Two steps forward, one step back

Democracy is an illusive thing. A pure form of it has not existed since the glory days of ancient Athens – and even then women and slaves were excluded from the metaphorical electoral roll. The modern world’s democratic bastion – America – does not elect its President via direct universal suffrage, but a complicated electoral college system that few Americans understand. Even when states are notionally democratic, journalists and opposition politics can wind up in jail, while minority rights can be abolished on a whim.

So two conclusions can be drawn. The West’s expectation that a democratic Middle East will emerge in the next few years is at best naive. And our calls for democracy are actually a call for liberal-democracy, a specific form of the idea which is not always attractive to non-Western nations. Nevertheless, the Middle East is getting there – slowly.

As my last article showed, Egypt is a prime example of a country using democracy to counter Liberalism (although the Muslim Brotherhood professes otherwise). The powers of the new President are undefined due to a lack of a constitution. The army is ruling by decree, creating a new feeling of antagonism between civilians and the military. People are once again taking to the streets. It seems Egypt’s journey will be along a long and winding road. But there is a true Liberal success story in Tunisia. Although the presidential elections returned a victory for the mildly Islamic Ennahda party, in the words of a BBC correspondent this was because Ennahda represented ‘honesty in public life’ not religious zeal.

In Libya too there has been a successful outcome to last year’s blood-soaked civil war. Mahmoud Jibril, the interim Prime Minister, won election as the head of a liberal alliance. The Islamist party  came second here, in the country the West most worries about. Yet there are different problems here. The nature of the revolution has left the country brimming with armed men loth to give up their weapons after decades of oppression. Whole militias need to be rehabilitated into the army, but many value their independence. And there remains the threat of regional struggles. The East of the country saw the fermentation of the revolution, and its people were long ignored by Gaddafi’s regime. They have discovered a taste for autonomy and contest that the new Congress is biased towards Tripoli. A Sudanese-style split looks far off, but deals will have to be made sooner rather than later in Libya’s hopeful transition is going to keep to the right tracks.

The rest of the region is quieter. Monarchical regimes seem to have weathered the democracy-inducing sandstorm better than their Presidential counterparts. Yet one country still burns. Syria’s revolution has just been declared a civil war by the Red Cross, making official something everyone had already known for a long time now. Yesterday, after sixteen months of quiet simmering, Damascus finally exploded, bringing the fight to the regime’s doorstep. As ever, the death count rises grimly. The UN’s observer mission is simply hopeless and any further international action is at the mercy of China and Russia – both of whom are President Assad’s chums. Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan are spending more and more time chastising Presidents Hu and Putin for their inaction, changing nothing on the ground. Syria is an interventionists nightmare. The sectarian tensions Mr Assad’s rule has oppressed have emerged with a new strength, meaning that even if the regime falls the civil war is likely to continue. It seems the UN has been left scratching its head on this one.

Sadness in Houla

All sorts has been going on. In the forefront of my mind recently has been the calamity in Houla, Syria, where dozens children were murdered by the army. The world is duly horrified and I believe The Times was right when it headlined the story ‘the tipping point’. The UN managed to get itself together enough to pass a resolution condemning the Syrian government, which is still claiming the violence was perpetrated by unspecified ‘terrorists’. There is a sense now that something will happen, but all the options carry considerable risk.

There is, as always, the daunting possibility of military intervention. But after Iraq and Afghanistan, the West is weary – especially of becoming involved in yet another Muslim country. It would also be legally dubious to go to war in order to achieve regime change in another country. But then one has to ask if it isn’t even more dubious to let a government murder its own people. However, I think direct feet-on-the-ground intervention is a long way off.
At the other end of the spectrum is doing absolutely nothing. Then it is possible – perhaps probable – that the country could decend into sectarian civil war. The country is not as tribal as Libya, but it is home to people of many different creeds. There are bitter divides between Shia and Sunni Muslims. To further complicate this, the ruling elite comes from the Alawite sect, members of which still support the President – as do the Christians, who fear an Islamic state. The capacity for fighting is huge. And yet, for reasons stated above, leaving the regime to do as it pleases doesn’t seem like a good idea

So a third way is needed. As I see it (and I’m not an expert, mind) there are two options. The first is the creation of ‘buffer zones’ in Turkey, where opponents of the regime can group together, train and plan without the risk of shelling. But the international community is rightly reluctant to rely on Turkey, whose own President is becoming more and more tyranical. He would also probably favour Islamists, when Syria desperately needs to remain secular

The second option is to carry on doing what we’re doing – i.e. allowing Qatar and its friends to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army. This avoids all the problems of Western intervention and may eventually help to stop such massacres. But this doesn’t present civil war, which is looking more and more likely now that the violence has spread into neighbouring Lebanon, which is still wobbly decades after its own bloodshed supposedly ended.

The two options are clearly not perfect. But, for the children of Houla and the rest of Syria (perhaps Lebanon too), something has to be done. What you you think it should be done? Comment below.

Blood takes the spring out of Syria’s revolution

We first watched unrest on the streets of Syria in March, five months ago. By that time Egypt and Tunisia had toppled their dictators – and the whole Arab world seemed to be ablaze with possibility. As observers in the West, we naively expected Libya and Syria to go the same way, prehaps so did the Libyans and Syrians themselves. But it was not to be.

As NATO took the rather drastic, albeit necessary, step of intervening in Libya it also condemned the Syrian revolutionaries to a fight without support. And as NATO planes pummelled Col Gaddafi, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad took to shelling his own cities and arresting everyone he could get his hands on. So far, these are the official figures:
  • 1600 dead (although human rights groups would debate this – some putting the figure at over 2000)
  • 10000 people are thought to have fled to Turkey, where refugee camps have been established near the Syrian border.
  • Another 10000 are said to have been inprisoned for political reasons

In most situations, fear is the strongest of human emotions. But Syria’s brave protesters seem not to have noticed. They may cower in their homes from Saturday to Thursday, as tanks shell their cities and the regime’s snipers pick people off. Yet every Friday the protests erupt again. And the savagery increases.

All this has slowed the fall of Mr al-Assad, but it has not halted it. The more barbarian he is, the more international condemnation tightens its grip. The more brutal, the more anger is displayed every Friday. The more inhumane, the more certain I am that he will go. Why? Because his people face more danger in letting him stay than in fighting to the bitter end. Having seen such opposition al-Assad, if he retook control, would probably decimate his country. The Syrians know this. Arab leaders know this. The West knows too. And none of them is too keen on the prospect. Assad is a failed leader – now we just need to get rid of him.

That’s the hard bit, and a point on which I offer no wise words. It is impossible to promote bigger and bigger protests when I know what the concequences for the protesters would be. It is impossible to suggest military interventions – even if NATO was not so ridiculously over-stretched intervention is a dodgy path to take. The only thing we can do, it seems, is hope that the entire regime is struck by some awful unspecified illness. Well, have you got any better ideas? The protests will carry on and economic or diplomatic sanctions may bite sooner or later. It is impossible to say how Assad will go. But go he will.