You’d think, at this combustible stage of the so-called democratic transformation of the Arab world, that Canadian policy-makers would be less prone to wishful thinking, and triumphalism.
What part of this country’s recent experience of democracy-building in a religiously ultraconservative nation with no tradition of pluralism, does our political establishment not grasp?
At the risk of sounding cynical, what evidence is there to suggest that Egypt, Libya and Syria will turn out differently and better than Afghanistan? And why should anyone believe that populist democracy across the Arab world will not simply give free rein to the anti-Israel, anti-American and anti-Western sentiment that has been bubbling away at a slow boil since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and before?
It was U.S. president George W. Bush who boldly trumpeted the notion that, if a single democracy should bloom in the Arab world, the entire region would soon follow. Bush most clearly articulated this idea in a speech to the World Economic Forum at Sharm el Sheikh, in Egypt, in May of 2008. The then-president unabashedly tut-tutted his Egyptian and other Arab hosts for their failings, then asserted that democracy was inevitable and they should get aboard.
“Democracy does not threaten Islam or any religion, Bush proclaimed. “Democracy is the only system of government that guarantees their protection.”
Then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was in the audience that day, must have thought Bush had gone mad. Mubarak had made a science for three decades of repressing both Arab populism and Islamist nationalism, in the service of an international order founded on detente with Israel and secure U.S. access to Middle Eastern crude.
Egypt’s elections were to begin Monday. But the mass protests in Tahrir Square could lead anywhere now. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party is on the ascendant. An Islamist autocracy of some sort is certainly possible. Indeed, the brutal repression of Egyptian Coptic Christians since last spring suggests such a regime is already taking shape.
The truth is that Western policymakers don’t have a clue where these revolutions are headed, and won’t for years still to come.
Anthony Cordesman, a scholar at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies — and who famously predicted in early 2003 that Iraq would be a quagmire — says it is simply too early to make informed predictions about the direction or outcome of the Arab Spring.
He notes that those in charge two years into a revolution are hardly ever the ones who launch it.
He further points out that the Middle Eastern and North African region has deep-seated economic and demographic problems that can’t be solved by revolution — the most important of which is a skyrocketing youth unemployment rate. “You don’t have experienced political parties or people who have any experience with sharing power or giving it up,” he adds. “You’ve buried as in Iraq and Afghanistan, long-standing sectarian differences. You can’t change whole sectors of the economy, or the education system, in a way that meets expectations.”
This is not to say Canada should adopt isolation. But caution seems sensible. The Harper government has already committed $10 million to Libyan mine-clearing and an additional $10.6-million in humanitarian assistance. Additionally, according to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s office, the government is “actively exploring further options aimed at helping the Libyan people rebuild their country.” The Opposition NDP suggests that development experience hard-won in Afghanistan should be redeployed in Libya now. The Liberals are equally enthusiastic about getting more deeply involved.
But perhaps, rather than leap to the aid of the Libyan people as they set about building a Sharia law-infused democracy, Canada should bide its time. And arguably, the government from here on should impose strict, transparent and uncompromising conditions on any aid given.
If women and girls are not treated as equal citizens, and if religious freedoms for Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists and others are not protected, then what business does Ottawa have spending Canadians’ tax dollars in Libya?
NATO’s Libyan air campaign was a success. The lunatic dictator Gadhafi is gone. That’s wonderful. Libya is free. Tunisia is free. Egypt is working on it. And Syria looks to be heading inexorably down the same revolutionary path. But it is foolish to assume that any of this is in the West or Canada’s immediate national interest. Or that the near-term outlook is something anyone can predict, influence or control.
Until the outlook is less murky, the watchword on the Arab Spring should be caveat emptor: Buyer beware.
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