Against a backdrop defined by social violence, sectarian tensions, conflict and the spectre of regional warfare, discussions of democracy, human rights, plurality and civic freedoms frequently descend into laments over the collapse of transformation processes. Change, so the dirge goes, was arrested due to inappropriate domestic and regional circumstances or to foreign conspiracies against Arab societies. The appeal of such oft repeated claims is easy to understand. As an assessment of the state of the Arab world and the failure of democratisation they leave much to be desired.
A hodgepodge of Arab and Western activists and writers who devoted many years to exploring the possibilities of democratic transformation and improving the state of human rights have now determined that the Arabs have failed on both counts. There is a tendency among them to cast the blame on the authoritarianism and tenacity of current Arab regimes, and on the US and the EU which, they say, were insufficiently serious in their commitment to promote democratisation, or else hypocritical. There is some validity to their case but it contains a dangerous omission. It fails to treat the social, political and cultural obstacles to democratisation that exist in Arab societies, regardless of the role played by the regimes. It also betrays a very superficial reading of the West and its interests and reactions to instances of partial democratisation in some Arab societies. And then there is the growing influence of international and regional parties who care not a jot for democracy and human rights: on this point the lamenters are completely silent.
Ongoing crises in Iraq and Lebanon furnish proof of the ability on the part of various forces within the two countries to handle demographic diversity in a peaceful way. These societies, however, remain a long way off from developing institutionalised structures that provide for equal opportunity and non-violent competition over public resources, that allow for public scrutiny and accountability, or even accept the state as the sole legitimate user of force in order to deter those who breach the conditions of peaceful competition and consensual politics. To treat the situations in Iraq and Lebanon reductively by attributing the problems to a mere lapse in the exercise of consensual politics -- to be overcome by the creation of a coalition government in Iraq or the preservation of one in Lebanon -- or to subordinate domestic political forces to the agendas of outside regional and international parties, is just a way to skirt over the shortcomings of their societies and the ongoing absence of consensual politics and a strong central state.
In Egypt, where the tenacious authoritarianism of the regime is blatantly evident in the extension of restrictive laws, most notably the emergency law, and in the conduct of its relationship with the opposition parties and other opposition forces, it is impossible to understand the causes of the failure of democratic transformation without taking into account the obvious frailty of civic culture. Consider, for example, that millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest the results of the last presidential elections and to demand democratic reforms, and that they sustained their marches for days and weeks, undeterred by the violence of the security agencies of the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, in Cairo and Alexandria, the people who turn out to demonstrate against the hereditary secession scenario and for constitutional and political reform number in the hundreds, at best. Nor can we overlook the shortcomings of the opposition parties and movements whose organisational frailty, strategic ineptness and political short-sightedness enable the regime to marginalise them and play them off against each other. Those parties that have opted to take part in November's parliamentary elections, despite the absence of guarantees for the integrity of the electoral process and the meagre returns the opposition has made from participating in parliament, furnished additional proof -- if any were needed -- of their lack of a strategic compass and the narrowness of their political horizons.
The tendency to blame the West for the failure of democratic transformations across the Arab world invariable involves invoking the US and the EU response to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and to the Muslim Brotherhood's landmark gains in the Egyptian parliamentary elections in 2005 as proof of Western double standards and fears that democracy will usher Islamists into power. This is a gross oversimplification of the West, Western interests and Western responses to developments in this region.
Washington and Europe did in fact accept the results of the Egyptian elections and pursued various avenues to approach the Muslim Brotherhood in order to gauge its agenda. And it was the US that led international powers in pushing for the Palestinian parliamentary elections to be held on schedule. In the face of Hamas's rejection of the legal and political underpinnings of the Palestinian Authority -- the Oslo accords -- the US and the EU had no alternative but to insist that Hamas recognise these as a condition for dealing with a Hamas-led government.
The superficial reading of the relationship between Western interests and democratisation in the Arab world also ignores three chief factors that have an impact on this relationship. The first is Western fears of instability and the spectre of civil strife and the impact of these on Western interests. Such apprehensions are not unreasonable in light of the fact that Arab societies have suffered long decades of authoritarian rule and that even in places where some progress has been made towards democratisation modern state institutions have yet to develop. The second is that Western interests in our region are much more numerous and complex than is commonly thought. They certainly cannot be reduced to that polarity between the "friendly" regimes that the West seeks to protect and perpetuate and the "hostile" Islamist regimes and movements that the West presumably seeks to marginalise. This superficial reading is fed by another misconception which is that if the West really wanted Arab democracy because it would serve Arab interests than the West would use its power to make democracy a reality. Such an exaggeration of Western power to promote democracy is potentially dangerous, precisely because it ignores the social, political and cultural obstacles to democracy in the societies concerned, as distinct from the strengths and tenacity of existing regimes. The danger is twofold when we consider the growing competition the West faces in the Middle East from such international powers as Russia, China and Brazil, and from such regional powers as Iran and Turkey, for whom democratic values barely figure, if at all, in their relations with Arab countries. Certainly none of these countries engages democratic criteria anywhere near as extensively and systematically as do the US and the EU, which frequently link aid, trade and economic cooperation to the recipients' commitment to political reforms and the gradual improvement of their human rights records.