Arab democratic deception?

Posted: Aug 01, 2003 12:00 AM

Amr Moussa is a liar.

OK, maybe it's a bit unfair to call the secretary-general of the Arab League and former foreign minister of Egypt a liar. If it is unfair, it's only because Moussa's being singled out, since most Arab leaders lie - at least on the subject of democracy. You see, they all say they are for it, but almost none of them really mean it.

Just this week, Moussa criticized the new Iraqi ruling council. While he said it was a "step in the right direction," he said it wasn't good enough because it isn't sufficiently representative of the Iraqi people. Earlier in the month, Moussa issued a statement saying, "If this council was elected, it would have gained much power and credibility."

Moussa has to call the council a step in the right direction because he's deeply invested in the idea that anything perpetuating American rule is the wrong direction. But there's simply no way he wants democracy in Iraq.

Indeed, if Moussa thought that elections confered credibility, then he must think all the member nations of the Arab League (with the arguable and partial exceptions of Qatar and Kuwait) are completely untrustworthy. After all, none of these nations, including his native Egypt, have elected or remotely representative governments.

Sure, every now and then some Arab countries hold rigged "referenda" on the wonderful job their leaders are doing. And - surprise - the Mubaraks, Gadhafis, Assads and, until recently, the Husseins of the region are proud to boast 100 percent approval ratings. Rarely do they mention that the dictators ran unopposed or that if someone voted the other way he'd have a live ferret sewn into a normally ferret-free body part.

More important, if Moussa truly believed that representative government is what's required in Iraq, he might have said something when the former regime slaughtered Shiites and Kurds by the hundreds of thousands.

I'm not a political scientist, but it seems to me that if "representative government" is your thing, then a government ruled by a religious minority that brutally represses the majority denomination - Shiites - is not your bag.

Saddam's henchmen made Shiites lie down in the road only to have hot asphalt poured on them and then be flattened by a steamroller. I don't have the Federalist Papers committed to memory, but I'm sure that's not in there. And, oh yeah, the Kurds, which Saddam's goon "Chemical Ali" likened to vermin and murdered with chemical weapons, might also have something to say about the representative nature of the old regime.

When faced with the option of removing the old regime, Moussa, as the mouthpiece for the status quo in the Middle East, stopped at almost nothing to prevent the toppling of Saddam. He tried to form a united front of Arab states to defend Saddam. He famously declared that a war to topple the Baathists would "open the gates of hell" unleashing mass violence in the "Arab street," refugee crises, hordes of new Osama bin Ladens bent on revenge, cats living with dogs, etc. Very little of that has happened - so far.

There's a silver lining to all of this lying and dishonesty. When Arab leaders refer to Saddam Hussein or Yasser Arafat or Hosni Mubarak as "democratically elected" they may be lying, but they are also conceding a huge argument in the West's favor. They are admitting that the only source of political authority left - outside religion - is democratic authority, broadly defined.

The Iranians (who aren't Arabs) can claim that their government derives its legitimacy from Islam, though the millions of Iranians clamoring for democratic reforms don't seem to care. But pretty much everyone else in the region and the world has made the rhetorical admission that democracy is the only game in town.

The challenge for Americans, the media, and the Bush administration is to acknowledge what the average Arab citizen already knows: All of this democratic rhetoric is B.S.

This is harder than it sounds. Too many journalists, anti-American leftists and U.N. apparatchiks are willing to take Arab and Third World rhetoric at face value. Remember how many people pretended to believe the 100 percent pro-Saddam "election" results?

We don't need lessons from the Amr Moussas of the world on how to set up democratic regimes. We've done it in Japan, Germany and Italy, to name three, and they still have a batting average of zero. We may be doing it wrong, but asking Egypt or Saudi Arabia how to do it right is like asking Sweden how to privatize health care.