Democracy in the Mideast?

President George W. Bush is certainly putting his money where his mouth is. Last week, the State Department announced it will invest $25 million to promote democracy throughout the Arab world. The goals of the program, which will train political advocates, journalists and others, are economic reform and private sector development, education, promotion of civil society and respect for the rule of law.

But is throwing money at the problem enough? Bush’s initiative begs the question: How might democracy blossom in a culture where none has existed in the past? Will it flourish organically, or will it require some gentle prodding, such as with the butt of a gun, for example?

Historically, democracies have emerged from centuries of dictatorships and monarchies. Some have become democracies only after unconditional surrender (Japan and Germany). Others have seemed to choose democracy without any formal surrender (Russia). What explains this difference?

Part of the answer may lie in timing. Russia is the most recent of the three democracies I’ve mentioned. Unlike the others, Russia became a democracy during the media age, and during the beginning of the globalization of information.

Similarly, forces are now emerging that may encourage the Arab world to democracy. Here are some:

(1) Globalization and the Internet. As Thomas Friedman explains in his new book "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," we are seeing democratization of (a) financial markets; (b) technology; (c) information; and (d) politics. Until recently, the Arab world has successfully prevented Western news sources from "contaminating" their subjects, using brutal repression and controlling their media. But the Arab world can’t stop the Internet or satellite news. Saudi Arabia has recently instituted a policy of allowing access to the Internet to university students, albeit at limited speeds, and only for five minutes at a time. However, this may be the first crack in the dam.

(2) The Plight of Arab Women: One day, the media will turn its cameras to the barbaric manner in which the Arab world treats women. It will expose the Arab world’s ritualized female circumcision as a form of sexual control, use of rape as an official tool of punishment and execution of unmarried women for merely holding a man’s hand — to say nothing of women’s utter inability to participate in society. This exposure will create pressure on the Arab world to make other social reforms.

(3) Oil. This may be the biggest factor. Saudi Arabian Muhammad Al-Sabban, head of the senior economic advisory to the Saudi Oil Ministry, acknowledged that Arab oil will play a major role in the world’s energy mix only for the next 15 years, at most. Once this bargaining chip vanishes, the Arab world’s ability to act as a force of menace will diminish — like a school bully who suddenly shrinks a foot or two. What will also diminish is the West’s one reason to pander to the brutal dictatorships in the Arab world. So, too, will the non-oil-producing Arabs’ power wane (such as the Palestinians, Syrians and Egyptians), all of whom now enjoy the indirect benefits of the collective oil cudgel from their Arab brethren.

(4) Generally Accepted Democratic Principles. Here’s an irony: Despite their angry beating of the chest when it comes to the West, most Arab dictatorships actually claim to observe democratic principles. As brutal a dictator as Arafat is, for example, he still insists his people have chosen him in fair democratic elections, and that his press is "free." Dictators do this to appear as honest brokers to the outside world. This is like the embezzler who insists he zealously follows generally accepted accounting principles. He does so because he implicitly acknowledges the correctness of those principles. Similarly, in making their claims of democratic treatment of their people, are these dictators not actually acknowledging democracy as the "proper" form of rule? One day, the Arab people may ask: if our leaders praise democracy, then why aren’t we one?

Some will argue that these factors may topple the existing governments, but will lead, at best. to anarchy or greater fundamentalism. For democracy to occur, they will say the West’s intervention is necessary, as it was necessary after World War II. But the world has changed since then: everyone can now see what everyone else is doing, and everyone can more easily see how the other world lives. And so the factors that previously led to the democratization of Russia may also now lead to the organic democratization of the Arab world. For that to occur, we may only need to ensure the continuing globalization of information. And that is a force no Arab country can hope to stop.

Barak Lurie is an Israeli and American citizen and a specialist on Middle East affairs. He serves as general counsel for the Sterling Corp.