Kurds must be listened to, and their needs have to be met. It is necessary that minorities have a voice in their future, or bitterness and resentment will guarantee the continuing of instability – especially between Sunni and Shia Muslims – that we see now. The Middle-East is in ashes, and it may be for some time to come, but with the tenacity, compassion, and open-mindedness of its people, it may rise again as a centre of learning and culture in the world.


Did the wars bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq?

Freedom vs. Stability: Are Dictators Worse than Anarchy?

The Sunni-Shia Divide

Protest, Uprising & Regime Change in the Arab Spring

 Global Democracy Ranking


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