Democracy within autocracy

“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 results.

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 heritage.

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.

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