Wednesday, February 01, 2006

In the Middle East, Oil & Democracy Do Not Mix

An extraordinarily perceptive New York Times op-ed today by columnist Thomas Friedman, author of mega-bestseller The World Is Flat....

Addicted to Oil by THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

So far the democracy wave the Bush team has helped to unleash in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11 has brought to power hard-line Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq, Palestine and Iran, and paved the way for a record showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. If we keep this up, in a few years Muslim clerics will be in power from Morocco to the border of India. God bless America.

But is this all America's doing? Not really. It's actually the product of 50 years of petrolism — or petroleum-based politics — in the Arab-Muslim world. The Bush team's fault was believing that it could change that — that it could break the Middle East's addiction to authoritarianism without also breaking America's addiction to oil. That's the illusion here. In the Arab world, oil and authoritarianism are inextricably linked.

How so? Let's start with Iron Rule No. 1 of Arab-Muslim political life today: You cannot go from Saddam to Jefferson without going through Khomeini — without going through a phase of mosque-led politics.

Why? Because once you sweep away the dictator or king at the top of any Middle East state, you go into free fall until you hit the mosque — as the U.S. discovered in Iraq. There is nothing between the ruling palace and the mosque. The secular autocratic regimes, like those in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iraq, never allowed anything to grow under their feet. They never allowed the emergence of any truly independent judiciary, media, progressive secular parties or civil society groups — from women's organizations to trade associations.

The mosque became an alternative power center because it was the only place the government's iron fist could not fully penetrate. As such, it became a place where people were able to associate freely, incubate local leaders and generate a shared opposition ideology.

That is why the minute any of these Arab countries hold free and fair elections, the Islamists burst ahead. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won 20 percent of the seats; Hamas went from nowhere to a governing majority. In both societies the ruling secular parties — the N.D.P. in the case of Egypt and Fatah in the case of Palestine — were spurned as corrupt appendages of the authoritarian state, which they were.

Why are there not more independent, secular, progressive opposition parties running in these places? Because the Arab leaders won't allow them to sprout. They prefer that the only choice their people have is between the state parties and religious extremists, so as to always make the authoritarian state look indispensable. When Ayman Nour, a liberal independent in Egypt, ran against President Hosni Mubarak, he was thrown in prison as soon as the election was over. Thanks for playing "Democracy" — now go to jail.

It is not this way everywhere. In East Asia, when the military regimes in countries like Taiwan and South Korea broke up, these countries quickly moved toward civilian democracies. Why? Because they had vibrant free markets, with independent economic centers of power, and no oil.
Whoever ruled had to nurture a society that would empower its men and women to get educated and start companies to compete globally, because that was the only way they could thrive.

In the Arab-Muslim world, however, the mullah dictators in Iran and the secular dictators elsewhere have been able to sustain themselves in power much longer, without ever empowering their people, without ever allowing progressive parties to emerge, because they had oil or its equivalent — massive foreign aid.

Hence Iron Rule No. 2: Removing authoritarian leaders in the Arab-Muslim world, either by revolution, invasion or election, is necessary for the emergence of stable democracies there — but it is not sufficient. The only way the new leaders will allow for real political parties, institutions, free press, competitive free markets and proper education — a civil society — is if we also bring down the price of oil and make internal reform the only way for these societies to sustain themselves. People change when they have to, not when we tell them to.

If you just remove the dictators, and don't also bring down the price of oil, you end up with Iran — with mullah dictators replacing military dictators and using the same oil wealth to keep their people quiet and themselves in power. Only when oil is back down to $20 a barrel will the transition from Saddam to Jefferson not get stuck in "Khomeini Land."

In the Middle East, oil and democracy do not mix. It's not an accident that the Arab world's first and only true democracy — Lebanon — never had a drop of oil.

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