ABU DHABI UAE – “Political man” is a complicated species. Cultural conditions and history differ widely. Humility in the interpretation and prediction of human nature is the wisest bet.
The evolving “Arab Spring,” as the media term it, is viewed through Western eyes as if the transformation of Ali Baba and the Seven Thieves into Thomas Jefferson and the International Court of Justice. This is a joke, and an insult to Arab political man.
Western eyes are often shaded by ideological or provincial thinking. Other political cultures arise from different circumstances than the West and shape their thinking accordingly. Western democratic forms of government transplant only with dignity and are no cure-all.
The Philippines with a Western-style democracy has less economic development to show for it than any number of autocracies. Even in the United States right now, our sometimes elegant and venerable democracy seems on the verge of running out of gas. Its theoretical one-man, one-vote inclusiveness seems mostly notable nowadays for producing brain-dead divisiveness along partisan lines and thus gridlock.
The Arab Spring is especially complicated — and hugely important of course.
Regarding Egypt, almost all Western observers imagine that ancient civilization as evolving Western style. But we should wager a different outcome: Yes, people there are frustrated and angry … up to a point. But they have not been through the horrendous experience of people in the former Soviet Union or even, (closer to home) in Syria, under the cruel and evil thumb of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Egyptians are volatile but not desperately irrational. They want palpable material progress and won’t settle for less. But the ousted long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was no totally evil Assad, much less a devil Stalin. Somewhere in their hearts Egyptians know this. They simply want choices and a sense of genuine hope for themselves and their children. What particular political form allows them to attain that is not as big a deal to them. They will be flexible on form as long as they get results in hand.
In Indonesia, the late President Suharto was a dictator, to be sure, but he was no Mussolini. He left behind a mainly unified country now proceeding to develop at its own pace and style its own Muslim democracy. It is a potentially thrilling story. Malaysia is now in street-demonstration turmoil, even as the economy has been solid. The government’s police-crackdown response has only made the country less stable. Just because politicians have been elected more or less democratically — as is the case with incumbent Prime Minister Najeeb Razzaq — doesn’t make them smart enough to handle the tough spots of governing. Crackdowns are almost always a mistake unless they are early, decisive and rare. Machiavelli taught us that.
In neighboring Singapore, former leader Lee Kuan Yew, now 88, was no “Little Hitler,” as a New York Times columnist once tarred that country’s exceptional modern founder. And so when in the recent election Lee’s long-ruling party garnered “only” 60 percent or so of the total vote, he felt the winds of change blowing in his face and retired from government for a long-deserved rest. His country now moves slowly toward a genuine two-party system, but don’t hold your breath and think it will become Switzerland or Sweden next year. In some sense Singapore will always be Singapore.
A yearning for clone-like Western-style democracy is not universal. Neither is it wise. Surely Afghanistan would be better off with an Islamic Lee Kuan Yew than, say, a Western Jimmy Carter. Democracy fundamentalists who continue to believe Iraq is good to soon copy the British Parliament had better not get their hopes up. Even if preying Iran decides not to exploit after the Americans exit, Iraq without some kind of modern Leviathan might just be ungovernable.
The political tsunami in Thailand well illustrates the folly of simplistic thinking. The recent election of the opposition by a powerful 2-1 margin was as much about what the Thais don’t want as what they do. On the not-wanted side, the majority said they don’t want military government that produces little more than ribbons for generals, and they don’t want more than half the country left out of the inner circle so that the greedy elite can slurp up all the spoils themselves. If a parliamentary democracy now headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the incisive but controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, laboring in the shadow of a still-active monarchy, can produce that change, fine. If not, then further change will come. They might even rent a Lee Kuan-Yew for a time if things don’t get better.
People everywhere want opportunity and choices. They want better governance, whatever form it takes; and they want a voice and a measure of participation. How precisely they get it is less important than that they do. The point is extremely simple, even though human beings are not. If democracy provides progress, that’s what they want. But what they are searching for isn’t a political ideal but something more down-to earth: a practical and credible political delivery vehicle. It only stands to reason.
Tom Plate is a distinguished professor of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. © 2011, Pacific Perspectives Media Center, Beverly Hills, California.