For decades, the prevailing explanation for the persistence of authoritarianism in the Middle East had a strong historical foundation. Even if there may have been a slim chance for a democratic alternative, the argument went, following the end of the great empires after the two world wars, the bi-polar competition that marked the Cold cruelly extinguished those hopes. During the formative years of statehood that followed the imperial vacuum, democracy either did not flourish at all or was subverted from the beginning, either from within or through outside intervention. Dependable authoritarian leaders took power with the blessing of their international sponsors. Where this did not happen, often military coups ensued, with the support and/or blessing of one of the two Cold War superpowers. For both west and east, geopolitical stability in the Middle East easily and depressingly trumped freedoms and human rights; hence, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez Al-Assad, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and so on - unassailable for decades, unloved but durable, awkward but dependable to their powerful international allies.
But external meddling has rarely helped, whether it came from historical empires, communist superpowers, religious fanatics or western modern-day crusaders.
In addition, visceral conflicts between those supporting religious rule from a particular group versus those who opposed it (whether because they belonged to another group or because they formed part of a more secular constituency) left very little ground for political negotiation and compromise - a necessary condition for the flourishing of a viable democratic alternative. Theocracy versus secular socialism, Shi’ism versus Sunnism, religious radicalism versus religious moderation, west versus Soviet east - all exposed, magnified or produced deep divisions and new battle lines. In these circumstances, each side often proved only too willing to sacrifice the same freedom that it feared its opponents would deprive it of. The result was nothing short of a disaster, bequeathing to history a string of deeply authoritarian, repressive, and often violent regimes that ruled with apparent impunity.
In the past decade, and especially after 9/11, the neo-conservative dogma provided a different answer to the conundrum of democracy in the Middle East: unable to tread the path themselves, the states and people in the region had to be compelled to be free, by external coercion if necessary; and, once this change had occurred in one place, a domino-effect would spread the gospel of democracy to neighbouring countries. The western invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were committed in the name of a fight against extremism, on the spread of democracy, and on the supposed value of universal human rights. Yet, strangely this fight was so selective, arbitrary, arrogant, naive, and repressive that, instead of winning over, it alienated the minds of the people. Meanwhile, Gaddafi, the bête noire of the Islamic world despised by the west in the 1980s and 1990s, was (briefly, as it turned out) accepted as a responsible interlocutor of the western world in the wake of 9/11.
So, is democracy seemingly incompatible with Middle Eastern states, their cultures, histories, and people? Maybe the history of the region - a history which a long list of foreign powers have complicated with their self-centered interventions in past and present - has made it more difficult for democracy to emerge organically as a viable alternative. Some complications have been, partly at least, self-inflicted. The opposing sides often appear too intransigent in their respective outlooks to contemplate reconciliation or compromise, leading to a vicious circle of violent revolution and vindictive counter-revolution sponsored by aspiring Robespierres or Thermidorian puppets, often interspersed with sectarian violence or one-sided repression. The military, still at the heart of the political, social, and economic system of many from these countries, is by all standards a bizarre agent of freedom or defender of pluralism. But external meddling has rarely helped, whether it came from historical empires, communist superpowers, religious fanatics or western modern-day crusaders.
But democratic thinking and tolerance are far from alien in the history of the Middle East. As Elizabeth F. Thompson has shown, there has been a distinct indigenous tradition of democratic, pluralist thinking in the Middle East that was rarely allowed to flourish or make (and maybe learn from) its own mistakes. When it did come close to producing an alternative, others thought it produced the ‘wrong’ kind of alternative. External interventions, geopolitical chess games, and Realpolitik did very little to encourage democracy.
Still, democracy is a messy and mysterious conduit of history. No two paths to democracy are the same. No two democracies are alike, in institutional design, operation, successes, and flaws. They are also unpredictable and volatile; sometimes your friends will prevail, sometimes they will lose. Democracies are not tested during elections but before and especially afterwards. They are not just about pluralism but also about channels of negotiating disagreement and co-opting minorities. They are not about an inexorable march of progress but about political learning, not without setbacks or complications. They are imperfect but dynamic. The problem with democracy in the Middle East is not that it is alien to local traditions and cultures; it is rather that external forces and domestic zealots have rarely given it a chance to come of age and grow its own roots.