The suddenness of Arab revolt holds lessons for the West

At the start of the Middle Eastern unrest two weeks ago, The Slog opined that very probably, little of it had much to do with democracy as we understand it in the West.

This may have come across as me being patronising, I don’t know. Certainly, one of the more thoughtful writers from the New Right, Ed West, wrote a Telegraph blog last week feeling the need to say there was nothing racist in observing that Arabs don’t ‘do’ democracy.

He’s right, but he’s also well-supported by the evidence. History shows that if a dictatorship is benign in the Arab world, most citizens are quite happy with that. The People tend to get rid of those leaders who produce violent secret police, and follow economic policies that keep them poor while a small oligarchy remains obscenely rich. (Which is, let’s face it, most of them).

But then, history shows the same thing almost everywhere in the world from Singapore to Spain. Authoritarian regimes ‘doing well’ do not topple. If we look at the Nazis until 1941, the Soviets until the 1980s, and the Beijing regime today, during the ‘national pride and achievement’ eras enjoyed by all of them, they received the overwhelming support of most citizens.

Last week, when studying the footage of Middle East revolt and violence (now a more or less constant loop on every news station) it struck me that no ordinary Arabs were shouting about democracy. The usual wonks carrying placards were, but not the real People. They tended to demand the following:

1. Freedom to express themselves.

2. An end to regime brutality and surveillance.

3. Justice.

4. A better material reward for their labours.

On visiting East Berlin in 1965, I was struck by the very same thing. In cafes and bars, people spoke quietly about the desire to speak freely. Then the Volkspolizei (or Vopos) would enter, and an eerie silence fell until they left.

Let’s be clear: this is not a desire for democracy. Democracy involves only two things: an absence of monopoly in political processes, and the right of most people to vote for alternative political Parties.

What most Arabs want is the same as that desired by most of our species: liberty. The right to have their privacy respected, the right to speak or write without fear, and the same opportunity as everyone else to earn a living.

As our very own version of it shows (and the EU’s even more so) democracy can be carried on with all those things absent. If Harriet Harman had her way, the first two would be absent all the time, but she is nevertheless a democrat because she believes in the multi-Party system – alongt with votes for criminal  cretins.

We are back to the old debate (rarely heard these days) about which is the more important – liberty or democracy. My feeling for some years now has been that the first is what most human beings crave, and the latter is what most governments need – that is, without effective democratic feedback, they get out of touch, please themselves, and wind up either dead or banished.

The human desire for liberty is part of our wiring. The desire to vote isn’t – and the willingness to vote, when the Establishment doesn’t listen, quickly evaporates.

We have observed this process throughout the EU in recent years. Of late on the continent, resentment about the lack of opportunity to earn a decent living is moving to the forefront….and we’ll see a lot more of it before too long. During the last three months in the UK, we’ve been entertained by the sight of a news provider who forgot the importance of freedom from surveillance and the right to privacy.

Just as the desire for liberty has seen controlling Arab governments collapse, so too shall the EU and Newscorp go the same way if they’re not careful. Indeed, as neither institution seems to care about anything beyond itself, their collapse may well be inevitable.

All of which is why I suggest that the Arab world (while its culture is less tuned to democracy than ours) nevertheless in most other basic concerns has the same goals as we do. I still harbour grave doubts about the Arab forces and their superpower allies lying in wait behind those real concerns, but they are there as a commonality nevertheless.

In the end, the lessons are there for everyone from the UK Coalition to Al Q’eida to learn – should they wish to. Whether they do or not remains to be seen.