Even if the Arab spring has sorely disappointed, dictators, even benevolent ones, are not the answer
MANY people argue that it would have been better if the Arab spring had never happened. Think of the mayhem that would have been avoided in Egypt and Syria, not to mention Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, where the angry and the aggrieved have created chaos in the name of democracy. How foolish of Western governments, especially in America and Britain, to betray allies like Hosni Mubarak and to pander to the Muslim Brotherhood and assorted narrow-minded Islamists. Thank heavens that Egypt is back in safe hands under a field-marshal and that most of the Gulf is ruled by moderate Westernised princes. After all, people mutter privately, the Arab culture simply is not suited to modern democracy.
Some of this is justified. Nobody would claim that bloodstained Syria is anything but a tragedy (see article). In Egypt liberals were naive to expect democracy to blossom overnight. But too much of today’s criticism of the Arab spring is itself naive, because it forgets that the dictatorial alternative is corrupt, repressive and ultimately doomed.
That is the lesson from Algeria’s bogus election (see article). Algeria’s regime is the sort that the realists like to excuse. The place used to be chaotic. Some 200,000 people were killed in a civil war which the generals started when they refused to accept an Islamist victory in the 1991 election. But for the past 15 years President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has kept the peace. The Arab spring has largely passed Algeria by.
But at what cost? The election will be won by Mr Bouteflika, even though he is an ailing 77-year-old who is barely seen in public. For three months last year he was hidden away in a Paris hospital. He has not bothered to campaign, leaving the job to his staff. Oozing with gas, Algeria should be rich, but its economy is as moribund as its politics and rife with corruption. Algeria teems with disaffected young, many of whom dream of crossing the Mediterranean in search of work and freedom.
At least Mr Bouteflika has had the nerve to print his name on a ballot paper. In Saudi Arabia another gerontocrat, King Abdullah, has just appointed his half-brother Muqrin, a 69-year-old, as second in line to the throne, behind the feeble 78-year-old crown prince, Salman. Too much of Arab politics is still stuck. Of the Arab League’s 22 countries, only one, Tunisia, can nowadays be deemed fully democratic—a rare beneficiary of the Arab spring.
What’s the Arabic for compromise?
Hence the question for those who rubbish the idea of Arab democracy. Does anybody think that rule by dictators, however benevolent, will last? Algeria’s seeming stability will prove an illusion in the long run. The generals and spooks who run the show, in particular a shadowy 75-year-old security chief, General Muhammad “Toufiq” Mediène, are jostling for the succession. Frustration at the prospect of five more stagnant years of Mr Bouteflika could yet ignite a smouldering popular protest. In Egypt the fall of Mr Mubarak showed that corrupt regimes, however militarily muscular, are not impregnable. Its latest strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the field-marshal who led last year’s coup against an elected Muslim Brother president, will win the coming election; but unless he can mend the economy, his popularity will wane, just as Mr Mubarak’s did.
The argument that some civilisations are unsuited to democracy has been used from Taiwan to South Africa: it seldom holds water for long. The Arab spring has so far been mainly a mess. But to condemn Arabs to political servitude is no answer. It only delays the explosion.