According to Reports: Only Real Arab Democracy Will Safeguard Peace

In his weekly Canadian Jewish News media analysis column “According to Reports,” Paul Michaels, CIC Director of Communications, takes exception to Western journalists who believe Israel supports Arab dictators.

While considering what might transpire in Egypt now that President Hosni Mubarak has been forced from office, Michael Petrou (Maclean’s, Feb. 21), cited the enthusiasm of some that pan-Arab democratic revolution is underway.

Nonetheless, Petrou noted that “[t]here are reasons to temper this optimism with caution. It may be premature to talk about the spread of democracy when it is not yet established in Egypt.”

Petrou continued: “Yet there are those who claim Egypt isn’t ‘ready’ for democracy, that it lacks a democratic history, and that political freedom will inevitably lead to chaos or, worse, an Islamist state” led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turning to Israel, Petrou maintained that not only is this view common there, it’s also “widely believed that stable friendly neighbours are better than free ones.”

This is grossly unfair to Israel. Israelis have undeniably valid concerns about what Egyptian chaos and the emergence of the Brotherhood could hold in store for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, for greater belligerence from Hamas, and for the possibility of renewed regional hostilities.

Petrou’s take on Israel’s concerns is all too common in Western media circles, where the term “stability” has become synonymous with “dictatorship.” But it’s simply wrong to assume that Israel wants to assuage its concerns on the backs of Egyptians. As many Israeli leaders have stated, security for Israelis does not equate with more dictatorship for the Egyptian people, who want to be free of oppression.

If anything, the emergence of a genuine liberal democracy, not only in Egypt but in other Arab countries, would be the best safeguard of long-term development and security for the entire region.

Speaking in the Spanish parliament on Feb. 22, Israeli president Shimon Peres was direct: “We believe the biggest guarantee of peace is having democratic neighbours.”

The question whether Egypt (and other Arab countries) can achieve real democracy beyond the mere electoral process is critical – and by no means demeaning to Arabs, many of whom have long been raising the issue themselves. For instance, about a decade ago, Mubarak imprisoned well-known human rights activist Saad Ibrahim. In response, Palestinian journalist Rami Khouri wrote in the Globe and Mail (Aug. 12, 2002) on the “battle that pits the forces of enlightened nationalism and democratic activism against the power of governments that behave in an increasingly autocratic manner.”

He argued that “the heart of this battle to define the political character of the contemporary world is visible in the issues that Dr. Ibrahim tackled, and that the government clearly did not want him to address. These include the fairness and independent monitoring of elections, the status of minorities in the Arab world, and the freedom of independent civil society organizations to operate without being hindered by the government.”

Moving forward to today’s upheaval, Khouri wrote in the Toronto Star (Feb. 1) about what he believes to be a revolutionary rejection of autocracy and its replacement by an admittedly slow, time-consuming process of “self-determination” that will allow for the rights, freedom and dignity of Egyptian citizens.

Again in the Star (Feb. 14), while insisting that a process to “a more democratic, humanistic, Arab world” has begun in Egypt and Tunisia, Khouri outlined a number of preconditions that enable real democracy to take hold. On this very point he wrote: “The must-have anchor for constitutionalism, citizenship and democracy is the rule of law, which has largely vanished in the past three generations in favour of the whims of Arab autocrats and the thuggery of old men with guns.”

Khouri blamed foreign powers in both Star pieces, including Ottoman and European colonialism, for the failure of the Arabs to achieve freedom. But there was no looking inward to what might be at issue within the Arab world itself to explain the democratic deficit – a necessary introspection if the region is to move forward.

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