Democracy within autocracy
People in the Middle East still gravitate towards individuals
who most resemble a Supreme Being, who is compassionate, merciful,
generous and wise
April 11, 2005
“In the name of the Compassionate and Merciful
God”. NOT “In the name of the Democratic and Freedom
Loving God”? Could this be considered as a hint towards what
most of the people in the Middle East deeply and truly value, at
least for now? Perhaps if we listened carefully to what is blared
out of the mosques’ speakers, day in day out, we would find
out what the majority holds as value.
With a dash of objectivity and impartiality, it not difficult
to conclude that compassion, generosity and wisdom sell big time
in the Middle East. Democracy doesn’t. Contrary to common
belief, most people in the Middle East don’t even know what
democracy is and don’t care for it.
Democracy is probably the most overused word in the past century.
Like other words that lose their meaning in our minds when repeated
over and over it has almost become a meaningless utterance. It
used to have a noble ring to it but now it sounds more like a cliché,
almost an imposition. Perhaps if we stop harping about it blindly,
step back and contemplate on it for a moment we would see it for
what it is and perhaps use it more sensibly. Democracy is a tool
which if not used properly can be detrimental to the growth of
the subjected group. Too many times a model fit for one society
is wrongfully forced to fit another with unpredictable and grave
Webster’s dictionary defines ‘democracy’ as: “government
by the people, usually through elected representatives”.
However, this definition is based on the people’s understanding
that they are equal, i.e. egalitarianism. The individuals forming
the people must have reached a level of self-assertion and self-confidence
whereby equality of each member of the group is internalized. Self
esteem and respect for others’ views are the necessary premise
for democracy. For a traditional society accustomed to a single
ruler dominating a majority, these concepts are foreign and even
if imposed the transition to a democratic society will take generations
to complete itself.
Democracy is not a simple action. It is a process. It is a state
of mind that takes years to develop. Presuming that by a simple
act of marking an X on a ballot sheet the people have arrived at
a democracy is only a foolish assumption. Let’s take a look
at what has worked and what hasn’t so far and why.
Most people will agree that the most stable countries in the
region are those on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf and
the Sea of Oman and furthermore that the most successful government
in this particular region is the type that is exercised in the
United Arab Emirates. It works because it understands the people
and it works FOR the people and not the other way around.
Many Western critics argue that it the UAE has a great system
of government but it is not a democracy. But why does it have to
be? It is working because it fits. Democracy is not for everyone,
everywhere at anytime. What is necessary is to understand the people
that are to be governed and to support a system that works FOR
those particular people according to their beliefs, culture and
In my uncertified opinion, people in the Middle East still gravitate
towards individuals as opposed to systems. They tend to search
for and support those who most resemble a Supreme Being, who is
compassionate, merciful, generous and wise. The concept of an abstract
system based on collaborative group thought and responsibility
is still foreign to most.
Examples of such holy individuals are Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq
and the late Sheikh Zayed of the UAE. What Sistani was able to
achieve in regards to quelling the Al Sadr uprising, no democratically
elected body of representatives in Iraq could ever do. Until his
death in 2004, Sheikh Zayed was the most respected living individual
in his country. Same applies to the late Rafiq Hariri. These individuals
did not represent democracy instead they applied their personal
wisdom, generosity and compassion towards the betterment of the
lives of the people they represent. People of the Middle East do
not respect abstract systems instead they respect individuals with
a proven and visible sense of compassion and wisdom.
Within some of the Gulf countries
an environment is created whereby under the umbrella of an autocratic
and non democratic government, pockets of democracy in the form
of corporations and small businesses are created. Within that small
pocket, individuals learn to exercise democratic thinking and acting.
The board room becomes a mini parliament with the directors as
parliamentarians discussing every aspect of the company and taking
action in a democratic way.
All this is happening in a healthy and stable yet autocratically
run country. The key here is stability of the government and not
so much the type of the government. In this way, small democratic
microcosms in the form of universities, corporations and various
private institutions are created within an autocratic yet stable
macrocosm. Individuals learn and exercise the democratic way of
thinking and operating on a continuous basis, as opposed to just
once every four years during elections.
There is an interesting and ironic common occurrence. Because
of the nature of the Middle East, most of the local residents outside
of the Gulf countries have, at one time during their lifetime,
experienced violence on the streets or even outright war. The beauty
of the Gulf phenomenon is that it has created an environment where
it is not unusual for direct adversaries finding themselves as
colleagues, classmates or even friends, unwittingly. In effect,
all political differences are set aside and only personal achievement
and success are promoted in a co-operative and democratic way under
an autocratic umbrella.
The reverse is true in the case of other countries in the Middle
East. Under the auspice of a so called “democratic” government,
pockets of dictatorships are created. Because the people who are
being governed and those who are governing “democratically” are
not trained to operate a democratic environment the system corrupts
and leads to pockets of small dictatorships visible within corporations,
government departments and educational institutions.
There may be signs of democracy
in the form of elections, parliaments and even political debates.
However, because there is no real stability in the system, financially
nor politically, individuals resort to dictatorship in their immediate
proximity in order to insure a future for themselves and their
families. As a result one finds a high rate of nepotism and autocratic
management in many businesses within technically “democratic” countries
in the region.
Reality is not what it seems or what we want it to be. There
are people who are happy to be ruled only if the ruler is just,
at least until they reach a point where they want to rule themselves.
And only then a civilized ruler would accommodate a civilized transition.