10 Ways Arab Democracies Can Avoid American Mistakes

By Juan Cole (reprinted with permission from Informed Comment).

Dear Arab World:

Your peoples have demonstrated enormous courage and idealism in challenging a whole series of seedy police states throughout the Middle East. In two instances, Tunisia and Egypt, you have managed to overthrow dictators who had ruled through fear, intimidation and massive theft of public resources for decades. In Yemen, you are keeping pressure on the regime of wounded President Ali Abdullah Saleh, rejecting the attempt of his son to succeed him or of his relatives and cronies to retain control of the state and the economy. In Libya, you have fought off vicious bombardments of civilian populations in Ajdabiya, Misrata and the Western Mountain towns, and have a good chance of moving to parliamentary rule once the Qaddafi mafia flees. In Syria, you have stood up to tanks, snipers and secret police mass arrests, keeping the pressure on week after week despite vicious repression that has left an estimated 1400 dead. In Bahrain, despite the crushing of your street protests, you have continued to mount demonstrations, to speak out, and to seek negotiations with the hard line monarchy. In Morocco you have impelled the king to give up some prerogatives in favor of the majority party in parliament, such that a small step toward popular sovereignty has been taken.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the next step is to move to parliamentary elections, a move that may come in some of the other countries of the 2011 revolutions in time. But let me just warn you about democracy. It is a vague ideal and the old-established democracies like the United States are seeing it undermined by a whole host of undemocratic practices that are reminiscent of the police states you just challenged. Here is some advice on how to avoid the mistakes of my generation of Americans, who have perhaps fatally undermined our constitution and turned ourselves into a corporation-dominated national security state. From a twilight democracy heading toward being a large Company town where the workers are deprived of any right to privacy or a fair share of national income to a young vibrant set of democratic movements in the Arab world, I send you this dire warning.

1. Contemporary political campaigns in the US depend heavily on television commercials. In the UK these ads are restricted, and in Norway they are banned. Consider banning them. But whatever you do, do not let your private television channels charge money for campaign advertisements. Television advertisements account for 80-90 percent of the cost of a senate or presidential campaign in the US, and the next presidential campaign will cost each candidate $1 billion. The only way a candidate can win is to fall captive to the billionaires and their corporations, leaving the people powerless and victimized by the ultra-wealthy. Consider putting a ban on paid radio and television political ads in the constitution, because otherwise if it is only a statute, the wealthy will try to buy the legislature so as to overturn it.

2. Do not hold your elections on work days. America’s robber barons put elections on Tuesdays in order to discourage workers, including the working poor, from voting. In many democracies, the poor do vote, as in India, but in the US they have been largely successfully discouraged from doing so. Policies are therefore mainly made for the wealthy few, ruining the lives of millions of workers. France, in contrast, holds its elections on Sundays. In the first round of the 2007 French presidential election, 84% of the electorate turned out. In contrast, in the hotly contested and epochal 2008 presidential election in the US, the turnout was only 64%.

3. Have compulsory, government-run voter registration at age 18 or whatever the voting age is. Voluntary voter registration, especially when it must be undertaken months before the polls, is just a way of discouraging citizens from voting. This voluntary system is favored by the wealthy and the racists in the United States, who consistently oppose efforts to make it easier to register. Compulsory voter registration is correlated with high electoral turnout.

4. About 32 countries in the world have enforced compulsory voting. In Australia, for instance, you have to pay a small fine if you do not vote in certain elections. Although the sum is small, apparently people don’t want to pay it, and Australia has turnouts as high as 95%. It is important not only to make voting compulsory, but to have some enforcement mechanism such as a fine. It is desirable that as many people vote as possible, and for voting to be compulsory is no more coercive than for military service to be.

5. Make a bill of rights central to your new constitutions, and be specific about what rights people have and what actions infringe against those rights. Include electronic rights to privacy, such as freedom from snooping in private emails or warrantless GPS tracking. You have suffered from intensive secret police spying on your populations, and should know that rights to freedom of speech, worship, press and publication, privacy, a fair and speedy trial, and protection from torture are hallmarks of any democratic system. We have given up most of these essential rights to our secret police, without admitting we have done so and without calling them secret police. But you have lived through domestic surveillance and would easily recognized the violations of individual rights that have become routine in the United States and which are defended by our increasingly corrupt judicial authorities, including a whole series of attorneys-general. Abolish your secret police where they still exist and consider abolishing your intelligence agencies. It is not clear that government intelligence agencies even are very good at gathering intelligence beyond what an intelligent person could conclude from reading the newspapers and maybe doing some site visits. Intelligence agencies have a strong motivation to spy on your own citizens and to violate individual rights to privacy. You’re better off without them, but keep them small and poorly funded if you have to have them.

6. Put separation of religion and state in your national constitutions and make it hard to amend the constitution. I know this piece of advice will probably fall on deaf ears in the Muslim world, but really, you’d be doing yourselves a big favor. If we did not have our First Amendment, our fundamentalists would long since have passed blasphemy and other laws and deprived us of freedom of speech (which they consider a ‘provocation’ just as your fundamentalists do). One of the reasons that Algeria went into civil war from 1992 was that the fundamentalists won a 2/3s majority in that country’s unicameral legislature, which would have been enough to amend the constitution in a theocratic direction. That prospect caused the secular generals to intervene to cancel the election results, which provoked long-term violence. Have elected provincial legislatures and governors, and require that super-majorities of them approve constitutional changes along with supermajorities of the national legislature. Your constituent assemblies have a unique opportunity to fashion new constitutions. Avoid pandering to the fundamentalists, and just make it so the state is neutral on religion and all laws must have a secular purpose. Tunisia, you have the best opportunity here. You only have one chance to put this principle in the foundational document, and to make it as hard as possible to overturn.

7. Keep your defense ministry spending as low as possible consistent with being able to defend your borders. Tunisia, you get this one right. The more you spend on “defense,” the more you create an military-industrial complex that lobbies the government to spend ever more on “defense,” creating a feed-back loop that is almost impossible to disrupt. The US has been at war most of the time since 1941 because it created a vast military-industrial complex from that point forward. We spend more on war-related things than the next 20 or so countries. Not only is that level of expenditure on weaponry wasteful and unnecessary, it is actively pernicious. If you have a lot of nice new shiny weapons, there is an incentive to use them before they become outmoded or before your neighbors catch up. Your militaries have often been dominant and dictatorial forces in your societies. Put them back in their place. Most of you do not even face a credible military threat, and the rest of you could easily make peace with your enemies, which your officer corps have often opposed for selfish reasons. Small armies are the way to go.

8. Avoid allowing your judiciaries to become politicized. Having party-dominated executives and legislatures approve judicial appointments has real drawbacks. In India and now in Pakistan, justices are appointed by other justices. This way of doing things perhaps goes too far in the direction of judicial power, but give some thought to a way of protecting the appointment of judges from party interest. In the US, we now have a Republican-majority Supreme Court, and since the Republican Party mainly looks out for the interests of our 400 billionaires, our constitution is being profoundly distorted. They even declared the billionaires’ corporations to be persons under the law. Never, ever, ever recognize your corporations as persons under the law. You’ll be really sorry if you do.

9. Protect your workers’ unions. Make it illegal to fire workers for trying to unionize. Remove obstacles to unionization. Unions are key to a healthy democracy, and to ensuring that workers get their fair share of the nation’s economic progress. Since about 1970 our unions have gone into a tail-spin and I think only 9% of workers are now unionized in the US. This decline has come from Reagan’s and his successors’ having given implicit permission for corporations to de-unionize. Not coincidentally, since 1970 the average wage of the average American worker in real terms has been just about flat. That means that the super-wealthy have gobbled up all the economic increases in the American economy for the past 40 years. Having a high gini coefficient, that is to say, extremes of wealth and poverty, is highly undemocratic, and we have seen in the US a ratcheting motion whereby the wealthier the top one percent is, the more they are able to engineer further increases in the proportion they hold of the national wealth.

10. Find a way to fight monopoly practices with strong antitrust legislation and enforcement. If you can implement principle #1 above and keep big money out of political campaigns, you might have a chance at good antitrust practices. The US is now ruled by a small number of semi-monopolies, and the Justice Department almost never actually intervenes against monopolistic practices. Recently Comcast, a cable-provision company, was allowed to buy NBC Universal, which is a clear conflict of interest. One of the FCC commissioners who voted for it was only a little while later given a cushy job…at Comcast. Laws against legislators and regulators being hired by the companies they used to regulate would help tell against the entrenchment of the monopolies.

It is probably too late for us. The aggregate of changes in US law and practice in favor of corporatocracy and the national security state is so extensive and powerful that our constitution has been overwhelmed. We have 2 million people in jail, in a vast gulag, some of them for minor offenses and others for being the wrong color. We are nearly always fighting a ground war with our troops for some murky economic interest. The government is reading our electronic mail and tracking us in various ways, and wants to grope us at airports. Our workers are virtually without rights and until until recently without basic health care (bestowing the latter on them has angered the billionaires against Obama, causing them to create phony ‘movements’ like the Tea Party, which are just crony facades for people like the Koch brothers. Never heard of the Koch brothers? If you don’t take the steps I’ve advised, you’ll be hearing about your own versions.

The blood of your martyrs for revolution is too recent and too precious, and too often belonged to young people who sacrificed a bright future, for you to squander this once-in-a-century opportunity to put liberty and democracy on a firm foundation in your countries. You are young, and you still weep at the thought of freedom, and of those who died for it. You are having your weddings at Tahrir Square to celebrate a new beginning. Be careful. Be very careful. In my lifetime I have seen the American state spiral down into a brutal tyranny that tortures, spies, union-busts, engages in illegal wars, and plays dirty tricks on dissidents. We used to have something much more like a democracy. Maybe we can learn from you how to safeguard something so precious.

Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, March, 2009) and he also recently authored Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). He has been a regular guest on PBS’s Lehrer News Hour, and has also appeared on ABC Nightly News, Nightline, the Today Show, Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper 360, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, the Colbert Report, Democracy Now! and many others. He has given many radio and press interviews. He has written widely about Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and South Asia. He has commented extensively on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Iraq War, the politics of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Iranian domestic struggles and foreign affairs. He has a regular column at Truthdig. He continues to study and write about contemporary Islamic movements, whether mainstream or radical, whether Sunni and Salafi or Shi`ite. Cole commands Arabic, Persian and Urdu and reads some Turkish, knows both Middle Eastern and South Asian Islam. He lived in various parts of the Muslim world for nearly 10 years, and continues to travel widely there. A bibliography of his writings may be found here.

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One Response to “10 Ways Arab Democracies Can Avoid American Mistakes”
  1. Anna Haynes says:

    Wow. That was excellent.
    (thank you Don P.)

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