The end of electoral appeal in the Arab world
For too long, the totem of elections was sold to the people in the Middle East—those who live outside the pro-US tyrannical regimes in particular. In the decades of the Cold War, the whole premise of the US position was the belief in the moral and political superiority of the West vis-à-vis the Soviet Union due to the holding of regular and frequent elections. Yet, the American electoral system is probably one of the worst, corrupt model of democracies, not only due to the influence of big money ($4 billion in the last election cycle alone) but also due to the elitist Electoral College and the rigid rejection of proportional representation in order to preserve the two party dominance. The preservation of the first-past-the-post electoral system winds up wasting millions of votes, and renders all third parties insignificant and irrelevant.
Sadly, many in the Arab world bought into the belief of the election-is-the-solution (as opposed to Islam-is-the-solution). Even the Muslim Brotherhood became a champion of free elections. Various electoral models were discussed and the US believed – or pretended to – that once elections are held, there will be Arab-Israeli peace and that Arabs will not hold those atavistic grudges against the US anymore.
Yet, Western political hypocrisy was too visible to ignore. Western governments championed, armed, and defended tooth and nail the tyrannical polygamist dynasties of the Gulf and in the regimes of Jordan and Morocco. But the US was quite vigilant in pressing for free elections in countries where the governments are not clients of the US. The US pushed for elections in Iran, but not in Saudi Arabia, in Syria but not in Jordan, etc..
The elections in Algeria in 1991 made the intentions of the West clear. Western governments support free elections only if the results are consistent with Western political and economic interests. When the Algerian military junta cancelled the results of the elections, Western governments rushed to reward the anti-democratic rulers with weapons and financial assistance. And in 2006, after several years of redundant rhetoric by Bush officials about the desirability of free elections for the Palestinians (and the elections were not free as money from the US, UK, and Gulf regimes were pumped into the coffers of Fatah) the Bush administration lobbied the world to disregard the results of the elections, and even engineered (just as in 1953 in Iran) a coup by Mohammed Dahlan to take over power by force (Hamas was smarter, and preempted the coup).
The launch of the Arab uprisings reignited Arab popular faith in the power of free elections. Such elections followed in quick sequence in Tunisia and Egypt (the Libyan election was purely a contest between foreign dominating powers). The models of elections in those countries led people to reach clear conclusions about elections in the Middle East: 1) the US and its allies in the Gulf will not allow for any monitoring of outside financial support because those powers want to influence the results, as such the Tunisian presidential elections was really a contest between the US and Saudi Arabia against Turkey and Qatar. 2) The US and its allies will use the powers of Western lending institutions to tilt election results to the side that they favor. 3) There will be no respect for elections if the winners are seen as enemies or foes of the US and its allies. 4) The electoral systems will be designed with direct interference by the US and its allies to prevent an undesirable radical outcome. 5) The US has not overcome its complex from the Cold War: it will continue to fight to prevent a leftist ascendancy in any Arab country.
Fortunately, Arabs will no longer have illusions about elections. They now know that their voices will not be freely heard and their votes are filtered through a variety of layers intended to tilt the outcome of elections in certain directions. Israel, more than any other outside party, is afraid of free elections because it knows BDS, at least, will immediately follow and normalization will be fought. Yet, the US and Israel were able to control the agenda of al-Nahda (not to mention the party of the ancien regime of As-Sibsi) to prevent any harming of Israeli interests. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt learned the hard way the follies of trust in elections or in Western rhetoric.
Political contests will not be suspended in the Arab world but Western governments have forced them to play out in the streets, not in polling stations.
Dr. As’ad AbuKhalil is a Professor of Political Science at California State University, Stanislaus, a lecturer and the author of The Angry Arab News Service. He tweets @asadabukhalil
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