Juan Cole: 10 Ways Arab Democracies Can Avoid American Mistakes
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).
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....
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