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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 17:50 GMT 18:50 UK
West's dilemma over Middle East democracy
By Hugh Miles
Middle-East analyst

Palestinian voters
Palestinian voters have come out in support of Hamas
What might free and fair elections in the Middle East throw up, and is the West ready for the consequences?

Throughout the Cold War, Western governments tolerated autocratic regimes across the Middle East, to stop them falling under the communist umbrella and to guarantee access to their oil reserves.

When the Cold War ended, a small group of right-wing American theoreticians, later to be known as the neo-conservatives, soon began to call this policy into question, but their ideas were initially rejected as too radical. Attempts to engineer political change in the Middle East were regarded as too risky.

Then the 9/11 attacks struck and the United States government realised that a blind eye could no longer be turned to Arab societies - particularly to Saudi Arabia, from where 15 of the 19 hijackers had come.

For years a simmering cocktail of deteriorating social conditions and growing Islamic extremism had been left to fester in the kingdom and terrorism had been the result.

Demands for change

Since the 9/11 attacks, Washington has made it clear the Arab political status quo can be tolerated no longer. In recent months Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been calling for democratic reform in the Arab Middle East as never before.

At first her demand for democracy may seem to be what Americans call a "no-brainer".

Why should democracy in the Middle East not solve the problems of that troubled region?

Just as liberal capitalism led to victory over the Soviet Union, why should democratic principles not induce some kind of Arab or Islamic glasnost?

Unemployed men in Iraq
Would democracy force unemployment up the agenda?

There is little doubt political change in the Arab world is desperately needed, and Iraq is not the only country in the region fishing around for a new social contract.

Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Yemen, the Palestinian territories and, critically, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are all tired of their creaky systems of governance, many of which have been in place for three decades or more.

Not only have the ruling parties quite run out of steam, the expectations of Arabs themselves have changed.

The huge number of young people in the region are better educated and more plugged-in than ever before - unlike their parents they have a rights-based mentality and an internationalist outlook - and they want something more than what they have been getting.

Islamists benefit

But to assume that democracy will make the Middle East look more like the West is to assume that, given the power to choose, Arabs will choose more liberal, secular, peaceful societies than they have now.

But there is little evidence to suggest this is true. Although the region is notoriously hard to poll, and demographics and statistics are not part of everyday life, it seems probable that in many Arab countries Islamist parties hostile to the West's interests would sweep the board.

In some places this has already happened. Hezbollah, for example, a group regarded as a terrorist organisation by the West, has 14 seats in the Lebanese parliament won through completely legitimate democratic means. It even has a minister in the Lebanese cabinet.

In May, Hamas made its democratic debut in municipal elections - and did very well.

Since then it has enthusiastically stepped up calls for inclusion in the Palestinian democratic process.

Western dilemma

This produces an embarrassing dilemma for Western governments.

On the one hand they support democracy, but at the same time they find themselves rejecting the results, since the groups which win are often viewed as too Islamic, or often simply as terrorists.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
Would an Egypt without Mubarak pursue nuclear weapons?
What to do about this conundrum has divided Western policy makers.

Some hold that if new leaders come to power democratically, even militant ones, they will soon be moderated by the responsibilities of office - fixing the sewerage and dealing with rising unemployment, for example.

Basic economics will force them to embrace sensible social policies, shun war for trade, show respect for women's rights and have peaceful relationships with all their neighbours, including Israel.

Even if they begin with some repressive policies, sooner or later reality will force them "over the bump" and relatively liberal democracies will emerge.

But there is another school of thought which holds that getting "over the bump" could incur a price too high to pay.

A democratic Saudi Arabia may opt no longer to sell its oil to the West. A democratic Egypt may start to develop nuclear weapons. A democratic Jordan may start a new war with Israel.

Hugh Miles presented Analysis: Goodbye Autocratic Allies, first broadcast on Thursday 1 September 2005 on Radio 4 and at the Analysis website

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