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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kristof doesn't get it

In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes:
Is the Arab world unready for freedom? A crude stereotype lingers that some people — Arabs, Chinese and Africans — are incompatible with democracy. Many around the world fret that “people power” will likely result in Somalia-style chaos, Iraq-style civil war or Iran-style oppression.

That narrative has been nourished by Westerners and, more sadly, by some Arab, Chinese and African leaders. So with much of the Middle East in an uproar today, let’s tackle a politically incorrect question head-on: Are Arabs too politically immature to handle democracy?

This concern is the subtext for much anxiety today, from Washington to Riyadh. And there’s no question that there are perils: the overthrow of the shah in Iran, of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, of Tito in Yugoslavia, all led to new oppression and bloodshed. Congolese celebrated the eviction of their longtime dictator in 1997, but the civil war since has been the most lethal conflict since World War II. If Libya becomes another Congo, if Bahrain becomes an Iranian satellite, if Egypt becomes controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood — well, in those circumstances ordinary citizens might end up pining for former oppressors.

“Before the revolution, we were slaves, and now we are the slaves of former slaves,” Lu Xun, the great Chinese writer, declared after the toppling of the Qing dynasty. Is that the future of the Middle East?

I don’t think so. Moreover, this line of thinking seems to me insulting to the unfree world. In Egypt and Bahrain in recent weeks, I’ve been humbled by the lionhearted men and women I’ve seen defying tear gas or bullets for freedom that we take for granted. How can we say that these people are unready for a democracy that they are prepared to die for?

We Americans spout bromides about freedom. Democracy campaigners in the Middle East have been enduring unimaginable tortures as the price of their struggle — at the hands of dictators who are our allies — yet they persist. In Bahrain, former political prisoners have said that their wives were taken into the jail in front of them. And then the men were told that unless they confessed, their wives would promptly be raped. That, or more conventional tortures, usually elicited temporary confessions, yet for years or decades those activists persisted in struggling for democracy. And we ask if they’re mature enough to handle it?

The common thread of this year’s democracy movement from Tunisia to Iran, from Yemen to Libya, has been undaunted courage. I’ll never forget a double-amputee I met in Tahrir Square in Cairo when Hosni Mubarak’s thugs were attacking with rocks, clubs and Molotov cocktails. This young man rolled his wheelchair to the front lines. And we doubt his understanding of what democracy means?

In Bahrain, I watched a column of men and women march unarmed toward security forces when, a day earlier, the troops had opened fire with live ammunition. Anyone dare say that such people are too immature to handle democracy?
Kristof is making a major mistake. He is confusing bravery for political maturity.

No one doubts the protesters' bravery. No one doubts their integrity, or their desire for change, or even their desire for democracy.

But there are serious doubts at their ability to translate the raw desire for freedom into a functional, liberal, democratic government.

It is hard work to create the institutions necessary. More importantly, it takes time - and time is not on the side of the protesters.

It is now fashionable to pooh-pooh the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood in Kristof's liberal circles, but no one can doubt that the Islamists are better organized and much more politically mature than the Facebookers of Tahrir Square. It takes time to set up an organization, to define a clear agenda, to build a fundraising mechanism, to attract volunteers, to build a means to communicate with all the people - including in rural areas, and to do all the myriad details from physical buildings to a phone system to a mailing list.

True freedom cannot flourish until Egyptians have been exposed to a wide range of ideas on a level playing field. The existing Islamist groups are running circles around the "Egyptian youth" we hear so much about. Kristof is so caught up in the emotions of the moment that he cannot think outside Tahrir Square, to the 99% of the country that is not as emotionally invested in who their leaders would be. To them, the nice people with beards who build a free Islamic school for their kids are the only game in town.

Enthusiasm does not ensure effective state building and true freedoms. Kristof, instead of spouting straw-man arguments, should be advocating ways for his jeans-wearing heroes to channel their sparks of enthusiasm and bravery into the hard, thankless and often boring work necessary to build a new Egypt from scratch.

(h/r David G)