Sunday, May 29, 2011

Democracy is a means, not an end

Two recent and thoughtful pieces on the Middle East are worth contemplating:

"Democracy or Liberty" by Steve Hanke in Asharq al-Awsat (also in Arabic) and
"The Weak Foundations of Arab Democracy" by Timur Kuran in the New York Times

One of the striking features of the revolutions in the Arab world has been the difficulty in understanding what the demonstrators want. Yes, they wanted to do away with the Mubaraks and Assads of the world, but what do they want their countries to be like the day after the next election? ( In a previous post, I highlighted the confusion in Egypt).

Democracy cannot be an end. It is simply a workable formula for self government, which has been proven successful when certain preconditions are met. It has led to disastrous results when these conditions are absent, If in doubt, take a look at Chavez's Venezuela.

Hanke raises a very important point: the success of the US is precisely because the Founding Fathers subordinated Democracy to Liberty. Individual freedom was the overarching principle that circumscribed policy.  Democratic decisions that breached that principle, no matter how popular, were taken to court.

The absence of a serious discussion on the role of the state, and individual rights, is woefully absent from political discourse in the Middle East. The demonstrators (in Egypt in particular) are focussing on entitlements, not liberties. If asked to explain their position, the demonstrators effectively call for bigger government, not a government constrained by the protection of individual rights.

Timur Kuran presents an interesting hypothesis of why this is the case. Kuran's point is that the preconditions of democracy are lacking in the region because the culture is based on Sharia law. In turn, Sharia law does not provide for the concept of a corporation, and this is why civil society is weak. Without civil society to champion individual rights democracy is bound to fail.

I'm not familiar enough with Islamic issues to opine on the validity of Kuran's hypothesis. But regardless of its validity, I'm not convinced that civil society is a precondition for success. Civil society can also mean special interest groups that will turn any constitution into Salmagundi. Brazil's experience in writing it's 1988 constitution with far-reaching input from civil society is instructive. Since 1988 Brazil needed 67 constitutional amendments and three serious economic crises (including a default) to get policies "about right." Since enacting the Bill of Rights in 1791, the US amended the constitution only 17 times (bringing the total to 27 amendments).

The problem in the Arab world is the complete absence of thoughtful leadership. I don't expect the average demonstrator to have read either Adam Smith or Thomas Paine. But unfortunately, few people are even vaguely familiar with their ideas at all. I was surprised and dismayed to discover through an article in the Wall Street Journal that most liberal thinkers have never been translated into Arabic.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Assad's genital fixation

Hamza al-Khatib was a 13 year old boy in Syria. He was killed in custody. They cut off his penis.

While it may seem difficult to understand this story, some clues are right before our eyes. This is part of a pattern. Suleiman al-Khalidi wrote a thoughtful piece (Shattered humanity inside Syria's security apparatus) about his days in captivity in Syria, that included this passage: "When they told him to take down his pants, I could see his swollen genitals, tied tight with a plastic cable." 

Genitals seem to be of particular interest to Syrian security forces.

Anyone remember Jeffrey Dahmer? Now imagine that as a state institution. Suddenly Gaddafi appears like an entertaining eccentric, while Mubarak and Ben Ali are saints. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

Assad ♥ Kids

Syria's official news agency today carried a news item that was just too good to let pass without comment. I grabbed the screen shot below, in case they decide to remove the story as they have done in the past.

President Assad issued a decree in which he effectively gives students extra grades. Seriously?

In one swoop, the man demonstrates that:

1. That he is indeed a dictator. (In case anyone had a lingering doubt, he's the dude that can decide to do whatever, whenever).

2. No school or employer should take Syrian students seriously. The grades are determined by the government when the feel like it. Grades do not necessarily reflect your abilities.  (If you want a job, you better suck up to the government to give you a job).

But the decree also raises other possibilities:

1. Assad is still deeply involved in the Bekaa drug trade, and he is testing the quality of the stuff himself.

2. Assad loves the young ones, in the same way that Kim Jong-Il loves the young ones. All that's needed is for him to start putting freaky statues of friendly animals around town.

Source: By (Stephan)