Democracy is no dream — if we will it

By Vernon Bogdanor, October 31, 2013
Theodor Herzl: perhaps he foresaw the Arab Spring, a century before it happened (Photo: Getty Images)

Theodor Herzl: perhaps he foresaw the Arab Spring, a century before it happened (Photo: Getty Images)

Theodor Herzl, one of the founders of Zionism, visited the Middle East just twice — in 1898 when he was received in Jerusalem by the Kaiser, and in 1903, when he visited Egypt, where he made the following prescient observation.

“What interested me most was the striking number of intelligent-looking young Egyptians who packed the hall. They are the coming masters. It is incredible that the English don’t see this. They think they are going to deal with fellahin forever. Today their 18,000 troops suffice for this large country. But how much longer? What the English are doing is splendid. They are cleaning up the Orient, letting light and air into the filthy corners, toppling old tyrannies, and doing away with abuses. But along with freedom and progress, they are also teaching the fellahin how to revolt. I believe that the English example in the colonies will either destroy England’s colonial empire or lay the foundation for England’s world domination. It makes one feel like coming back in 50 years to see how it has turned out.”

Perhaps he foresaw the Arab Spring, more than 100 years before it began. What is clear, is that England could not achieve “world domination”, since the demand for self-determination was to destroy the British Empire. Today the Arab world is in turmoil. No-one can tell what the future will bring. Some are trying to catch up with the rest of the world by seeking the civil liberties that we in the West and in Israel have long taken for granted; and in Tunisia and Libya, there is a definite trend towards democracy.

The global triumph of democracy is comparatively recent. In 1926, there were just 26 democracies, and they came under threat after the great depression of 1929. In 1931, when Spain, temporarily as it turned out, returned to democracy, Mussolini, the Italian dictator, said that it was like returning to oil lamps in the age of democracy. By 1942, when Nazis and Fascists controlled most of Europe, there were just 12 democracies left. But today, the American monitoring organisation, Freedom House, finds 115 “electoral democracies”, that is, countries where the government is chosen in free and competitive multi-party elections. Democracy is now the norm to which it is believed that all civilised countries should aspire.

Although democracy has seemed, until recently, an alien growth in the Arab world, support for democratic ideals appears quite widespread among Arab peoples.

The Arab world does not have the luxury of waiting for 100 years to achieve democracy

In a survey undertaken in 2006, before the Arab Spring, in Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, and the Palestinian Authority, no fewer than 86 per cent agreed that “despite the drawbacks, democracy is the best form of government”, and 90 per cent agreed with the proposition that “having a democratic system of government in our country would be good”. Cross-regional comparisons by social scientists show that support for democracy is as high or even higher in the Arab world than in other regions of the world. That, in a sense, is hardly surprising. What would be more surprising would be to find people who did not seek basic rights such as freedom from arbitrary arrest, or the right to choose those who ruled over them.

But there is widespread misunderstanding, by no means confined to the Arab world, as to what democracy means. It does not mean that a party winning a majority in a single election can do as it likes. That was the Nazi interpretation, and the interpretation of Iranian leaders, who, winning an election in 1980, proceeded to impose a theocratic autocracy upon the country. It was also the interpretation of Hamas in Gaza, and of Mohammed Morsi, the former president of Egypt, who sought to use a single election victory to turn his country into another theocratic autocracy. If there is an Arab Spring, Hamas and Morsi were certainly not part of it.

The idea that a party that wins a single election can do as it likes is not a corollary of the democratic ideal, but a subversion of it. In a well-functioning democracy, power lies not with the leaders, nor the legislature, nor even the people, but with the idea of constitutional government. More fundamentally, as Tony Blair has pointed out, democracy is not about voting, but about changing your way of thinking.

Of course, we in Britain are fortunate in having been able to achieve democracy by instalments. Respect for human rights and constitutional government did not come in one fell swoop, but in stages, from the first expansion of the suffrage in 1832, to universal suffrage for men and women, which did not arrive until 1928. But the Arab world does not have the luxury of waiting for 100 years.

It is too early to determine what the outcome of the Arab Spring will be. It may be that the Arab world is living through a period of revolutionary turbulence and approaching what Europeans might call its 1848 moment.

In Europe, 1848 was the age of liberal revolutions, but sadly these revolutions failed. The year 1848 was, as one historian has said, a turning-point in European history when European history failed to turn.

The revolutionaries had hoped to unify Germany and Italy by liberal means. Because they failed, Germany and Italy were unified by other means and by people of another sort — Bismarck and Cavour, men who could not be described as liberals; and perhaps Nazism and Fascism were long-term consequences of the failure of European liberalism in 1848.

We can only hope that the Arab world proves more successful in confronting its 1848 moment than Europe was. But the period of revolutionary turbulence will not be resolved for some years. We are living through a dangerous transitional period.

This does not mean, however, that we in the West should simply sit on our hands and hope for the best. We must be unequivocally on the side of the democratic and liberal forces in the Arab world, even where these forces are in a distinct minority. To be neutral in the ideological struggle leaves the field free for tyrants to continue their murderous work.

The clear victor from the recent parliamentary vote on Syria and from Obama’s vacillations is Bashir Assad. History shows that, if tyrants are not resisted early in their careers, a higher price has to be paid later. By failing to stop Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, and refusing to support the legally-elected Republican government in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, British governments showed weakness which Hitler noticed and took advantage of; and no-one needs to be reminded of the results of failing to resist Hitler before 1939. Similarly, with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the West sat on its hands, when he used chemical weapons against his own Kurdish people, and when, in 1991, the Shia population of Iraq rebelled. He could and should have been confronted long before 2003.

We must, therefore, help the liberal and democratic forces in the Arab world in every way that we can — not by troops on the ground, but, if necessary, by the supply of arms; and, above all, by explaining what is needed for a state to become a full-functioning democracy, and promoting our ideals of liberal government.

The West badly needs a strategy to deal with the tyrants in the Arab world. Obama’s threat of a military strike against Syria, now abandoned for a promise that Syria will surrender its stocks of chemical weapons, was a poor substitute. A surgical strike is not a strategy. The strategy ought to be one of altering the balance of power in Syria in favour of those liberal and democratic forces which are opposing Assad; for although Al Queda and other extremist forces have infiltrated the opposition, and may well be coming to lead it, they do not yet dominate it. The only strategy worth considering, where liberal democracy is a possibility, is regime change.

Israel, of course, will not wish to intervene in the upheavals taking place in the Arab world. Many Israeli politicians worry at the threat to stability caused by the Arab Spring. But, in the last resort, no dictatorship or autocracy can be stable in the long term; nor can such regimes deliver the peace that Israel so badly needs; for a peace agreement negotiated with a dictatorship is always at risk when the regime changes. The Morsi regime which replaced Mubarak in Egypt was sceptical towards the peace treaty with Israel, and might well have undermined it had it remained in power. An Arab democracy, by contrast, will be capable of negotiating a peace treaty which will survive through changes of government.

But, in addition, Israel needs to ensure that its own democracy becomes a model for the Arab world. That means ensuring that the Arab minority is no longer treated as second-class citizens. Contrary to what is often said by Israel’s critics, the early Zionists did not ignore the existence of the Arab population. Herzl, for example, in his novel, Altneuland, insists that Arabs should have equal citizen rights in a Jewish state. Modern Israel must continue to be inspired by Herzl’s vision of a liberal state which firmly defends minority rights.

The French philosopher Pascal said that public opinion was the queen of the world. That was something that Herzl well understood. People in the Arab world are also coming to understand it. Not until the Arab dictatorships have been replaced by regimes which respect human rights, will there be a real possibility of permanent peace in the Middle East.

Theodor Herzl: perhaps he foresaw the Arab Spring, a century before it happened

Last updated: 10:21am, October 31 2013