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The right to rule ourselves
By Azzam Tamimi
Arabic-speaking peoples from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf suffer one common chronic ailment, namely oppressive despotism. Most of the states that stretch between the two water basins came into being less than a century ago; many were former colonies of one or other of the European powers. France and Britain in particular were instrumental after the first world war in shaping the entire map of what is today the Middle East and North Africa.
These two ageing imperial powers were also responsible for creating and, until the US took over, maintaining systems of governance in these newly emerging entities - providing ruling elites with moral, material and military support. Little has changed since then, apart from the imperialist master and the fact that the advance in technological warfare has enabled this master, so far, to maintain the status quo with ever greater vigour.
Unlike other parts of the world, and in contrast even to the norm in some neighbouring states, the Arab peoples ruled by these regimes have had very little say, if any, in the manner in which their affairs are run. While some analysts find it convenient to blame Arab or Muslim culture for this lack of democracy, I would argue that it is only the stringent control imposed from outside that denies to the peoples of this region what has readily been recognised as a basic human right elsewhere in the world.
The Algerian example of 1991-92 has been carved in the memory of Arabs and Muslims across the globe. Democracy is not on offer to whoever wishes to have it, and the Arabs - many Muslims too, for that matter - do not qualify to join the privileged club. More than 10 years ago France was horrified at the prospect of an Islamic government in its closest former colony, Algeria. The rest of the western world agreed and coalesced to abort the democratic process before it delivered the reins of power to the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front).
The Iraqi people suffered all forms of repression at the hands of the (until 1990) pro-western Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein. But it was far from being a unique despotic regime in the region. As far as the democratic powers of the west were concerned, it did not matter what any of those despots did to their own people, so long as their regimes posed no threat to what were seen as western interests - namely oil and Israel - and still better so long as these regimes were loyal allies.
Preparations are now under way for elections in Iraq. But few in Iraq or the region believe these elections are aimed at producing a truly representative government. The US did not invade and occupy Iraq to allow a genuinely free election that risked producing a government that might tell the Americans to leave. The purpose of the Iraqi elections is simply to try to bestow some spurious legitimacy on a regime that is as unrepresentative and as oppressive as Saddam's.
Does anyone really believe that former Ba'athist Ayad Allawi, America's stooge in Baghdad, who gave the orders for the total destruction of Falluja, has the interests of Iraqis at heart? How different is this from what Syria's President Hafez al-Assad did to the city of Hama in the early 80s or from what Saddam himself did to the Kurds or the Marsh Arabs?
This weekend the Palestinians are to be given the right to elect a new leader, they say, for a change. However, if peace-making is to be resumed and if Israel is to agree to talk to the Palestinians, they can only choose Mahmoud Abbas - hence the international pressure to eliminate the popular Marwan Barghouti from the race. The fact that many Palestinians do not see Abbas as representative of their aspirations or willing to defend their rights does not matter to Israel or its western allies. Nor is it of any concern to the US and the EU that Hamas has increasingly strong support among Palestinians (as highlighted by their recent performance in municipal elections); they still will not talk to its representatives. It is fully acceptable for Israelis to elect whomever they deem fit to lead them, even a war criminal like Ariel Sharon. No Arab people are allowed the same luxury.
Who would free Arabs be likely to choose to speak for them? President Mubarak of Egypt is reported to have said to some western guests "don't talk to me about democracy; through democracy the Muslim Brotherhood will rule Egypt". The Arabs have experienced all sorts of political and ideological groups over the past century. But there is little doubt that if free elections were held today in the Middle East, Islamic movements would reap the fruits. It is not of course that these Islamists are anything like the media usually portray them: fundamentalist, backward or even terrorists. It is simply that they are honest, serious and more interested in the public good than personal interests. Thus democracy is denied to the Arabs.
And who is the real victim in all of this? It is none other than democracy itself, whose name has been tarnished and whose values are increasingly associated in the minds of many Arabs and Muslims with military invasion to replace one corrupt despotic secular regime with another more willing to bend the knee to US and western diktat.
· Azzam Tamimi is spokesman of the Muslim Association of Britain and director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought
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