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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis


Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2005

March 14, 2005

NEW YORK - Democracy is bustin’in out all over in the Mideast, and it’s all thanks to the US invasion of Iraq. That’s what the Bush Administration has been crowing in recent days, offering its sixth or seventh new rational for launching an unprovoked war.

So it a `a wave of democracy and freedom’ really sweeping through the region, as the White House claims?

In January, Iraq held an election of sorts under US `guidance.’ Egypt’s ruler since 1981, President/General Husni Mubarak, says he will allow multi-party elections. Tunisia and Saudi Arabia recently held elections. Lebanon, rent by pro and anti-Syrian protests, may soon hold new elections. Palestinians voted in a new president to replace the deceased Yasser Arafat.

All this certainly does look like the dawn of Arab democracy – to those who don’t know much about the region. Up close, the picture is much less rosy. It’s always a grave error to take events in the Mideast at face value.

Ironically, the man most responsible for pushing the Arab World towards political change is not George Bush, but his nemesis, Osama bin Laden. For over a decade, bin Laden has agitated for the overthrow of the corrupt, despotic Arab regimes supported by the US.

As bin Laden’s anti-American insurgency gathers strength and resonates among the restive Arab masses, the Bush Administration has urged the frightened kings and generals running Washington’s client Arab regimes to make a show of democratic reforms to head off popular uprisings. The Administration’s neoconservative advisors have convinced the president that so-called democracy offers the best antidote to militant Islam.

But most of the reforms conducted by America’s Arab clients are pure sham. Washington stage-managed Iraq’s vote to empower Shia and Kurdish yes-men who will pretend to rule while the US continues to run Iraq and pump its oil.

The US-backed Mubarak is apparently grooming his son to take over Egypt under cover of the usual phony `open, multi-party’ elections that are rigged to make it almost impossible for opposition candidates to run. This gambit makes even Mubarak’s staunchest backers in Washington nervous.

In October, Tunisia’s US-supported military ruler, Gen. Zine ben Ali, won yet another `re-election’ by a Soviet-style 94.5%. Saudi Arabia’s recent `parliamentary’ vote was an empty exercise dreamed up by its Washington public relations agency.

Lebanon’s noisy anti-Syrian demonstrations, which Bush hailed a `democratic revolution,’ were staged by a minority of its citizens, mostly anti-Syrian Maronite Christians and Druze. Lebanon’s largest ethnic group, Shia, strongly back both Syria’s presence and Hizbullah, Lebanon’s most popular political party.

Mounting US involvement in Lebanon risks re-igniting that nation’s bloody, 15-year civil war.

The Arab World – and other Muslim nations - desperately need democracy, rule of law, free speech and honest government. Even Israel’s Arabs, though treated as third-class citizens, still enjoy more human and political rights than in some of the more repressive Arab states.

But most Arabs see President Bush’s `freedom’ crusade as a cynical campaign to tighten US control of the Mideast by ditching old-fashioned generals and monarchs for more modern, democratic-looking, contemporary civilian regimes that will still do Washington’s bidding. The US has always rapidly ditched old allies when they become an inconvenience or are no longer useful – just look at Vietnam in the 1970’s, and Pakistan after 1989.

The Arab World’s only truly free election was held in 1991 by Algeria’s US and French-supported military regime. Islamic parties won a landslide. The military annulled the vote and jailed Islamist leaders – with full backing of Washington and Paris. So much for democracy.

It’s likely any honest votes held in feudal Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, or military-run Egypt, Libya, and Syria, would produce similar results.

Most Arab states lack any political legitimacy or the consent of the governed. Soldiers and ferocious secret police keep these repressive regimes in power. Once US support for these oligarchies wavers, as is happening now, opposition swells up.

After the Carter Administration began voicing doubts in 1979 about old US ally, the Shah of Iran, revolution shortly ensued. The same process may now be underway in Saudi Arabia as Washington questions the continued usefulness of its royal family.

The Bush Administration is right that Arabs need democracy. But the Administration is behaving like a bull in the Mideast china shop and is following contradictory policies. Bush wants more popular, less dictatorial regimes, but only those that cater to US strategic interests and leaves Israel the region’s unquestioned hegemon.

All this ham-handed US political engineering may produce be a dangerous muddle or even provoke collapse of pro-US despots and their replacement by anti-American revolutionary forces. Such is the uncertainty of true democracy.

If Bush really wants real Mideast democracy, he should begin with Egypt, which contains a third of all Arabs, and is essentially a US protectorate. The US donates 50% of Egypt’s food supply, and almost all its arms under an annual $1.2 billion grant.

Washington should press Cairo to end military rule, allow real political parties, a free press, human rights, and honest elections. Do not allow Egypt to get away with more sham elections. Set a sterling example for the democracy-deficient Muslim World.

The problem, of course, is that the Arab World’s most popular political figure is likely be Osama bin Laden. While most Arabs oppose his murderous tactics, they applaud him as the only Mideast leader who is standing up to the United States and Israel.

If honest elections were held in Egypt, he and his deputy, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, might very well win.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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    Eric Margolis
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