SUNDAY VIEW: Rioting Arabs probably want the same as the rest of us.

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.

12 thoughts on “SUNDAY VIEW: Rioting Arabs probably want the same as the rest of us.

  1. XX 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. XX

    And they did that SO well when they got rid of the Shah….right?

    What makes you think any of these “revolutions” are going to end up any differently to Iran?


  2. I don’t know, John. Having lived for some years in Egypt, I would not say that the last regime there was ‘benign’. For 30 odd years it kept the vast mass of people just about fed with subsidised food and fuel, but living in appalling conditions with brutal repression by a force under arms numbering over 1.3 million. The secret police were notorious for torture and killings, no doubt under direction from above. The Egyptian middle class is small and lacks influence, only the small minority of rich have that. Political dissent was not allowed and the rich exploited the very cheap labour in the country with a ruthlessness rarely seen in Europe.
    All this was done away from the tourist gaze, with (relatively) beautiful tourist towns and resorts capitalising on the country’s history. But in the rest of the country the story was quite different and little economic progress was made in the last 20 years. Unremitting squalor was the norm.
    Overall my sense of the last 30 years in Egypt is one of a huge and rapidly growing population that lived a very tough life with no prospects of improvement, no outlet for political opposition and significant constraints in terms of usable land and water. This is what the West supported in order to keep a lid on fundamentalism. It was always bound to fail, you can’t shoot 80m people and now they know that. What happens now is hard to say but clearly some improvements for the 75m poor people in Egypt will be essential if constant struggle is to be avoided.


  3. Nothing. If you read the blog regularly, you’ll see I have little faith in any other result.
    What did you read and/or see in the piece to suggest otherwise?


  4. An excellent response Carys – based on experience, the most important ingredient. I’ve only ever holidayed in Egypt, and so remarked only the destitution and constant begging alongside the state-of-the-art private hospitals.
    I think your point suggests that there is a time limit on how long it takes for the citizens to gird up enough courage to revolt. It took the Soviet peoples 72 years, on and off.


  5. The number of muslims is expected to double in South central Asia and in Western Asia and to rise fourfold in Sub saharan Africa. Some muslim countries will have exponential rates of growth until 2100. Yemen ( 21 million in 2005 ) will have 144 million by 2100! Niger, a poor country ( Today 12 million ) will get 98 million by 2100! (A larger population than Germany or Russia ).

    The causes of this situation are well known:

    -Firstly, the muslim countries led by Algeria have constantly been reluctant toward family planning and contraceptives ( Conference of Bucharest ). They stated that family planning was a Western conspiracy for reducing the power of the developing countries. This situation explains that the fall of the fertility rates happened later and less rapidly in muslim countries than in no muslim ( With similar level of income ).

    -Secondly, many muslim religious leaders are opposed to contraceptives and this situation is not likely to improve with the surge of radical Islamism. Just consider the next drawing showing the five countries with the lowest percentages of married women using modern contraceptives ( In the world ) : All enjoy a muslim majority!


  6. “History shows that if a dictatorship is benign in the Arab world, most citizens are quite happy with that.”
    … … …
    True …and it’s little different in The West. A major reason that Britain’s monarchy and *democratic* govts have survived for so long is that they are cleverly rather benign when compared to the M/E and elsewhere. But rationally, our Royal Family has no more legitimacy than (say) those of Saudi and Dubai and our elected govts have little more democratic credentials.

    A second major reason is that our elected govts have ridden on the coat tails of growing prosperity and been very quick to claim credit for it, even though it would most certainly have happened without them.

    Britain is little different to the Arabs in this context: most people don’t really give a fig about democracy, what they really want is a Govt that implements their favoured policies…whether they relate to immigration, law/order, economic or social policy. That usually equates to strong govt but which we rarely get that through our democratic process. When we do, it usually results in what we see now after 13yrs of NewLav socialist-fascism: a bankrupt treasury, social breakdown and law enforcement which ignores the long-standing principle of “policing by consent”.

    People should not be fooled into believing that democracy is the utopian solution. It progressively fails when the going gets tough…and that is what we’re seeing now and in the forseeable future.

    I have long argured that the only real solution to controlling government is to have a proper written constitution. Most countries understand that but, alas, Brits mostly do not because they often see it as a block to installing a strong govt that will do what they want.

    Watching the M/E unrest has made me wonder if our political elites are taking note…


  7. A small(?-probably not) point. The Iranians do not consider themselves to be Arabs.
    The point you make is IMHO absolutely valid, but in any scenario there is also the ingredient of race/tribalism/religious sectarianism. Cultures other than our own are less reticent in expressing and acting on these.
    It obviously makes for difficulty in foreseeing the eventual outcome.


  8. Most people just want a quiet life and to be left alone. I have lived and worked in Turkey which is 95% Muslim and they hate the muslim extremists with a passion.
    There is a widespread view in this country that all things muslim are somehow to be feared, they are honourable people and just like us.


  9. That’s an interesting view, and I’m sure very real.
    But what of Recep Erdogan? I trust the average Turk, but not him.


  10. Have a quick look back at the last 90 years and surely you’ll realise that so many things are oing to happen in the next 90 years that there is no way your model will hold up, the almost infinite number of variables will cause it to fall apart. The fact that you have Iran and Israel both pointing increasing numbers of weapons at each other means that surely a few million people are going to die.

    As for contraceptives, once people escape the poverty trap they generally breed less, as generally the more money a people have the more of them get educated generally causing religon to have less of an influence on their lives.


  11. Pingback: ANALYSIS: Egypt’s Spring turns chilly | The Slog

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