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Ray Hanania

Yalla Peace: Pro-democracy protests vs protests of anger

Demonstrators across the region have demanded change and, most importantly, freedom. But can they handle democracy?

By RAY HANANIA, April 19, 2011,


[first published in the Jerusalem Post]

When I first expressed concern that the protesters in Egypt needed some support to implement democracy, I was immediately pilloried by critics who said I was being unfair.

What the protesters were doing was to demand freedom, they railed at me, as if somehow questioning the events was immoral or, as Arabs say, haram [forbidden].

Well, what I wrote was that the people of the Arab world have no experience in democracy. They have been raised in environments of repression, where free speech is stifled and punished. And I asked, how can they achieve genuine democracy on their own?

Middle East tyrants routinely and swiftly imprisoned, punished, or killed anyone who criticized their governments. Criticism of a government is the fundamental basis of the free speech provision of a true democracy. The crackdowns were so frequent that it became routine and a rare thing to report.

The only free speech tolerated by Middle East dictatorships was to criticize the West, the Christian world or Israel. Later, with the rise of more liberal broadcast news outlets like Al-Jazeera, the media began criticizing other Arab countries, but not the ones that host them.Satellite channels Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar while Al-Arabiyya is based in Dubai, part-owned by a Saudi media company.

The protesters had no experience in democracy yet the world watched in awe with great expectations, hoping it would miraculously evolve.

But how can we expect people who have no experience in democracy to implement democracy? Can efforts at democracy even survive? Democracy has a higher chance of failing in the Middle East than in any other region.

AMERICA HAS been trying to implement democracy in Iraq since it invaded the country in March 2003, and it has failed. Iraq has a “government,” but it’s not a democracy where the citizens define their leadership. The leaders in Iraq were handpicked by the United States.

So how can anyone expect democracy to just suddenly appear in Egypt, even after protests resulted in the removal of a dictator like President Husni Mubarak?

The Arabs live in a dream world controlled by the lowest common denominator of peer pressure fanaticism. If you express support, for example, for peace based on compromise with Israel, you are vilified and called “defeatist” by the fanatics who are a minority voice in the Arab community but the loudest. The majority voices, who are moderates, are not used to speaking their minds and they remain silent.

Fanatics use democracy in the West to voice hatred and support radicalism in the Middle East. That’s why the fanatics do a better job of PR than the moderates.

The result is the few voices of the extremists appear to be the majority, when they are not, because in the Middle East, perception is reality.

In Egypt, the protesters toppled Mubarak, a tyrant who accumulated so much wealth, the media reports, it is in the billions. But, did the protesters topple the mindset caused by a lifetime of oppression and the denial of freedom? Will Mubarak be replaced by the will of the people or just by a new, more cunning dictatorship?

Violence often becomes the primary means of responding to things that people do not like in the Middle East. If you say something that the extremists do not like, rather than conduct a debate in the local media, extremists simply intimidate you into silence (as they often try unsuccessfully with me) or they just try to kill you, as they did to Juliano Mer-Khamis, the actor whose Jewish mother fought for Palestinian rights and whose Palestinian father taught him the lessons of peaceful coexistence.

Now, of course, we are watching the post-Mubarak era transform from a tyranny. But is it transforming to democracy?

Last week, the ruling military junta that has taken the reins of power in Egypt have arrested an Egyptian blogger while the future of the real criminal dictator Mubarak remains in question.Mubarak has been allowed to express his views condemning his critics and vowing to take anyone who calls him corrupt to court.

What the people of Egypt lack is what they need. Not only must they topple a dictator, but they also must be able to replace it with true democracy where voices are allowed to speak freely on any topic. There needs to be a tolerance for free speech.

Free speech in an environment of intolerance is not free speech at all. And, it will not result in democracy.

I wish for real democracy in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.

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