Long-term Political Change in the Middle East

The key to achieving long-term political change in the region is not an instant recipe that can be conjured up in a matter of months.

Dov S. Zakheim
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Dov S. Zakheim

There is a growing consensus worldwide that the Middle East may be on the verge of fundamental change. After years of bloodshed and political stagnation, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has recovered its lost momentum. The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon has, at a minimum, brought about Syrian force withdrawals at a pace greater than any Security Council Resolution was able to achieve. And elections in both Iraq and Palestine, as well as local elections in Saudi Arabia, have led many observers to hold out hope for a new wave of democracy to sweep the region.

All of the foregoing developments have only taken place in the past few months. For any of them truly to take root, more time has to pass. In the interim, any one of them can be reversed. After all, it is not the first time that the peace process generated hope among Israelis and Palestinians. Nor is it clear that Syria is truly prepared to loosen its grip on Lebanon. Various media reports indicate that Syria is already inserting new personnel into Lebanon to replace many of its former secret agents there.

For that matter, elections are not as alien to Middle East politics as some pundits have implied. Indeed, both the Palestinians and the Iraqis have held elections in the past, while many of the Gulf States have held elections at various times for various assemblies. Nor should it be forgotten that some recent elections did not extend the franchise to women.

The key to achieving long-term political change in the region is not an instant recipe that can be conjured up in a matter of months. Instead it involves years of patiently nourishing civil society in all its forms, so as to give people a sense of unity and responsibility, as well as of political empowerment.

Political parties are certainly important, but so too are professional associations, cultural associations, labor unions, educational associations and social welfare organizations. Empowering such groups would enable individuals to express their hopes and aspirations in a variety of forms that could then feed into the political process. Such groups could transcend the tribal, ethnic and regional allegiances as well as religious affiliations that form the current bedrock of Middle Eastern society and generally pose an obstacle to societal cohesion.

Civil society in all its forms need not, indeed should not, replace long-standing sources of identity for Middle Easterners. Certainly many Western pundits would like to see secular societies emerge in the Middle East. Yet in seeking such societies, these Westerners are guilty of Kiplingesque cultural imperialism. Just because they have chosen a secular lifestyle does not mean that the peoples of the Middle East must do the same. Indeed, even as Europe has become markedly more secular, the United States in particular has taken on a more religious hue.

For Muslims, Islam is a way of life rather than a religion, a fact that Western secularists often simply cannot comprehend. Religious leaders therefore play a very different role in the Middle East than they do in the West, and Western notions of pure church-state separation (which in any event overlook the role of European monarchs who nominally stand at the head of established state churches) simply are beside the point.

Nevertheless, while modernity is unlikely ever to substitute for Islam, it need not stand in opposition to it. Civil society can, in fact, provide an effective bridge between Islam, other religions in the region and the rights and benefits that all freedom-loving peoples seek for themselves. By subsuming religious, ethnic, tribal and regional identities within larger commonalities, civil society can identify and nourish needs that encompass nations as a whole and help to provide peaceful channels for the expression of societal aspirations.

A strong civil society is no guarantee of Western-style democracy. But Western democracy is not the only option for a system of free representative government. In particular, several states in East Asia practice a form of democracy that is quite different from its Western namesake. In fact, representative government will and does vary in nature, style, and organization from region to region and from culture to culture. What all peoples share in common is the desire to worship, assemble, speak, earn a respectable living and articulate their needs to their leaders freely and without fear.

Current developments in the Middle East are too recent to be called a trend toward realizing this desire for freedom. Achieving it will take time. Nevertheless, if the international community is generous in providing the material, moral and financial wherewithal so as to nurture the various elements of civil society throughout the Middle East, the time-line of progress could be significantly shortened. And everyone, not only the people of the region, will benefit if that occurs.

Dov S. Zakheim was U.S. undersecretary of defense (comptroller) from 2001-2004. He is a board member of Search for Common Ground. This article is part of a series of views on "Enlarging the window of opportunity," published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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