Commentary Magazine


The Middle East Masses Will Not Stand for Anything Less Than Democracy

Bernard Lewis, the distinguished historian of the Middle East, offers some provocative reflections on the present turmoil in the region in this interview with David Horovitz of the Jerusalem Post. In it, he expresses great skepticism about applying Western notions of democracy — and in particular of elections — to the Arab world, where it has “no history, no record whatever.” Lewis warns:

In the West, we tend to get excessively concerned with elections, regarding the holding of elections as the purest expression of democracy, as the climax of the process of democratization. Well, the second may be true – the climax of the process. But the process can be a long and difficult one. Consider, for example, that democracy was fairly new in Germany in the inter-war period and Hitler came to power in a free and fair election.

We, in the Western world particularly, tend to think of democracy in our own terms – that’s natural and normal – to mean periodic elections in our style. But I think it’s a great mistake to try and think of the Middle East in those terms and that can only lead to disastrous results, as you’ve already seen in various places. They are simply not ready for free and fair elections….

In genuinely fair and free elections, [the Muslim parties] are very likely to win and I think that would be a disaster. A much better course would be a gradual development of democracy, not through general elections, but rather through local self-governing institutions. For that, there is a real tradition in the region.

I sympathize with Lewis’s concerns about rushing willy-nilly into voting — something that has backfired most notably in the case of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary elections because it was running against the discredited and corrupt Fatah in a climate where moderates were not able to organize effectively. There is little doubt that the Bush administration made a tactical error in pushing for premature elections in the confidence — which looks foolish in retrospect — that the moderates would come out on top. That is an error we would do well to avoid repeating now. In Egypt, for example, moderate political figures have expressed concern that September is too soon to hold an election. They may well be right, and it may well make sense to postpone an election until next year, giving secular politicos more time to counter the Muslim Brotherhood’s existing organizational structure.

But I believe Lewis is wrong to believe that elections can be postponed indefinitely or that the Muslim masses will be satisfied with “local self-governing institutions,” whatever that may mean. He is surely right that the Middle East has little history of democracy in action, but the same may be said of most regions of the world. Democracy, after all, is a fairly recent invention, which dates back only to the 18th century in a few countries, such as Britain and the United States. Even then, it was a fairly limited democracy: keep in mind that until the 20th century, most of the American population (women and African-Americans) was not allowed to vote. Complete democracy as we know it today has been around for less than a hundred years. And that’s in the United States. It has come much more recently to many other regions, such as Eastern Europe, Latin America, and portions of East Asia (e.g., Taiwan and South Korea) and Africa (e.g., South Africa and Botswana). By definition, all those places have scant tradition of democracy. Nevertheless, democracy is functioning around the world.

Indeed, democracy has become the global norm in governance. Even dictators pay lip service to the forms of democracy by holding sham elections in which they win 99.9 percent of the vote. Such “elections” may be a joke, but they are significant nevertheless; in centuries past, kings and emperors never felt any pressure to win a popular mandate, however fraudulent.

Given the way the world has changed, it seems the height of unrealism to imagine that a major region such as the Middle East — one where, as Professor Lewis notes, the people have  “greater awareness … thanks to modern media and modern communications, of the difference between their situation and the situation in other parts of the world” — can be kept indefinitely out of the club of democracies. The people will not stand for it, and as recent weeks have shown, their anger can be a potent thing. It is hopeless, I think, to imagine that the West can somehow tut-tut at the Arab masses and tell them they are not ready for elections yet. Ready or not, here they come.

Our best bet is not to resist the tides of history but to do what we can to channel them in a more constructive direction. That means providing greater support to liberal, secular democrats to balance out the greater organizational sway of radical groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. We provided this kind of covert aid with considerable success in countries such as France and Italy after World War II to prevent Communist parties from winning elections. We must do so again to keep the Brotherhood and its ilk out of power. That will not be easy to do, and it always has the potential to blow up in our faces. But it is a more pragmatic response than to try to delay indefinitely the demand for elections arising from every corner of the region Professor Lewis has studied so brilliantly for so many years.

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