The future of democracy in the Middle East
By Christopher L. Daniels, Ph.D. Assistant Professor in the College of
Social Sciences, Arts, and Humanities Florida A&M University
The recent storming of the United States embassies in Egypt and Libya and the killing of United States diplomats have left many shocked and searching for answers. What is the underlying reason for hostility toward the United States that provokes such extreme acts of violence? To date, the debate surrounding these tragic events has mainly been centered on the production of a controversial film by Nakoula Nakoula, which depicted the prophet Mohammed in a negative light and insulted the religion of Islam. This film, which was posted on the video sharing site YouTube, was translated into Arabic and played on television in several nations across North Africa and the Middle East sparking deadly protest.
The video has been removed from the site in several countries across the world except the United States. A court ruled the video could not legally be removed. While most would agree that the material in the film was offensive, many within the United States disagree with the forceful removal of the video for fear of setting a dangerous precedent for censorship of the Internet. While these discussions are healthy for future policy regarding international relations with the United States, it misses the bigger picture. There is a strikingly different societal landscape across North Africa and the Middle East than there is in North America.
In 2011, there were massive demonstrations across the region, which were dubbed the “Arab Spring.” These uprisings led to the ousting of several dictatorial regimes that once ruled their respective countries for decades. Many of these dictators had eliminated all of the typical systems of checks and balances and were essentially governing the country at their own will. When they were suddenly removed (or killed in the case of Libya) they left their countries with a huge vacuum of power to fill.
The result of this has been the establishment of democratic, but very weak regimes, which have little to no capability of controlling the population of their nations. Under leaders such as Hosni Muburak, demonstrations or protests similar to those witnessed in Egypt would have been outlawed and the organizers would have been jailed. Newly elected governments, however, do not have the power under the freshly drafted constitutions or the political will to keep the same tight grip on their populations that the previous regimes did.
This new era of responsiveness and government cooperation with the will of the people is certainly a victory for the average citizen, but it also has opened a window of opportunity for extremist organizations to operate within the region.
Regime changes alone cannot erase the decades of abuse of power and misappropriation of public funds that have left millions of people trapped in poverty and full of anger. Many of these leaders who clung to power were supported by various U.S. assistance programs, causing some to believe the U.S. has some culpability in their poverty and powerlessness. Now that a new era has been brought in, there is a true risk that there will be a deep disappointment with what democracy brings or does not bring to these nations and we could see many more outbreaks of violence some of which may be targeted at the United States.
While the Arab Spring will certainly go down as a watershed moment in the history of North Africa and the Middle East, at this point, it is too early to determine what will be the ultimate outcome. The decades of bottled up anger that is present within these societies could be ignited at any moment by a film or any other opportunistic person or organization. This reality makes increasing cultural sensitivity and understanding of the wide sweeping impact that information posted on the Internet can have critical for not just members of the government, but also for average citizens. There are several small steps that can be taken to achieve this objective. The first would be for video sharing sites like YouTube to require its members to watch tutorial videos on cultural sensitivity before being able to create an account. Popular video sharing sites could also consider reviewing their policies on removing videos that have been deemed offensive. Unfortunately, the Internet has been a place where pretty much anything goes, but in our rapidly globalizing world, these policies need to be reconsidered.
On the governmental level, it is crucial for the United States and our allies to continue financially supporting the newly democratized states in North Africa and the Middle East. Two areas in particular that should be heavily invested in are education and civil society. Investing in these two areas will help to accomplish three major goals: 1) Develop strong institutions capable of holding their government accountable; 2) develop a strong, qualified workforce to help jumpstart these nation’s economy; and 3) lessen the amount of people who are vulnerable to extremist propaganda because of their lack of education.
It is virtually impossible to totally eradicate extremism and random outbreaks of violence. Yet, following these suggestions can help government leaders, owners of global video sharing websites, and the average citizen greatly reduce the number of occurrences. Maybe then, public opinion of the United States in in the Middle Eastern regions will improve and democracy will prevail.
Christopher Daniel, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Florida A&M University.
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