By Walid Salem (for Safe Democracy)

Walid Salem discusses the lessons that have come out of attempts over the last ten years to establish democracy in Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine. In Salem‘s opinion, the establishment of real participatory democracies, with solid democratic institutions, is essential to solving many of the problems in the Middle East from wars, to extremism, to lack of unity, to the corruption of authoritarian regimes. But democracy must be established very carefully: forging pacts between local liberal democrats, and moderate enlightened Islamists; developing real un-patronizing partnerships between the West and local democracies; and humanizing and respecting the equal rights, liberties, and opinions of all citizens.

Walid Salem is a political analyst and the director of Panorama, the Centre for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development, East Jerusalem office.

THERE IS A WIDE CONSENSUS among academics and advocates of democracy that the mere existence of a representative democracy is not enough to ensure democratic ideals. For a democracy to truly function, it must have the corresponding institutions, structures, and processes of a participatory democracy.

Without the proper institutions, the government can still rule freely over its people, making decisions, which are in no way consistent with the public good: like instigating wars, and using its citizens as cannon fodder.

When it comes to the Middle East, the process of building a representative democracy always begins with the destruction or weakening of democratic ideals. The examples of Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine will help to clarify this concept.

In Lebanon, rather than having a system of direct representation based upon citizenship, a denominational representation system has been put in place. Citizens are denied the unique freedoms of individual choice, to be represented only by their denomination in the political system.

In Iraq, three lessons for how to establish a participatory democracy have already been established: first, the UN needs to find a better way of making collective decisions, rather than acting in separate and contradictory ways; second, all interventions taken in Iraq should be carried out in participation with the local democratic forces with their full consent; and third, real participatory democratic structures must be created to unite people in a bottom-up fashion, rather than the top-down institutional structures, which have been unable to end the bloodshed and unite the Iraqi people.

In Palestine, Arafat used the semblance of a representative democracy to perpetuate his authoritarian rule. He slowly began to deconstruct the institutional processes of Palestinian democracy, ruling with the support of a small group of personal advisors. The result was a corrupt leadership, and the shared failure with Israel of the peace process.

Democratic institutions in other Arab countries are virtually nonexistent. But where they do exist, they are generally facades for authoritarian rule. False elections appoint puppet democracies while the autocrat continues blissfully acting in his own self-interest, disregarding the needs of his citizens.

The price of authoritarian rule is very high. Harsh, violent, and abusive governments elicit strong reactions from their citizens creating both local and global extremism. Citizens are still considered as subjects of their regimes, lacking any capacity but to obey. In the Middle East, the promotion of democratic transformation is of the utmost importance.

There are many different steps to take in order to promote democracy in the Middle East. Pacts between local liberal democrats, and moderate enlightened Islamists should be created within Middle Eastern countries. With the long history of fragmentation and rivalry, it may be difficult to forge these alliances, but if people recognize each other as individuals sharing the same hardships, then agreements can be made.

Also a strengthening of the Muslim Brotherhood may lead to a greater possibility for democratic, peaceful transformation. As the largest Islamist Group in the world, the Muslim Brotherhood promotes peace and democracy, and encourages open discussions among all members of society.

Citizens movements should also be established and extended throughout the region, to strengthen the processes of democracy, while also democratizing the peace process. The movement for peace should be a process of change from the bottom-up, rather than a top-down push disregarding public interest.

But perhaps most essential of all, is the strengthening of certain values and norms within the Arab nations of the Middle East. In order for democracy to work, people must not only be open to new ideas, but they must be capable of humanizing those who do not think as they do. Listening to and understanding the perspective of the other, even in the absence of agreement, is one of the foremost values of a democracy.

Democracy cannot exist without the full humanization of the other; it cannot exist without the establishment of equal rights and liberties for all; and it absolutely cannot exist if it set up in a patronizing, arrogant, or imposing way. Partnership is essential in order to move from authoritarian puppet democracies, to real, humanistic, participatory democracies that are able to make positive change.

We have been given a lot of lessons from the democracy building initiatives that have taken place over the last ten years in the Middle East. The question is whether we are ready to learn.

Safe Democracy would like to invite you to subscribe to the weekly electronic newsletter, with analysis and commentaries from our international experts (click here).