Democracy, Arab Style

CBS News Correspondent David Hawkins covers the Mideast for CBS News.


If you're in favor of Middle East democracy, raise your hand.

Now let me rephrase the question.

Raise your hand if you're in favor of a Palestinian state run by the terrorist group Hamas. No? How about a president of Egypt who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the granddaddy of Islamist terrorist groups? Or a Jordan without America's most loyal Arab ally, King Abdullah?

There's a reason the U.S. has for decades supported undemocratic regimes in the Middle East while paying lip service to democracy: if there were genuinely free and fair elections, anti-American Islamists might win.

Despite all the pro-democracy rhetoric coming from Washington lately, not much has changed.

In Egypt, Ayman Nour - a democratic reformer - challenged Hosni Mubarak in the country's first presidential election earlier this year. Nour now sits in a prison cell, convicted of forgery charges. His supporters insist he's been framed by the government. During recent parliamentary elections, riot policemen encircled polling places in Muslim Brotherhood strongholds and forcibly prevented voters from casting their ballots.

Palestinian elections scheduled for late January might be postponed. The stated reason is that Israel won't let Palestinians who live in Jerusalem vote. The real reason is that everyone is afraid that Hamas might win enough seats in the Palestinian legislature to become part of a future Palestinian government and you can imagine what a headache that would be for Israel and the U.S., which insists it won't recognize Hamas at the very same time it is pushing for elections that will likely bring it to power.

Ironically, the Arab leader with the most enthusiasm for democratic reforms is an absolute monarch, Jordan's King Abdullah. But if the measure of democracy is how freely citizens can gripe about their leaders, Jordan's got a long way to go. More than three-quarters of Jordanians fear that criticizing the King or his government will land them in jail, according to a University of Jordan Center for Strategic Studies survey.

So what about Iraq, which President Bush says is on its way to becoming a "model of freedom for the Middle East?" In less than a year, Iraqis have gone to the polls three times, dipped their fingers in purple ink, and voted. Each time there was less violence and a higher turnout than before. More than 70 percent of registered voters cast ballots in national elections two weeks ago.

One reason the Bush administration champions of Middle East democracy might want to focus on voter turnout in Iraq is that looking at the election's results can be depressing.

The big losers were the politicians most closely identified with the United States: former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and former White House favorite Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi's party didn't even get enough votes to win a seat in the new National Assembly for the man the Bush administration once thought would lead post-war Iraq.

The big winners were Iraq's Iran-friendly Shiite religious parties. Last year, the U.S. Army wanted to "kill or capture" Moqtada al Sadr, the young Shiite cleric whose guerrilla army was part of the insurgency. Last week, when initial results were announced, Sadrist candidates won nearly 40 of 275 Assembly seats.

So in Iraq's "landmark" election, America's man is out on the street and just one of its enemies controls almost 20 percent of the legislature.

There are some who believe that Arabs are somehow unsuited or unready for democracy, that trying to bring democracy to the Middle East is like planting an oak tree in the desert. I'm not one of them.

For me, the question isn't whether the Middle East is ready for democracy, American-style. It's whether America is ready for Middle East democracy, the Arab way.
By David Hawkins