February 10, 2011

Arab Putin? Or real Mideast democracy?

Before stepping aside, a President abruptly annoints a veteran intelligence officer as his transitional successor. Where have I heard this before? Yes, I remember now:  Around 6 a.m. on New Year's Eve, the last day of 1999, I was jolted out of bed by news that Boris Yeltsin had thrown in the towel on what might have become 11 post-Soviet time zones of democratic evolution.

After centuries of feudalism and decades of Communism, Russia had a shot at pluralistic democracy. Now that corporatist, ideology-free technocracy has taken hold, there's little chance that human rights and free markets will be instituted for the next few generations. If the Middle East is to move forward and begin reclaiming its heritage as a crossroads and incubator of civilization, it will need more than failed states, oil platforms, and duty-free hubs.

By trying to stop Egypt's revolution halfway, through an "orderly" transition guided by Hosni Mubarak's own loyalists, we now risk losing democracy where it matters most. There are no second chances, no do-overs, no new post-War shake-ups to anticipate.

Egyptians have seized an opportunity to set a new course. It will not be easy, nor its success assured. But half-measures run the risk of squandering a once-in-a-century chance, not only for Egypt but for the entire Middle East. The Cold War and de-colonization ended one and two generations ago, respectively. The house that Nasser built back in the 1950s and '60s can either fall entirely or merely change owners. 

The same goes for Iran, where establishment "reformers" like Rafsanjani and Khatami want to take charge of the existing regime rather than establish a new republic. And whether due to their peek at Israeli democracy or the richness of their own intellectual legacy, Palestinians are the most Westernized and democratically inclined Arab society -- but their chance to build a democratic state is rapidly eroding in a way that might not be salvageable for much longer.

Putin translated into Arabic just won't do the trick. While human rights demand constant vigilance everywhere, Russia is hard-wired for a degree of authoritarian control over society and the economy. Russians might yet thrive under such conditions, though a population decline of 1 million a year is not encouraging. The Middle East remains too unsettled for that plan to work there, and its numbers keep growing.

Egypt may be the last opportunity to jumpstart democracy in the region, precisely because it is the first true Arab nation-state and the only one with an intrinsic identity. It is pre-Arab. Egyptian society has diverse and conflicting viewpoints, but few cross-cutting allegiances when compared with most major nations in the Middle East. Egyptians know who they are. And now, they have indicated what they want. If democracy cannot advance along the Nile, at this moment, then Tunisia too will sputter and most regimes will gradually reach a chronic equilibrium mediated by rulers, business owners, and foreign protectors.

Egyptians seem ready to push this all the way. Before we impose ourselves any further into their revolution, the West should decide one way or the other -- stand up for real democracy now, when and where it counts, or stop giving false hope to the "other five billion" out there that they can ever have what we have.

In his Superbowl Sunday interview with Bill O'Reilly, President Obama noted "that every decision that comes to my desk is something that nobody else has been able to solve. The easy stuff gets solved somewhere by somebody else. By the time it gets to me, you don't have easy answers." He's right, it's not easy. But it deserves a decision one way or the other.

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