Americans like to see themselves as the models and champions of democracy in the world. Every four years the US presidential elections are hailed as proving the strength, vibrancy and success of democracy in America, although the image was somewhat tarnished by the fiasco of the elections in 2000, won by Al Gore but hijacked by George W. Bush with the help of the Supreme Court.
Americans like to see themselves as the models and champions of democracy in the world. Every four years the US presidential elections are hailed as proving the strength, vibrancy and success of democracy in America, although the image was somewhat tarnished by the fiasco of the elections in 2000, won by Al Gore but hijacked by George W. Bush with the help of the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the Americans’ self-image remains undented, as does their determination – according to American propagandists – to maintain the promotion of democracy as the underlying objective of US foreign policy. Democracy is seen as the key to reforming the Muslim world of its backward commitment to Islam and its stubborn refusal to accept the inescapable reality of benevolent American hegemony. Anyone would think that Arabs and Muslims know nothing about democracy and elections; in fact, the Arab world has become the acknowledged centre of a particular kind of democratic institution and process that appears to be spreading to the US rather more effectively than supposedly liberal or secular democracy is spreading to the Muslim world.
Al-democratiyya al-shakliyya – usually translated as ‘facade democracy’ – has long been a recognised phenomenon in the Arab world, and the use of the term has been taken up by political scientists discussing Middle Eastern political structures and processes, and similar processes in other authoritarian countries. It refers to the establishment of institutions and processes that have all the trappings of democratic politics without making any genuine difference to the established power structures in the country. Egypt is perhaps the classic example in the Arab world. It has several competing political parties, regular elections to a parliament, known as the People’s Assembly, and, through this parliament, an indirectly elected President. In reality, no one believes that this apparatus is any serious check on the power of the system: serves not to make the government accountable to the people, but to secure and legitimise the position of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the military elites who control it. Egypt was once hailed as a model of political liberalization that would lead the way for democratization in the Middle East. Such claims are more muted now, as people have recognised that supposedly democratic institutions have actually become instruments by which Egypt’s authoritarian rulers channel the patronage that greases their power, and have done nothing to make them less authoritarian. Despite the Egyptian experience, similar processes of political liberalization are being promoted as processes of democratization in Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that facade democracy –also known, tellingly, among political scientists as ‘controlled democracy’ – is all the democracy the US and the West really want in Muslim countries; the simplest logic would confirm, after all, that genuinely representative and accountable government in the Muslim world would be extremely unlikely to accept US hegemony for long.
In truth, the emergence of this model of facade democracy in the Muslim world is nothing very surprising. Political scientists have long recognised that one of the strengths of democratic systems is that they can cope with popular dissent and anger at states and governments without the actual systems of government being threatened; whereas authoritarian systems of government are difficult to change without being actually overthrown. For an authoritarian state to use democratic mechanisms to absorb popular demands for participation and accountability to save themselves from being more seriously threatened is logical and obvious. The question which arises is whether this understanding might not also offer insights into the working of democracies in the West, particularly the modern home of democracy, the United States of America.
The fact that there is little of substance to choose between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry on major issues of substance is widely recognised. Muslims naturally look towards their foreign policies to tell candidates apart, and have usually backed the challengers on the basis that they could not possibly be as bad as the incumbents; they have usually been proved wrong, as Bill Clinton proved even worse for Muslims than George Bush Sr., and George Bush Jr. proved even worse than Clinton, despite having been (believe it or not) widely supported by American Muslims. There are also strong indications that Kerry might prove even worse for Muslims than Bush Jr, if he is elected on November 2. He has backed the US’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, criticising only the basis on which they were sold and the way they have been conducted, rather than the aggressive policy per se; he has been as cravenly pro-Israel as any US president has ever been – even listing Israel’s security as a higher priority than the security of the US, in one of the election debates with Bush; and has promised to pursue the war on terror (read Islamic movements) as energetically as Bush has, but more effectively. Muslim concerns apart, there is little more to distinguish between the two candidates in terms of their vision for the future of American society. Although much has been made of their different approaches to taxation, health care reforms and education, the differences are in truth on points of detail rather than of substance. Although there is a growing social movement within the US, angry at the dominance and control of the country by the industrial-military capitalist elites, this is not reflected in American politics. Third-party candidates such as Ralph Nader, whose criticisms of the established order are widely shared, are effectively marginalised because of the stranglehold that the elites have on the political systems and the mass media. Both the Republican and Democratic parties are equally beholden to these elites. Although different members of the elites may have different preferences about which of the parties they prefer to see in power, because of the differences of detail and emphasis between them, the elites as a whole, and all members of them, know that their interests will be equally well protected and served whichever party comes to power.
Speaking in San Francisco in August, Arundhati Roy, the Booker-prize-winning writer and social activist, offered a good parallel to explain why it will make no difference whether Bush or Kerry is elected President. “It’s not a real choice,” she said. “It’s an apparent choice. Like choosing a brand of detergent. Whether you buy Ivory Snow or Tide, both are owned by Proctor & Gamble.”
There is, of course, increasing unrest about this status quo among some in the US, especially since the particularly blatant manipulation of the elections in 2000 by a small clique within the elite. However, this unrest will not be allowed to seriously challenge the system; at most some minor reforms may be permitted to allay the disquiet. Fundamentally, the elites in the US are as secure in power as those in Egypt, with the advantage that they have two analogues of the NDP to offer the public in lieu of any genuine contest for political power. This is a quality and sophistication of facade democracy that the ‘controlled democracies’ of the Middle East have yet to achieve.