Autocratic rule is a failing strategy

Why the Arab League should embrace democracy

Of the 22 countries in the Arab League, three posses quasi-democratic governments. The remaining 19 are absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies or “strong-manned” republics. Each of the three nations that do qualify as being democratic is struggling with its government. Iraq, which had democracy forced upon it by the United States seven years ago, still has an unstable government. Lebanon has a novel crisis in the form of its brand new government, and Palestine still awaits recognition as a state by half the world. It time for the rulers of the Arab League — both the non—democratic and barely democratic countries — to gracefully embrace democracy for the greater good of their people.

Quality of life

Although Saudi Arabia has the 39th highest per capita GDP in the world, the quality of life of its people is affected by its highly restrictive civil “liberties” — political and religious freedoms, women’s rights, and other human rights are practically non-existent in this country, which is run by the royal Saudi family. The absolute monarchy has used Islamic law as an unfounded excuse to impose absurd restrictions, such as the driving ban on women and the mandatory face veil for non-Muslim women.

Anyone who believes that the people of Saudi Arabia approve of these policies is delusional; there are several books written by Saudi nationals that detail the extreme oppression they face every day and their frustration with a law system that is largely irrational and unfair. In addition, desperate attempts at protest against issues like women being forbidden from driving are regularly staged.

Democracy would provide the perfect answer — it would allow for a better way of life without sacrificing the identity of the nation as a Muslim country. Because 97 percent of the population in Saudi Arabia is Muslim, there is little danger of the loss of those traditional values that are respected by the people. For example, Saudi women launched a highly popular “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me” petition in 2008 defending the Islamic guardianship law, which states that every woman must have a male guardian (usually a father or husband) who has duties to and rights over the woman. The law, which seems unacceptably patronizing and demeaning to me and perhaps most women outside Saudi Arabia, is considered a flattering cultural custom by most women in the nation, who claim that the concept is inaccessible to those who do not understand Islamic law. Fair enough; in their democracy, such a law would stay. On the other hand, many of these women are vehemently opposed to the driving ban. Consequently, the ban would be lifted.

The situation in “republican” Libya — which has the 56th highest per capita GDP in the world — is comparable. The authoritarian regime under Muammar el-Qaddafi provides scarce human rights to the people who do not have the right to change their government. Freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion are heavily restricted as well.

The quality of life, typically measured with respect to the rights and freedoms of the people, in the other nations of the Arab League, however, is hugely better. And for these countries, the reason to move towards democracy is the standard of living that democracy makes possible.

Standard of Living

Tunisia, under the rule of ex—President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, faced repression of its once independent press, trade unions, and universities. In addition to the restriction of individual liberties — for example, only very limited and unfairly monitored internet access was permitted — the government severely disrupted the education system. Public schools at all levels were provided with insufficient facilities, and the system was rife with corruption. These conditions resulted in extremely high unemployment rates. Add to this the effect of the high cost of living resulting from the economic crisis and the blatant corruption of the self-proclaimed “president for life,” and the nation’s standard of living is catastrophically diminished.

The people of Tunisia made the news earlier this year for revolting. The “Jasmine Revolution” succeeded in forcing Ben Ali out of power and in raising issues with potential successorslike the release of political prisoners, freedom of the press, the legality of all political parties, and the holding of legitimate elections. As with any democracy in the world, it is unclear if the new government will prove worse for Tunisia. However, all that the people of Tunisia currently want is the power to choose.

The theme of poor economic conditions, a lack of opportunity, a pathetic education system, and rampant corruption is recurrent in most other countries of the Arab League. Republics under authoritarian regimes — Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti, Syria, Somalia, Mauritania, and the Union of the Comoros — as well as Morocco, a constitutional monarchy, would all benefit from uncorrupted democracies.

The remaining five nations are exceptions to both the standard of living and quality of life arguments in favor of democratization. Qatar, The United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait — all monarchial regimes — have among the highest per capita GDPs in the world. The quality of life of their people is respectable; most rights and individual freedoms — except, in some cases, freedom of speech and press — exist in these countries. However, suffrage is arguably the most important freedom. If the people choose to vote for a government whose policy disallows another freedom, this would be equivalent to the people signing away that freedom. By this logic, the maximum benefit for the people would lie in a democracy.

The self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia ignited in his people the otherwise dormant desire for democracy, and they may just succeed in obtaining it. Had I written this article one week ago, I would have ended my discussion with the prediction of revolution spreading to the other countries in the region. However, today I conclude by pointing out that this has already happened on a large scale in Egypt, and on a smaller scale in Yemen, Algeria and Jordan; minor incidents have also occurred in Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Sudan, Syria and Libya.

The only arguments that apply against democracy in the Arab League are the standard arguments that apply against democracy as a whole. Islam is not incompatible with democracy, as is proved by the democratic system of Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim nation. Because the people in the Arab League nations are clearly pro-democracy, their rulers should hand it over, lest their countries burn in the spirit of revolution.