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What Do You Mean by Democracy?

For those who still remember Roger Cohen’s shilling for the despicable anti-Semitic Iranian regime in early 2009, his current stand as a champion of democracy in the Islamic world still chafes. But ever since the crackdown in Tehran after the stolen presidential election that year, he has been a consistent critic of the tyrannical regimes that dominate the Middle East. However his animus toward Israel — the conceit behind his original dishonest claim that the Ahmadinejad government was actually benign — still informs his writing.

Hence although his ringing manifesto “Arabs Will Be Free” in today’s New York Times was ostensibly about the cause of freedom in the Arab world that he says won’t be denied, it paired a call for the end of the Assad regime in Syria as well as other autocracies with support for Hezbollah. What, you may ask, does the Iranian-supported Lebanese terrorist movement have to do with the Arab Spring? Isn’t Hezbollah the main ally of two of the most repressive regimes in the region: Iran and Syria?

As far as Cohen is concerned, we need to forget about that salient fact as well as the way Hezbollah has co-opted Lebanon and turned its south into a military base bristling with missiles pointed at Israel. That’s because he considers Lebanon to be one of the three democracies in the region, along with Turkey and Israel. That is an absurd assertion but not the only astounding thing in his column.

Lebanon may have elections and a parliament but the idea that the Lebanese government is anything like a functioning democracy is pretty silly. Its government is, even when it is functioning properly, divided strictly along sectarian lines. The parties there are not competing for votes on the basis of ideas but on that of ethnic and religious identity as well as their respective military power. Hence, Hezbollah’s current strength. But that’s okay with Cohen, who takes comfort in that fact that this hasn’t led to war. At least not yet.

Cohen believes that the West must “talk” to Hezbollah and in order to justify this stand, he compares the Shiite extremist group to Shas, Israel’s Sephardic religious party. While I agree that the power that Shas has in Israel’s truly democratic system is troubling, there is no comparison between the two. Shas may be a corrupt and cynical organization with no interest in anything but accruing patronage, but it is not a terrorist movement. Its leaders have been both thieves and fools, but they have murdered no one. Their ethnic appeal is based in a desire for representation, and not as a military organization.

He goes on to broaden the analogy with Hezbollah to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. All are, he says, problems, like Shas. But these are very different problems. Turkey’s ruling Islamic party is moving that formerly secular and Western-oriented country in the wrong direction but, unlike the Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah, it actually has adapted itself to democracy and is peaceful — even if worrisome.

The trouble with Cohen’s advocacy for democracy is that he is incapable of drawing the one meaningful distinction between groups bent on Islamist domination such as the Brotherhood and Hezbollah and a genuinely democratic though deeply flawed party like Shas. If the Arab spring winds up bringing parties such as these Islamist groups to power then the result will be the same kind of democracy that Cohen once lauded in Iran.