Parody of Democracy

Aung San Suu Kyi said recently, “Sometimes I think that a parody of democracy could be more dangerous than a blatant dictatorship because that gives people an opportunity to avoid doing anything about it.”  Some reports suggest 1700 people were murdered by a Sarin gas attack this week in a Damascus suburb.  The Assad regime or some elements of it are being blamed for the attack but it is impossible to verify.  In Egypt deposed President Mubarak has been placed under ‘palace arrest’ by a politically-savvy army.  Indeed, the Egyptian Army leadership has so completely out-maneuvered the opposition that at least half of those who in 2011 opposed their rule now support them, albeit conditionally.  So what can the West do?

In Syria the Assad regime now has a grip on power that seemed unthinkable a year ago.  The Syrian opposition is divided and out-gunned.  In Egypt the army is clearly determined to force the Muslim Brotherhood underground.  Indeed, many in the ‘liberal’ opposition seemed to have concluded that after sampling ‘democracy’ under President Morsi they may prefer an Orwellian ‘stability’ after all.  Clearly without cohesion, direction, structure, and leadership the oppositions in both Egypt and Syria are faltering whatever the Facebook or Twitter fed activism of its followers or the fanaticism of opposition fighters. 

French Foreign Minister Fabius warns of a no-fly zone if the UN confirms the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, the EU warns Egypt that European aid could be cut.  Meanwhile the people of both Egypt and Syria are steadily being crushed in a meat-grinder of geopolitics, competing ideologies and plain old political cynicism.  Sadly, beyond the wringing of hands there is little the West will do to influence events in either Egypt or Syria. 

At the geopolitical level the profound split in the UN Security Council between the Western powers and China and Russia is crippling efforts at conflict resolution in both countries.   At the regional level the Saudis and their Gulf allies are all too happy to see the eclipse of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Moreover, as Baroness Ashton and the EU foreign ministers this week sat in grand deliberation about what aid to cut to Egypt’s Army-backed interim government they did so full in the knowledge that the Saudis would more than make up any shortfall in EU aid. 

However, the real cause of inaction is the West itself.  There has always been something vaguely absurd about those in the West who demand democracy as the solution to political instability.  However, as Morsi demonstrated all too clearly in his brief time in power his view of democracy is that it legitimizes an illiberal Islamic state.  As for what the Syrian opposition would offer—who knows.

Democracies require strong and legitimate state institutions which can only develop within the framework of relatively stable domestic politics and a benign international environment neither of which are the lot of Syrians or Egyptians.  Rather, when the West talks about democracy it really means liberalism and neither incumbents nor insurgents are offering that.  Egyptians it seems now have the choice between one man one vote once.  Syrians have no choice at all.   

Instead the West is (sort of) pursuing an ‘anyone but’ strategy—anyone but Assad and anyone but Mubarak or Morsi.  Sadly, the latest tragedy in Syria simply reveals such strategy for what it is: hollow.  President Obama might be reviewing his infamous ‘red lines’ but they were cast in dust and have simply been blown away by Assad.  Efforts by the British and French to lead the EU to arm the Syrian rebels only triggered a further flow of Iranian and Russian weapons to the Damascus regime.  Trapped as it is between values and interests the collective West has in fact not got a clue what to do about the tragedies in either Egypt or Syria.

Consequently, the creed of liberal democracy as a political future for the Middle East is slowly being suffocated in the dust of Egypt and Syria.  Ironically, it is the illiberal secularist regimes that have for so long fought Islamism that is killing any hope of liberal democracy far more than Al Qaeda.  And. sooner or later the West may well have to take sides between political Islam and authoritarianism. 

Naturally, it is a choice the West will put off as long as possible. This has nothing to do with the Middle East.  Unlike in the old days when the calculation of foreign policy was a matter for elites every Western foreign policy choice today is in fact a reflection of the West’s own internal battles over power and representation.  

Perhaps a parody of democracy in the Middle East is the best the West can hope for.  Perhaps a parody of democracy is today the West itself.

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

Image: UN Security Council open debate on protection of civilians in armed conflict, August 19, 2013 (Photo: UN/Devra Berkowitz)