Commentary: Democracy in the Arab world

Special to McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 2, 2011 

When I lived in the Arab quarters of Tangiers and Marrakesh, and when I visited the back streets of Cairo and Algiers, I learned that the one thing people feared more than the police was their own neighbors.

Hanging around the intersections of narrow alleys winding like spiderwebs into dead ends lined with high walls and heavily nailed wooden doors, stood young men with leather jackets and insolent smiles.

It was as if they were sharks, cruising among the weaker men and women of the cities who struggled to earn the “fluce” or money to bring home rice, eggs, oil and vegetables for the evening supper.

The events we’ve seen so far in Tunis and Cairo have changed a lot on the surface and somehow not changed anything. Young men are forever shaking their fists in the air demanding power, wanting to set the agenda.

Egyptians are learning slowly today what I learned over 30 years in Arab countries: that despite the lack of freedom, the police state and official corruption, many lives have been far better than those of their grandparents. Indeed, the real spark for the recent Arab unrest is the doubling of the cost of food in recent months, caused by the world’s booming and increasingly wealthy population.

In 1982, Egyptians were skinny and ragged. They clung to buses already packed full of passengers. The soldiers were gaunt, wearing ill-fitting uniforms and holding ancient British rifles. Since making peace with Israel at Camp David in 1979, the U.S. government has given $25 billion in aid to clinics, schools, roads, sewer systems, agriculture and family planning in Egypt.

Even more money went to provide the Egyptian military with well-fed and trained troops. Israel also benefited-- from U.S. aid and from not having to maintain a large army facing Egypt’s 80 million people.

Yet we only know what is around us today. How many young men shaking fists in the protests know what life was like before they were born?

We Americans think that because we love our freedom – and have built a careful hedge of laws and non-corrupt judges and police around our freedom – that the Egyptians and Tunisians are ready to set up the same democratic institution.

I fear we are wrong.

T.E. Lawrence writes in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom that the Arabs – who he united and led to victory over the Turks in World War I – are quite different from the English. That they feel their honor and dignity and pride in such powerful ways that it overwhelms any rational thinking needed to form democratic government.

Why is it that from Morocco to Kuwait, nearly every Arab country is ruled by an unelected strongman or king? Is Western democracy too confrontational for those who believe honor and pride are sacrosanct? What Arab leader would endure the verbal attacks leveled against Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and right on down the ages?

There is a great deal to be said for stability provided by benign, albeit corrupt, leaders. This is especially true when the majority of people live on the edge of poverty.

We hear that the spark that ignited the protests began in Tunisia when an educated man unable to find work became a peddler and had his goods confiscated by police. When they returned his goods with an insulting slap he was so humiliated he set himself on fire and died.

Millions of Arab men and women have graduated in recent years from universities and cannot find jobs unless they have family connections. Yet this has been so for decades. In 1982, I stayed in a decidedly shabby hotel in downtown Cairo. When I went down at night to walk about in the cool air, I saw six young men sitting side by side on a narrow bench behind the reception counter. All were university graduates and the only job they could find was to work for $30 per month as night clerks, sleeping in the lobby.

So what is different today from back then?

Media, media, media. Throughout the Arab world, Al Jazeera is sending out a captivating song. It says basically that the Arabs are enraged, the Arabs are abused, the Arabs are suffering, the West has thrown sand in Arab eyes.

Al Jazeera has brought out a visual image of an old theory that Arabs are the real noble people in earth and deserve to rule over the corrupted West. Arabs once ruled over Spain and India and deserve to conquer most of Africa and China as well. Yet the infidel Americans and Europeans and Israelis have somehow sapped the Arab will and caused the Arabs to fall into poverty.

I have been hearing such ideas for 40 years, blaming the West for Arab failures.

In 1948, when Israel was born and defeated five Arab armies, the old monarchies were overthrown by secular dictators like Gamal Abdel Nasser who promised to avenge the Arab humiliation. When in 1967 he blockaded Israel’s Indian Ocean outlet and prepared for war, the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria lost the war as well as Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank and Golan Heights. Further humiliation.

Instead of reconciling with Israel as Japan and Germany did with the United States, and as the United States did with Vietnam, Muslim leaders – in power, out of power and in Islamist circles -- are preaching that they can restore Arab honor and pride. I fear the Islamists are standing in the wings ready to take power in Tunisia and Egypt. They are organized and – while touting the need for honor – are ready to use lies and false promises to deceive their competitors for power.

We will see another Russian or Iranian revolution where middle class intellectuals will be uses as a paper mask by ruthless individuals who believe – as Bob Dylan sang: “they’ve got God on their side.”

As outsiders, we must not openly take sides. Yet behind the scenes, U.S. military leaders have spoken to the Egyptian army, praising its professionalism. Everyone wants to avoid overt use of force that costs a lot of lives – aside from the immorality of such actions it likely creates many more radicals for each martyr.

Perhaps we are in part to blame. The United States has pushed for democracy very hard without asking itself are there the skills, the temperament, the generosity, the cool-headedness and the long experience with democracy that paved the way for America’s democratic experiment?

And writing a constitution and democratic laws means nothing unless there are people with power who aim to follow those laws without self-interest.

When I taught journalism seminars in Africa for the U.S. Information Agency in the 1990s, as countries such as Ivory Coast moved towards democratic reforms (often short lived), the country was working on a Press Code. It was 200 articles long, giving some government agency the right to issue (or refuse to issue) press cards. The journalists asked me: “How long is the American press law?” I said it was not even a sentence in the Constitution saying: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;. . . “

Upon returning home through London I stopped at the British Museum and read the Magna Carta on display. Back in 1215, it forced the King to give up power over people. It also said: “We will not make men justices, constables, sheriffs, or bailiffs unless they are such as know the law of the realm, and are minded to observe it rightly.” When I read that I felt deeply that the counties I had just visited, where Americans and others were helping to move people towards democracy, had not even fulfilled that 800 year old principle.

And it will take a lot more time before the protest movements we see emerging in the Arab world are able to produce a form of government that enforces tolerance, freedom and responsible officials.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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