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Is the West Thwarting Arab Plans for Reform?

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by David Gardner

10 Apr 09 | FT

Uneasy Lies the Head was the perhaps inevitable title of the autobiography of the late King Hussein of Jordan, the West’s favourite benign Arab despot. He was the improbable survivor of innumerable plots, coups and uprisings, of three Arab-Israeli wars, two Gulf wars and a civil war with the Palestinians, as well as around a dozen assassination attempts in the 46 years he wore the heavy crown of his improbable desert kingdom.


The Hashemite monarch, descended from the family of the Prophet Mohammed and the Sharifs of Mecca, exuded total confidence in his legitimacy. Yet, this most open of Arab autocrats, this elegant and charming authoritarian, relied on the military and the Mukhabarat, his ubiquitous secret police, to stay in power, no less than in any other Arab state. To underline this truth is not necessarily to disparage King Hussein’s often liberal instincts. What it reveals is that even a leader willing to experiment with change, a regal populist who could utter the word “democracy” with a more or less straight face, a monarch who was once prepared to share (a bit of his) power with Islamists, was in the end no different from his peers.

But a Hussein experiment of 20 years ago is jostling its way back onto the political agendas of the Arab world and wider Middle East: the attempt to marry Islam and democracy. This is the single biggest challenge facing a region mired in despotism and failure, where US and western collusion with local strongmen has created an Arab Exception – leaving the Arabs marooned in tyranny as waves of democracy broke over eastern Europe and Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia. There is no other part of the world – not even China – where the west operates with such little regard for the human and political rights of local citizens. The west’s morbid fear of political Islam has served to deny Arabs democracy in case they support Islamists, just as during the cold war many Latin Americans, Asians and Africans had to endure western-endorsed dictators lest they supported communists. Unless the Arab countries and the broader Middle East can find a way out of this pit of autocracy, their people – more than half of them under 25 – will be condemned to bleak lives of despair, humiliation and rage. Western support for autocracy and indulgence of corruption in this region, far from securing stability, breeds extremism and, in extremis, failed states. It will, of course, be primarily up to the citizens of these countries to claw their way out of that pit. But the least they can expect from the west is not to keep stamping on their fingers.

So what was it King Hussein did? In 1989, the king risked an experiment in “guided democracy”. The main beneficiaries were Islamists, grouped mostly in the Jordanian chapter of the pan-Islamic Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen). With 34 out of 80 assembly seats, the Islamists were the largest, and the only ideologically cohesive, bloc. In 1990-91, the king brought four Muslim Brothers into the cabinet. In private conversation four years later, he even foresaw the day when Jordan would have an Islamist prime minister, “and they and the people will see what government is about and who can do it”. But, first, he bound their leadership into a constitutional consensus. This set out the rules of managed democracy. Crucially, it also established Islam as but one fount of political legitimacy, alongside the parallel claims of Jordanian patriotism, Arab nationalism, and universal values. This Jordanian National Charter (al-Mithaq al-Watani al-Urduni) remains one of the most suggestive political documents to have emerged in the modern Arab world. It bucked the trend in the region. >>>

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Written by Editors

10 April 2009 at 6:32 pm

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