Democracy’s succinct definition, and perhaps its best attribute, is majority rule. But it is unclear that majority rule equates to democracy in places like Lebanon, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries that are contending with past and present religious or ethnic conflict. Clearly, democracy in such diverse societies would minimally require that citizens of all ethnic and religious backgrounds enjoy the same civil and human rights; it would also require that the government refrain from religious or ethnic persecution. A democracy should also allow its citizens to practice their faith or express their cultural traditions, provided such practices do not contradict other fundamental values the state is bound to uphold.
“America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” With these soaring words in the 2005 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush swore to overturn the long-standing US policy of backing friendly dictators in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
At the May 20-22 World Economic Forum in Jordan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Cheney reiterated this “transformational vision” to the assembled Arab political and business leaders. For 60 years, said the vice president’s daughter, Washington had mistakenly backed the Arab status quo in exchange for stability—but no longer.
Pundits on the right have been quick to say the Bush administration deserves credit for sparking democratic rumblings across the Middle East. They note the popular protests against Syrian influence in Lebanon and Egyptian President Husni Mubarak ’s pledge to allow multiple candidates to run in the presidential elections, as well as local elections in Saudi Arabia. These events, they argue, show that the war in Iraq is realizing its true purpose. Should critics of the invasion of Iraq now concede that they were wrong? Voices on the left and other critics of the war tell us no. All they see is hypocrisy.
Iraq now has an elected provisional national assembly and elected provincial councils. In the end, the $467 million given to a US contractor to build democracy had little to do with these achievements.
Not so long ago in Egypt, elections for the parliament, bar association and press syndicate, as well as presidential referenda, were dismissed as mere beautifying accessories for an incorrigibly authoritarian regime. In 2005, several developments promise to accentuate the significance of these once nugatory rituals.
The conservative forces that took majority control of Iran’s parliament, or Majles, in the February 2004 elections were not swept into office by a mass movement. Conservative candidates had the help of the Council of Guardians, a body of 12 senior clerics  vested by the constitution of the Islamic Republic with the power to overturn acts of parliament, which blocked the candidacy of over 1,000 men and women associated with the reformist trend that held the majority in the Sixth Majles of 2001-2004. Thanks to this intervention, conservatives won the majority of seats, because many Iranians were left with no one for whom to vote.
After seven turbulent years in which a reformist movement transformed Iran’s political landscape as well as its international image, conservatives recaptured two thirds of the parliament in February 2004. “Victory” for the conservatives was achieved, in large part, by the intervention of the unelected Guardian Council, which succeeded in rejecting the candidacy of 2,400 reformist candidates. The “Tehran spring” — when Iranians and international observers hoped that reformists could bring about peaceful, democratic transformation of the Islamic Republic — has faded.
A prominent liberal Arab journalist who strongly supported the war in Iraq, has a long record of outspoken opposition to Islamic extremism, and has a deep appreciation for American values recently told me that he has never been more depressed or more alienated from the United States. Why? He was absolutely clear: George W. Bush’s policies and rhetoric have made it impossible for moderates such as himself to win their battles for a more liberal Arab future.
Two days after a lethal car bomb exploded outside the Mount Lebanon Hotel in downtown Baghdad last month, I sat down for tea with an Iraqi poet near the capital’s famous open-air book market. In between jokes delivered with a mock Egyptian accent, he laid out his theory of the hotel bombing: the US military staged the violence, he posited, in order to justify its continuing occupation of Iraq.
Reluctantly, some American officials recently began to use a new word when talking about our presence in Iraq: occupation. Even though the Bush administration worked hard to keep this word out of our national vocabulary before and during the war, it has nonetheless started to appear in press briefings and news reports.