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Don't count on Arab democracy any time soon

By Avi Davis and Khaleel Mohammed
web posted March 10, 2003

Those expecting democracy to spring to life in Iraq soon after an allied invasion might wish to recall the fate of another Arab strongman from 36 years ago.

In June, 1967, Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser was sitting in the darkened studios of Cairo Radio, with a barely a candle to illuminate his script. His voice cracking, he delivered his political testament:

Gamal Abdul Nasser"We expected the enemy to come from the east and the north but instead he came from the west. I must accept full responsibility for this disaster that has befallen us and must now resign as your President."

No sooner spoken than the hum of Israeli Mystere's could be heard in the skies above the city and the crack of anti-aircraft batteries filled the air.

Nasser had just led his country into one of the most humiliating military debacles in history. In the course of three days, the Israeli army, responding to months of Egyptian provocation, had destroyed the Egyptian air force and crushed an army five times its size. It now stood at the gates of Cairo.

In any modern Western country, such a catastrophe would precipitate a leadership crisis. But that was not to be Nasser's fate. No sooner did he deliver his valedictory address than the streets of downtown Cairo were filled with hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.

"All of a sudden," recounted Mahmoud Raid, an Egyptian journalist, "I found myself wading through multitudes of people clamoring for Nasser to stay." Within hours, messages of support arrived from the rest of Egypt and from the leaders of many other Middle Eastern countries - all of whom had ample reason to mock the presumed leader of the Arab world, yet all of whom urged him to remain.

Many suspected that Nasser, in his usual theatrical style, had orchestrated the mass demonstration. But Eric Rouleau, the Middle East correspondent for Le Monde at the time, would have none of it:

"People may have despised Nasser for leading them to disaster but they also loved him as a father. And the Egyptians did not want to be left fatherless."

In focusing on the paternal relationship between Nasser and his people, Rouleau identified something significant about Arab political systems. Dictatorships thrive in the Arab world because strong men are admired and fill the authoritarian role in the popular imagination usually allocated to the father in traditional Arab society.

The Arab nuclear family is dominated by the father whose authority is total. Mothers and daughters play submissive roles within this structure and have little influence on the family's destiny. Sons are much desired, their role being largely to satisfy their father's sense of honor and secure his position in society. Absolute obedience is expected of them and severe punishment meted out for waywardness.

From childhood then, Arabs become accustomed to a high level of absolute authority where challenge and questioning - the root of free and democratic society "is not encouraged. Instead, undivided respect and subservience is reserved for a single man.

Given this paternalistic structure, it should come as little surprise that the political culture mirrors the social hierarchy . Reposing faith in the beneficence of the strong man is a natural consequence of the Arab world's societal atrophy. It produces an emotional dependence on leaders and political systems with no elasticity.

Dictatorships therefore thrive in the Arabic world in much the same way autocracy has always flourished in Russia: the leader is a cult figure, whose unquestioned authority and arbitrary power will, it is assumed, always be exercised for the good of his population The adulation that consistently greets the failures of such leaders as Nasser, Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Moammar Ghaddafi is directly attributable to the need of the Arab street not to be left either fatherless or orphaned.

While an American invasion will almost certainly assure the fall of Sadaam Hussein, it is foolish to believe that democracy will gain an immediate and firm foothold in a liberated Iraq. Without social and cultural reform, the emergence of a new strongman, more partial to the West perhaps, but no less determined to squelch resistance to his rule than Hussein, is almost certain.

Not until Arab social and cultural systems are reformed can the West be assured that political systems enshrining freedom and human dignity will take root in the Arab world. And that, sadly, will take a level of self-mobilization for which the nations of the Middle East are not yet prepared.

Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies in Los Angeles and the senior editorial columnist for the on line magazine Jewsweek.com. Dr. Khaleel Mohammed is a Kraft-Hiatt postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Brandeis University.

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