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Why Middle East democracy is inevitable
Why Middle East democracy is inevitable
Change on the political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa – a region that has experienced the least turnover of leadership when compared with much of the rest of the world – is undoubtedly coming.
Wednesday, April 30,2008 05:13
by Claude Salhani METimes.com

Change on the political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa – a region that has experienced the least turnover of leadership when compared with much of the rest of the world – is undoubtedly coming. It is not exactly a "wind of change" just yet, more like a timid draft. But change is coming nevertheless. The region cannot stagnate, as it has, given the technological arsenal being deployed.

The political ways of the past – and the present – accepted as standard operating procedures by the quasi-totality of the 22 members of the League of Arab States will eventually begin to feel the unstoppable power of change brought about by modern technology.

Countries such as Egypt, the most populous and certainly most influential of Arab nations, has been ruled by the same man since 1981; or yet Syria, where the reins of power were passed from father to son, and this in a country claiming to be a forward thinking republic with tints of socialism. And still in a third country, Libya, said to be governed by the people through popular committees, but where the reality offers a different view altogether given that it is in fact ruled by an absolute leader who ironically deposed a king but now wants to name his son to replace him.

Looking at that tableau of the Arab world"s political landscape, one sees practically no change in the last several decades. Elections, when they are held, are usually a scam with the stakes stacked high in favor of the ruling party and its candidates, and where the winners typically walk away with around 99.9 percent of the vote. In one of the elections called by Saddam Hussein he broke all records by first winning 100 percent of the vote, but when the ballots from overseas voting stations came in, it turned out that he had won more than 100 percent, if that is mathematically possible.

In recent months we have seen two examples of elections being manipulated by the state to ensure victory to its supporters: Egypt and Iran. In both cases the ruling party had to preselect candidates acceptable to run for election. Not exactly the mirror of Jeffersonian democracy.

But the battles these Middle Eastern leaders are trying to prevent from taking place cannot in the long term be won. The reason for that is fairly simple: because they have lost – or are in the process of losing – complete control of the vital element that helped them maintain absolute power; that is control of information.

Until not too long ago the flow of information in the Arab world came under the strict thumb of the countries" ministries of information, which in most cases played the role of national censure trying to withhold information rather than help propagate it.

And to a large degree that is still very much the case, except for the changes that are starting to creep in.

First, Al-Jazeera: Much disliked and portrayed negatively in the United States, Al-Jazeera – and the dozens, if not more, of Arabic language news channels it has inspired – have laid the foundation of two major stepping stones on the torturous road to Middle East democracy. In doing so they have taken away the state"s monopoly on television, and in the process they have pushed ajar the door to greater freedom of the press in the region.

Second, Internet tools such as Facebook: Such tools have allowed the free flow of information between individual citizens and/or organized groups fighting the government"s monopoly of the mass media. Egyptians, for example have taken by the thousands to this new phenomenon to call for anti-government strikes (see Egyptians use Facebook to deter censorship by Laura Kasinof).

Third, Internet maps and satellite technology: With individual citizens now able to scrutinize every inch of the globe, including off-limits military zones and such like, thanks to the amazing wonders of modern satellite technology, made available to anybody with a computer and access to the World Wide Web through services such as Google Earth and Google Maps, it becomes much harder for governments to withhold the truth, to try to cover up nuclear installations or to pretend that riots ending up in brutal repression by their security services never occurred.

In short, we are heading toward a more transparent society where information will be made available within seconds from locations where it previously was impossible to reach. Of course satellite technology is nothing new, and was being used by intelligence services for many years. The great difference is that it"s now available to the general public. This is enough to keep more than one censor official awake at night.

And rightfully so.

Just as blue jeans, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are credited in helping bring down communism in Eastern Europe, so will Facebook and Google Earth play a major role in helping promote greater democracy in one of the last bastions of totalitarianism.


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