There are very few in the West who, in principle, do not favor a democratic outcome to the revolution spreading throughout the Middle East. The hundreds of thousands of people massing in the streets of Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, the protesters in Jordan, in Tunisia and now in Algeria, are all pleading for democracy and democratic reform. These are genuine voices for change, but do the people in the street begin to understand what democracy entails?
Leaving aside what the United States, the other Western countries, China, and even Israel want to happen in the region, there is an essential problem about what is happening in the Arab streets.
No objective observer has any doubt about the underlying social and economic problems that exist in the region. In the non-oil producing parts of the region, the people in the street are experiencing increasing food prices. insufficient supplies, inadequate housing, a growing birthrate, and increasing unemployment. The public demand for jobs is rising and opportunity declining. There is massive frustration with the perceived sense of societal corruption. This level of frustration is reason enough for people to demand change. When combined with dramatically expanding social network and an awareness of what is happening outside of the Middle East, it is hardly remarkable that the people are up in arms against historically repressive and authoritarian regimes.
Another critical factor is whether the protesters are genuinely interested in a more traditional, religious option – represented in Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood — or a more secular direction for their county. Would or could a fundamentalist movement be compatible with democratic change and reform? Consider the role of women, religious tolerance, right of dissent, abrogation of international agreements, free and open elections for all, minority rights, etc.
All of these conditions make it difficult for the West to respond to the growing unrest.
In looking at the possibility of the Islamic world moving toward democracy there are at least two fundamental challenges. Recent history has shown that when Muslims have opted for free elections they have succeeded only when the Government that organized the elections was satisfied with the results. When Palestinian elections were held in 2006 on the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas won a clear majority in Gaza, as well as Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethlehem, but the Palestinian Authority would not accept the results. Within a year Hamas seized control of Gaza in a military confrontation and ousted the Palestinian Authority, which did maintain political control of the West Bank.
The PA had no problem rejecting the results of the free, democratic election. This is not the way democracy works. In a democracy the results of an election are the results; just ask Al Gore.
From a religious perspective there exists a fundamental problem as well. Many Muslims believe that Islam is prepared to tolerate differences only within a world which they rule. Jews and Christians therefore could live within an Islamic world, but Muslims cannot accept having to live under non-Islamic rule. This approach would not be compatible with democracy.
And if one suspects there is concern and tension among the leadership in Jordan, for example, imagine the level of anxiety in the even more reactionary—but oil-rich— regimes like Saudi Arabia. Democratic change may sound like a quick fix, but democracy is not a pill that brings relief overnight.
Consider the observations of Winston Churchill. On the one hand, there is his remark upon hearing the news in July 1945 that he and his Tory Party had been ousted after he successful helped to lead his country and the Allies to victory in Europe: “They have a perfect right to kick me out. That is democracy.”
Then more than two years later in the House of Commons the then former Prime Minister remarked: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”