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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 08:23 GMT 09:23 UK
Q&A: Democracy in the Middle East
Mubarak and Assad
Limited liberalisation is a survival strategy for regional leaders
US President George W Bush is hoping to gain support from world leaders for his plan to promote democracy and reform in the Middle East.

BBC Middle East Analyst Roger Hardy explains some the issues.


Why is the Middle East so undemocratic?

It seems to me the answer is rooted in the region's political history, rather than, as some allege, in religion, culture or genes. In most countries of the region, rulers lacking popular legitimacy have successfully used carrots and sticks to keep themselves in power.

Most rulers are against significant change, regardless of who is advocating it

The sticks include suppression of opposition, abuse of human rights and denial of free speech. The carrots are the product of an extensive system of patronage which dispenses jobs, contracts and other perks to a civilian and military elite which is thereby tightly tied to the ruling group.

Are there any states in the Middle East that can be considered democratic?

Israel and Turkey have a framework of democracy, though aggrieved groups (Israeli Arabs, Turkish Kurds) would claim they do not get the full benefit of it. Iran has a parliament and elections and a lively press, but religious conservatives wield ultimate power and severely limit the freedoms of others.

In the Arab world, a number of states - including Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Yemen - are quasi-democratic, while others remain essentially police states.

Are Middle Eastern objections to Washington's Greater Middle East initiative sincere or a way of avoiding change?

Most rulers are against significant change, regardless of who is advocating it.

But they are well aware that the US is deeply unpopular in the region (because of its policies on Iraq and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and a perception that it is anti-Islamic).

So attacking the messenger is a way of deflecting the message.

Is there internal or domestic pressure for reform and democracy, and where is it coming from?

There is a great thirst for reform, which is not quite the same thing. And it is shared by nationalists, secular liberals and some Islamists.

But rulers have been skilful in using limited liberalisation as a survival strategy. One American specialist has called this "liberalised autocracy".

What might happen if Middle Eastern countries became more democratic?

The risk, from the Bush administration's point of view, is that radical nationalists or Islamists might come to power with an openly anti-US agenda.

This strengthens the argument of the gradualists, whether inside or outside the region, who see democratisation as a process which needs time and careful cultivation.

Is there any inherent contradiction between Islam and democracy?

No more than between Christianity and democracy, or Judaism and democracy. There are problems and tensions - and there is no modern state which most Muslims would accept as a role model.

But Islam is not anti-democratic, even if individual Muslims are. A key question is "Whose Islam?".

Since Muslims have no Pope and no Vatican, individual scholars are free to give their own interpretations (whether liberal or authoritarian) on issues where the Koran is silent or ambiguous.




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