The Democratic Delusion

The Contrarian: The Democratic Delusion

Much western commentary on the turmoil in the Arab world demonstrates historical ignorance, argues Tim Stanley.

Democracy is back in fashion. Oppressed people in the Muslim world are out in the streets demanding it and western observers are cheering them on. The only problem is that these two civilisations have totally different understandings of what democracy means. Democracy as the West comprehends it isn’t really democracy at all; and the Arab peoples are not historically inclined towards the kind of governments westerners presume democracy will bring about. Lacking a proper sense of history the West is in danger of encouraging a political revolution it does not understand and cannot control.

The West tends to conflate democracy with the rule of codified law, human rights, secularism and freedom of individual conscience. In fact, as a historical experience, pure democracy has only a coincidental relationship with these things, if any at all. Democracy derives from the conflation of the Greek words demos (people) and kratos (power): literally, government by the will of the people. Democracy as practiced in Athens in the sixth to fourth centuries bc varied in specifics but always hinged on an assembly of adult male citizens voting directly on day-to-day matters. Every action taken by the Athenian state was considered an expression of public authority. Individual liberty was tolerated, but obstruction of the popular will was not; which was evidenced by the execution of the philosopher Socrates on a charge of heresy.

Democracy Challenge

There was nothing innately humanitarian or deliberative about pure democracy. In 427 bc the Athenian assembly debated how to deal with a revolt in its empire among the Mytilenians of Lesbos. It voted to dispatch a ship to Mytilene to slaughter all adult males and enslave their women and children. By the following morning the Athenians had come to regret their decision. After a lengthy discussion they narrowly voted to send a second ship to rescind the order. The Mytilenian Debate reflected the fickleness and cruelty of pure democracy, how quickly it can descend into mob rule.

What the contemporary westerner really means when he or she says ‘democracy’ is invariably ‘liberalism’. Liberalism is interested in the guarantee and realisation of private liberty in faith, sexuality, business, speech and thought. It flourishes best when a country has divided powers, elected representatives and a maximum of self-government. Liberalism was the product of historical circumstances unique to the West: these include the anti-clericalism of the Reformation; the individualism of the French Revolution; the emergence of a politicised bourgeoisie during the Industrial Revolution; the rights-based language of feminism.

In contrast few of the popular movements of the Muslim world can be deemed liberal. Medieval Islam did flirt with individualism, notably under the Buyid dynasty in Persia (934-1055), which permitted religious freedom and a renaissance in literature and art. But individual liberties in Muslim Arabia were typically regarded as privileges from God, delineated by social status and gender. In the 20th century, persecuted by secular nationalist governments backed by either the USA or the USSR, political Islam became a conservative movement opposed to the 20th-century values that were violently imposed upon the region. It is hard for western liberals to understand why the destitute of the Muslim world might turn to Islamic authoritarianism for comfort, but it is consonant with their historical tradition. The recent attempt to impose liberalism upon Afghanistan is every bit as misguided as the attempt by the Soviet Union to impose socialism upon an agrarian backwater without a proletariat to liberate.

It is not culturally chauvinistic to assert that popular political ideologies vary according to historical circumstance. The Puritans of New England left a legacy of religiosity in American government that is alien to the aggressively secular French. Rather, we have to accept grudgingly that not everyone wants to be free in the way that the West defines freedom. Ironically, the promotion of the will of the majority over the autonomy of the individual actually puts the Muslim world closer to the tradition of Athenian democracy. In the sense that they were expressions of popular will the 1979 Iranian revolution and the Muslim insurgencies that followed were democratic, even if the systems they created were not.

Tim Stanley is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Pigeons of the Middle East and Africa

Pigeons of the Middle East and Africa

– by Shiraz Paracha

The imperialist attack on Libya is yet another reminder that capitalism is governed by Machiavellian principles and is based on lies and deceit. Western politicians lie to their own public and every few years Western countries go to bloody wars in the name of humanitarian causes.

The attack on Libya is the repeat of the same old imperialistic adventure, and for which the United Nations has been used as a tool. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Libya was an enemy of the Capitalist World due to its close ties with the Soviet Union. However, in the late 1990s, the West started secret negotiations with Libya for a rapprochement. As a result, the United Nations lifted sanctions against Libya in 1999.

From the toppling of the legitimate government of Mossadiq in Iran to the occupation of the Suez Canal, and from Yugoslavia and Iraq to Afghanistan and Libya, every time Western politicians and military commanders use fear and psychological operations to seek their public’s approval for occupations and military interventions.

Freedom and democracy, fairness and justice, loyalty or friendship and even honesty are not important to Western ruling elites. Western political and economic system is driven by greed and self-interests and in doing so cruelty and violence are acceptable means to achieve goals.

Leaders and rulers of the developing world, on the other hand, have been foolishly proud. Often they are ignorant of the subtleties of Western politics and the complexities of Western culture. Rulers of developing countries make mistakes that pave the way for Western interventions. Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has been the latest prey.

Before Gaddafi, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain paid a heavy price for his friendship with the West. Saddam trusted the West but he was used, dumped and punished. Saddam faced the death with courage and dignity but his bravery did not impress his captors.

Flattering, temptation and friendly manners are deadly weapons of the Western ruling classes. In the 16th century, British traders of the East India Company had courted the Mogul Emperor Jahangir to get trading rights in India. The traders deceived the Mogul Emperor, who like his predecessors and followers, was fond of pleasing. Two hundred years later, the East India Company colonized the whole India. History is full of such examples when imperialist powers cheated and deceived their ‘friends’. And those nationalist leaders who could not be bought or trapped were eliminated.

After years of anti-Capitalist campaigning and rhetoric, Gaddafi finally decided to be ‘friends’ with the West perhaps due to pressure from his sons who were dinning with crooks of the Capitalist world. By 1999, revolutionary Gaddafi was tamed and in 2004 the West accepted the changed Gaddafi.

Interestingly, Gaddafi’s first European friends, Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozi and Silvio Berlusconi all have tainted reputations. The disgraced British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the first one to land in Libya. Blair, with his usual false grin, drank Arabic tea with Colonel Gaddafi in a Bedouin tent. Following the visit, leaders of democratic Britain sold to Libya tear gas, arms and different equipment to control protests. Britain also signed contracts to train the Libyan police forces. Isn’t it ironic that when the Libyan government used the British tear gas and the British trained forces to control the protesting mobs, Britain decided to bomb Libya!

Tony Blair also managed to get a GBP560 million oil exploration deal for British Petroleum (BP) in Libya. Several British high street retailers opened branches in Libya and British exports to Libya reached to GBP 930 million while Blair became a trusted friend of Gaddafi.

Europe’s playboy Nicolas Sarkozy of France was the second Western friend of Colonel Gaddafi. In December 2007, Sarkozy hosted Gaddafi in Paris for five days and the Libyan leader agreed to buy French weapons worth billions of dollars. In the later years, Gaddafi reportedly paid huge sums of money to support Sarkozy’s election campaign. No surprise that in March 2011, it was Sarkozy who pushed Americans and other Europeans to attack Libya under the pretext of a UN Security Council resolution. French airports and jets are now part of the bombing campaign against Libya.

Eighty percent of the Libyan oil is exported to Europe. BP, Italy’s Eni, Spain’s Repsol and Royal Dutch Shell are some of the major companies with big interests in Libya. France, too, wants a bigger stake in the Libyan oil and the actual aim of the French bombing of Libya could be uninterrupted access to ‘sweet’ Libyan crude that is easy to reach the French refineries and is considered better than the Saudi crude.

Italy, the former colonial master of Libya which stole Libyan wealth for years, also was a beneficiary of Gaddafi’s Bedouin generosity. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has been cheating his wife and people, and he has the support of Italian mafias, became a personal friend of Gaddafi.

Tom Bawden and John Hooper of the British newspaper The Guardian wrote about Berlusconi’s business interests in Libya in a report published on 23 February 2011:

“Gaddafi and Berlusconi have a famously warm personal relationship. Less well-known, however, is the fact that Berlusconi is in business with one of the Libyan state’s investment vehicles.

In June 2009, a Dutch-registered firm controlled by the Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company, took a 10% stake in Quinta Communications, a Paris-based film production and distribution company. Quinta Communications was founded back in 1990 by Berlusconi in partnership with Tarak Ben Ammar, the nephew of the late Tunisian leader Habib Bourguiba.

The Italian prime minister has a 22% interest in the company through a Luxembourg-registered subsidiary of Fininvest, the firm at the heart of his sprawling business empire. Last September, the Libyans put a director on the board of Quinta Communications to sit alongside Berlusconi’s representatives.

Libyan investors already hold significant interests in several strategic Italian enterprises. They reportedly own around one per cent of Italy’s biggest oil company, Eni; the LIA has an acknowledged 2% interest in the aerospace and defence group, Finmeccanica; Lafico is thought to retain more than 2% of Fiat and almost 15% of a quoted telecommunications company, Retelit.

The Libyans also own 22% of the capital of a textile firm, Olcese. Perhaps their best-known investment is a 7.5% stake in the Serie A side Juventus. But undoubtedly the most controversial is another 7.5 per cent interest in Italy’s largest bank, Unicredit.”

In its annual report on arms export the European Union mentioned names of the European countries and companies that have been supplying military equipment to Libya. Deutsche Presse-Agentur has published parts of the report:

“Italy granted export licences totalling 112 million euros, with a single 108-million-euro licence for military aircraft making up most of the amount, [was the largest supplier]…

Malta emerged as the second-largest exporter, having authorized the sale of an 80-million-euro consignment of small arms.

Germany was third in the list, with 53 million euros of licences, mostly for electronic jamming equipment used to disrupt mobile phone, internet and GPS communication…

France was next with 30.5 million euros, followed by Britain with 25.5 million euros, and Belgium with 22 million euros.”

The United States is leading the current military aggression against Libya. Until recently the U.S was dealing with Colonel Gaddafi to get lucrative business contracts. The U.S–Libya Business Association includes companies such as BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, Fluor, Halliburton, Hess Corporation, Marathon Oil, Midrex Technologies, Motorola, Northrop Grumman, Occidental Petroleum, Raytheon, Shell and United Gulf Construction Company. Prominent U.S figures and intelligence officials have been engaged in building relations with Libya.

But once they got their feet into the country, new friends of Libya started bombing Libya because each of them wants its share of Libyan resources without Gaddafi. As expected, amidst the rain of fire and dance of death in Libya, rulers of Africa and the Middle East have closed their eyes like pigeons.

Shiraz Paracha is a journalist and analyst. His email address is: