Shlomo Avineri: Democracy and the Pursuit of Peace in the Middle East

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[Another old item (2004) I found on the Internet. One of my excuses is I only started blogging in June of last year. My other excuse is I am constantly finding interesting material in places I have little idea how I end up at. For example, this is a presentation Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri gave at the University of California at Los Angeles’ International Institute.]

My title is “The Situation” because what I would like to do is to share with you on one hand some of our problems in Israel but also view it in a wider context, and this is the official title of the lecture, which has to do with peace and democracy in the Middle East. One of the aspects when you deal with the Middle East is that people often overlook the fact that when one tries to find a way in which Israel and its surrounding neighbors can find a modus vivendi or compromise or coexistence you are not only dealing on one hand with a very small country and on the other hand with a very large so-called Arab world, but you are also talking about a country on one hand and a number of countries on the other hand that have some very different political cultures and political institutions.

I am certainly not a Kantian in this respect or Wilsonian who believes that if you have democracy all over the world there will not be wars or that democracy is the best and only guarantee for not having wars. But certainly it does create a problem when you want to solve problems of legitimacy, problems of contending narratives, as we have between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arabs, when one country is a democracy, a very flawed democracy—flawed is usually the normal adjective for democracy, I mean precisely because it is such a complex system; I don’t have to tell you about another flawed democracy because you know about it much better—but it is a democracy, and on the other hand a number of countries with very different sorts of governments, but none of them is a democracy.

And here this brings me to the Arab world. In contradistinction to this very complex and in some cases encouraging picture — not very encouraging but somehow encouraging picture in the non-Arab Muslim world, and I could mention also some other countries — twenty-two members of the Arab League are very different. Those of us who know history know that when one speaks about German history and its complex role one uses the term the Sonderweg, the special route of German politics compared to France and England. I’m not sure one should speak of an Arab Sonderweg, that there is something unusual or something wrong about the Arab politics. But the fact of the matter is that of the twenty-two members of the Arab League, twenty-two Arab countries, none has an elected government. None. No head of government in any one of those Arab countries has been elected. You don’t have it in any other region.

Furthermore, there hasn’t been in any Arab country a serious attempt at democratization. There may be window dressing. You know, the Saudis, who are now under enormous pressure, both internally and externally, have announced a year ago they are going to have municipal elections. Okay. Since this was first announced, first of all, it became clear, they did announce later, that half of the members of the municipal councils will be elected and the other half will be appointed by the government. So that is one thing. Yesterday I understand it was announced that women are not going to participate in the election. Not only that they cannot be elected, they cannot participate in the voting. So big deal. This is not a democratic reform. This is window dressing.

No Arab country has seen, in the last fifteen years about which we have been talking, either a grassroots movement towards democracy or a reformist leader who is trying to reform the country in a democratic direction. To put it in other ways, there has not been an Arab Lech Walesa or an Arab Solidarity movement a la Poland, or an Arab Vaclav Havel, nor has there been an Arab Gorbachev, or an Arab Attaturk.

Now this is first of all a fact, which for reasons of political expediency and political correctness has not been always publicly acknowledged. Politically, at least until 9/11, the United States political establishment, be it Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter, which has been very keen and with some success in promoting democracy by peaceful means all over the world, they did not push the point about the autocratic regime in Egypt or about what Saudi Arabia is.

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