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Journal of Democracy 11.3 (2000) 58-68

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Arabs and Democracy

A Record of Failure

Mohamed Talbi


Everywhere today, democracy is proving contagious. It may be spreading faster in some regions than in others, but it is spreading. Even in Serbia and even in China. Everywhere except in the Arab world. This calls for reflection and at least an attempt at explanation. If the criterion of a democracy is the turnover of political power by peaceful means, that is, by elections considered free, fair, perfectly transparent, and indisputably and irrefutably incontestable--in a word, honest--then not a single Arab country is democratic today. Lebanon, which paid a heavy price for its civil war (1976-91), is a special case. It is still too early to draw any conclusions from the apparently free elections that took place in Kuwait in June 1999 (especially if one considers previous failures), and the Algerian elections of 1999 were disappointing.

A leader who gains power by taking the life of his predecessor, and in doing so runs the risk of having his own life taken, lets go of power only when he in turn is eliminated. He stops short of no crime in order to cling to power (and to life) for as long as possible. This is the classic scenario in Arab countries today, not of alternation in power but of succession through violent death or, in the best of cases, death by natural causes. It is that simple. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who had deposed King Farouk I in 1952, escaped several assassination attempts and ended up dying in his bed in 1970, adored by his people. His successor, Anwar Sadat (1970-81), was not so lucky. If Hosni Mubarak, who succeeded Sadat, is still alive, it is not for want of zeal on the part of his adversaries. On 26 June 1995, they barely missed killing him at the airport in Addis [End Page 58] Ababa, where he was on his way to attend a summit of the Organization of African Unity. At the end of August 1999, he escaped a third amateur assassination attempt, this time by knifepoint, at Port Said in Egypt. By resorting to repression and tight security--very tight if necessary, with two or more police officers stationed every 100 meters along the route to public appearances and with metal detectors set up at the entrance to meeting places--and by resorting to crimes as well, one who deposes or kills in order to take power may be fortunate enough to die of natural causes. Luck also plays its part. That was the case with the late King Hassan II of Morocco who, on two occasions, miraculously survived well-planned assassination attempts--the first on 10 July 1971, when 200 people lost their lives at the Skhirat Palace near Rabat, and the second the following year, when his royal Boeing aircraft, fired upon and seriously damaged in an attack by six Moroccan soldiers, succeeded in landing without loss of human life.

The seizure of power, particularly by assassination, inevitably creates a vicious circle that leaves no room for any other alternative, much less for alternation of power. The system is not angelic and it is not run by choir boys. Moreover, it is old--very old--in the Arab world. It is a tradition. In the history of the Arab-Muslim world, "Oriental despotism" (the term is Montesquieu's) has always had its own ruthless and bloody logic. One might respond that this same model can be found throughout human history. Yes, of course, but with this difference: Wherever democracy has taken root, the battlefield has been displaced as the arena for gaining power. The clash of arms has given way to the verdict of the ballot box. One might reply that the Arab world is not lacking in ballot boxes. I would agree. I would even add that they are not only numerous but also very well stuffed. And that is precisely where the difference lies.

In some parts of the Arab world, democracy simply doesn...


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