Middle East Protesters: Is it Democracy They're Looking For?

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Are Middle Eastern protesters risking life and limb for democracy, or are they simply battling for basics?

In the West, there has been vexed debate as to whether democracy is feasible in the Middle East. Some suggest the region is better served by benevolent dictators or kindly monarchs.

In our experience, people in the Middle East are as much concerned about government failure to provide basic services and redistribute national wealth, as they are about democracy.

In Iraq, for example, the despot has been removed, democracy is restored and a new government was sworn in only months ago, yet angry protesters are taking to the streets. They believe their government has failed to deliver on its side of the Hobbesian social contract, and they are making their views felt.

Ask the soldiers of the Coalition forces, now mostly withdrawn from operations in Iraq, the reason for their sacrificial endeavours far away from home, and many will tell you that they were fighting for democracy and freedom, liberating the Iraqi people from the tyranny of dictatorship.

Interviews with the protesters on the streets of a string of Middle Eastern cities illicit a similar response; there is anger at the tyranny and corruption exhibited by the ruling elite. People-power has overthrown leaders who thought their tenure was secure. It is an exciting time. And an alarming one.

There is, rightly, concern as to who or what will fill the power vacuum. At the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, we specialize in mediating when religious difference has led to sectarian violence. We are acutely concerned about the damage that may be caused as rivals vie for position. As the East African saying warns: "When the elephants fight, the grass gets hurt."

Given the painful birth of democracy in Iraq, one might have hoped that this country would stand apart from its less democratic neighbors and remain untouched by these upheavals. The nation has suffered, but now her citizens can rest, secure in the knowledge that power has been properly restored to the people.

The elections in March 2010 were regarded, for the most part, as being free and fair. The subsequent nine months were painful and violent as rival factions jostled for power, but a coalition government is now in place. Democracy has been established. Mission accomplished, to coin the phrase used rather prematurely by President George W. Bush.

Yet many of the grievances held by the people on the streets of Cairo, Tripoli and Manama against their autocratic rulers are also held against the region's more democratic governments.

Iraqis may have freedom to vote, but they have very limited security. The death toll no longer commands headlines in the Western media, but reliable and conservative figures from Iraq Body Count tell us that around three hundred civilians are killed every month in sectarian violence.

There are, on average, two fatal bombings every day. Living and working at St. George's church in Baghdad, we often see the plumes of smoke rising above the site of the latest attack. Five times in the past eighteen months, bomb blasts have ripped through our compound. Working in downtown Baghdad is dangerous. We should seek sponsorship from a firm of glaziers.

For many, electricity only works for a couple of hours every day. Clean water supplies are limited. Health care is patchy, and favors some sectarian groups over others. There have been outbreaks of cholera and typhoid, diseases practically unknown in Iraq before the sanctions in response to the 1991 invasion of Kuwait.

These conditions are hardly conducive to the sustained economic development that Iraq so desperately needs.

Iraqis believe that their oil-rich state has reneged on its side of the Hobbesian social contract. The Sovereign has failed to provide protection for its people or to administer properly the Common Wealth. If life appears "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" then people will not continue to subjugate their wills to the Sovereign's rule. Rebellion is in the air.

Muqtada al-Sadr has, famously, refused to accept state's monopoly on the use of force. He maintains his own private militia, the Mahdi Army. Although a figure of hate in much of the West, dubbed, "The Firebrand Cleric," he is popular with his people and has much local support.

He now has a significant democratic mandate, winning 39 seats in Parliament. In the negotiations that pieced together the coalition, he was one of the king-makers.

If Coalition troops fought and died for democracy, restoring power to the people, then many of the people have chosen Muqtada al-Sadr. And Muqtada has called the people out onto the streets to demand more of the government that they recently elected.

Tipping a hat to Mr. Churchill, perhaps democracy is indeed the worst form of government, except for all of the others that have been tried. It can help the populous hold their government to account and dismiss those failing to deliver. But in and of itself, democracy offers no guarantee that the government will be competent, honest or concerned for the good of the people it seeks to govern.

As the tectonic plates of Middle Eastern politics shift, we in this Foundation are less concerned about the emergence of democracy (though this is important) than we are about a ramping up of historic tensions. Be it Sunni against Shia, Muslim against Christian, Israeli against all their neighbours, these conflicts have greater power to destroy than the political ideal of democracy has to heal.

It would be a tragedy to see nations on the cusp of economic development; emerging markets ripe for global investment; smashed by needless sectarian violence. We hope and pray that that this will not happen.