In the wave of democracy that has recently broken across the Arab world, long-standing autocrats apparently vaccinated against political death have been returned in fool-proof referendums or rigged elections, and ‘democratically-oriented’ princes ï in Jordan and Morocco ï have succeeded their deceased fathers. In Algeria, where Abdul Aziz Bouteflika was elected president for the first time in a stage-managed poll last April, the ‘new face’ was an old politician chosen by the generals who rule the country behind the scenes.
In the most recent polls, Egypt’s president Husni Mubarak and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh were returned to power with huge majorities. Mubarak, president since 1981, scored 93.79 percent of votes cast in the September referendum. In Yemen, Saleh won 96.3 percent of the vote, while the ‘opposition’ candidate (whom he had selected) scored 3.7 percent. Saleh, who as president for 22 years, is already Yemen’s longest-ruling leader ever, was sworn in on October 2 for yet another 5-year term of office.
Earlier this year, both president Hafez al-Assad of Syria and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain had achieved even more stunning ‘electoral successes’. In February, the official Sana newsagency reported that Assad had “scored a slashing victory for a new seven-year presidential term when he got 99.987 percent of Syria’s votes”. Only 219 Syrians voted against him, according to the official figures. This must have aroused the envy of his Iraqi Ba’athist rival, who had earlier managed to win only 99.96 percent of the vote, with fully 0.04 percent daring to withhold their approval.
Astonishing though this may sound, the Arab dictators and their spin-doctors believe that the tiny percentages of votes they concede to have been cast against them show that the elections were ‘free’ and ‘democratic’. Even when, like Mubarak and Bouteflika, they list a few votes cast against them. But their overriding concern remains to demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of the ‘electorate’ wants to retain them as their adored and unchallenged leaders. And those who dare criticize them are either driven by envy or work for foreign governments ï that is when they are not terrorists opposed to ‘organized and democratic government’.
In this the autocrats are helped by their states’ monopoly of the media, by corrupt and squabbling opposition parties, and by establishment ulama who line up to join the chorus of praise for the beloved and upright leaders. In Yemen, for instance, the opposition groups cooperated with Saleh to get away with putting up Najib Qahtan al-Shabi, an obscure member of his own party, as the only rival candidate in the September 23 elections. In both Egypt and Yemen, opposition parties also restricted their campaigns in the interests of ‘national consensus’ and ‘stability’. Having helped elect, in those interests, a national leader whom the overwhelming majority support, they have now returned to their ‘legitimate tasks’ of opposing government.
A clean break with the absolute and long-ruling autocrats, who also control the wealth of the land, normally means losing out in both the business and political professions. And since most of the state-owned monopolies are being sold cheaply to foreign firms and favoured locals in the name of privatization, many opposition politicians, anxious that they or their families and friends are not left out, maintain discreet contacts with senior government officials. The lion’s share of the bounty goes, of course, to the relatives and supporters of the president and his ministers. In Egypt, for example, where privatization is proceeding fastest, the leading members of the ‘new business class’ are close to the president and his senior officials. Jamal Mubarak, who may soon be groomed as his 71-year-old father’s successor, has risen to become a multi-millionaire businessman.
In the race to present the dictators as national heroes, and the rigged polls as ‘free’ and ‘democratic’, Egyptian journalists sweep the medals. If there were a prize for media obsequiousness, Ibrahim Nafi’, the chief editor and chairman of the board of Al-Ahram newspaper, would be the first to snap it up. Few editors have allowed their newspapers to be turned into such a slavish mouthpiece as Nafi’ has done.
For several months before the September 26 referendum, al-Ahram presented Mubarak as a leader of international stature, dominating the world stage at the UN, the Arab League and theOAU, and in bilateral dealings with the leaders of other countries. Mubarak was portrayed as a leader who had brought international honour and prestige to Egypt, and economic and political advancement to Egyptians. The paper even coined the title of ‘hero of the economic crossing’ for him. (The late president Anwar Sadat was given the title of ‘the hero of the crossing’ in 1973 when Egyptian troops crossed the Nile to the West Bank to confront Israeli troops there). Mubarak even asked his people to vote ‘yes’ in the referendum to ‘ensure crossing to the safe shore’.
But, having secured their re-coronations, the autocrats continue to do did exactly as they please, despite their ‘electoral’ pledges to ‘strengthen democratic institutions’. Saleh celebrated his victory by immediately banning the Ashura newspaper, which is affiliated to one of the Yemeni opposition parties.
But the ‘democratic’ fever was not confined to those countries where elections were held. Even in kingdoms, such as Saudi Arabia, where elections are never held, governments and other institutions claim to have begun a process of ‘democratization’. In Riyadh, the president of the ‘Saudi Council’, Muhammad bin Jubair, has declared that there is no longer anything to prevent Saudi women from attending sessions of the Council as observers. The 88 members of the council are directly appointed by the king, and women have never previously been allowed to attend its sessions. Moreover, according to one government minister, “Saudi women will be allowed to drive very soon”.
In Jordan, meanwhile, king Abdullah II declared that he would introduce extensive ‘democratic procedures’ and strengthen the role of the media. Thus fortified by pious words, he proceeded to ban Hamas and arrest its leaders, saying that he ‘picked his own battles’ and did not allow others to pick them for him.
While these US proxies are free to behave so despotically, far freer countries in the Arab and Muslim world, such as Iran and Sudan, are treated by the west as ‘rogue states’ that are unacceptably undemocratic. Clearly the guiding principle in the west, especially the US, is whether the country in question is hostile to its interests. The paradox is, of course, that the more genuinely ‘open’ a country is, the more likely it is to oppose the US and its interests. And the US cannot possibly be unaware of this.
Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1999