Nurturing Democracy


I want to be an optimist about the upheaval in the Arab world and where it’s headed. In fact, I desperately want to be hopeful.

After all, if things were to go in the right direction, then an entire region could at long last begin to savor the blessings of flourishing democracies and the protection of human rights. In turn, that could create an atmosphere conducive to peaceful conflict resolution and its potential aftermath, fruitful coexistence and regional development.

As Immanuel Kant asserted in his work “Perpetual Peace,” “representative” or “republican” societies tend not to wage war on one another. Disputes that arise, and inevitably they do, are addressed at negotiating tables and in courtrooms, not in war rooms and on battlefields.

The best modern-day example of this phenomenon is postwar Europe. The European Union, for all its current problems, has proved to be the most ambitious and successful peace project in modern history.

Consider Europe’s past. Surely, no continent experienced more warfare, death and destruction over the span of centuries, culminating with the horrors of the Second World War. That was finally reversed in Western Europe with the start of integration, beginning in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg.

France and Germany were the keys to the process. The aim was to create a mechanism to prevent future wars. The ticket for admission to the evolving European project, which eventually came to include many of the post-communist countries of Central Europe, included a commitment to democracy and respect for human dignity, as well as a market-driven economy.

Looking at the Arab world over the past six months, are we witnessing the onset of a process that could lead in the same general direction, or something else?

Frankly, it’s still anyone’s guess. Obviously, we know where we hope it will lead, but policies can’t be built on hope alone.

Let’s remember, for starters, that no one foresaw the protests, which began in Tunisia and quickly spread.

The United States, which spends tens of billions of dollars annually on intelligence gathering, was caught by surprise. France, which claims special understanding of such Francophone countries as Tunisia, was clueless. Italy, close to Libya, never saw it coming. And Israel, for all its much-vaunted surveillance, missed it as well.

Even as events began to unfold, there were lots of missteps. A French foreign minister lost her job because of Tunisia. The U.S. secretary of state called the Syrian president a “reformer” before hurriedly backtracking. Early American policy toward Egypt meandered, sending confusing messages to just about everyone, while trying to figure out what “being on the right side of history” really meant. The U.S. and its ally, Saudi Arabia, publicly clashed over how to deal with unrest in Bahrain. And the Western stance toward Libya still hasn’t fully gelled.

Meanwhile, the media was trying to make sense of events they had not begun to foresee, yet needed somehow to dissect and explain to hungry consumers used to a 24-hours news cycle.

Too often, the media chose the tempting, but ultimately breathtakingly simplistic, path of what I’d call binary reporting. When Egyptian President Mubarak was finally deemed “bad,” then, by definition, those who opposed him were presumed “good.” Same story in Libya. If Col. Kaddafy was “a sinner,” then obviously those seeking to dislodge him, whoever they might be, must be “saints.”

But wait, it turns out not to be so simple. The opposite of “despot” in such situations could be “democrat,” but not necessarily. The most telling example is Iran. By early 1979, the U.S. and others had concluded that the Shah, whom President Carter had earlier lauded as “an island of stability,” must go. The assumption was that his eventual replacement would necessarily be better. Turns out not to have been the case, and the cost of the wrong judgment, to state the painfully obvious, proved very high. However problematic the Shah might have been, his successors are far worse, both for the Iranian people and the region.

That helps explain why Israel has taken an uncharacteristically low profile, adopting a wait-and-see attitude, much as it has a profound stake in the outcome of the region-wide upheaval.

Egypt looms largest. There’s a lot hanging in the balance — a peace accord that has been in place since 1979; imports of Egyptian gas; policy towards neighboring Hamas-ruled Gaza; the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics; and broader strategic considerations.

Syria is also consequential, of course.

If President Assad manages to hold on to power through deadly force, what will he conclude from the past few months? Will it be the need for reform, as some might still vainly hope, or perhaps the creation of diversions, as we saw on May 15, involving, say, Israel, in an effort to redirect national anger? And should he lose power, who will replace him? Are there Jeffersonian democrats waiting in the wings among the Sunni majority? Doubtful.

And the list goes on. Above all, will Jordan, with which Israel shares its longest border, security cooperation and a peace pact, remain stable, or face widespread, destabilizing protests of its own?

Democracy is not an overnight process. It requires years, actually decades, of patient and persistent cultivation. It needs to penetrate every nook and cranny of a society — from schools to the judiciary, from media to civil society, from the ballot box to the military. Yes, it has to start somewhere, but to think it can be implanted instantaneously in societies unfamiliar with its core tenets, or that it can prove a linear process which merrily skips along from milestone to milestone, is to underestimate the journey — or its current starting point.

American Jewish groups can help nurture this process, above all, by urging sustained, not episodic, American engagement and benchmarking actual behavior.

But, strange as it may sound, the one country in the region most primed to make the leap could be Iran. Today that sounds far-fetched, but it needn’t be. Iran has a strong business community, a vibrant middle class, a demographic bulge of restive young people, a strong feminist movement, and an active diaspora. How much longer can the corrupt, venal and repressive theocratic regime carry on before it falls? Sooner or later, it will, just as the Soviet Union did. And that could be a real game-changer.

So we watch, wait and wonder.

We know we’re witnessing history, but it’s a history being written forward, not backward.

We desperately seek a happy outcome, but we’re not yet ready to bet the family farm that it’s likely.

We want to be consistent in our approach, but realize that consistency could get us in trouble. We wish, for instance, to help defend the targets of state repression, but fear deeper involvement in Libya or, for that matter, any direct involvement in Syria. We want to be on the side of democracy, but know that if, for instance, Bahrain yields today to its Shiite majority, Iran could be the winner. And we root for a new era in Egypt, but fear that it could turn Mubarak’s core policies on Israel, the United States and Islamism on their head.

All of this is going to require nimble diplomacy by the United States, eternal vigilance by Israel, and nuanced thinking by American Jews. And even if it’s not a policy, if someone wants to throw in a dollop of hope for extra measure, I, for one, wouldn’t object.

David Harris is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee.