ARI’s roundtable at the Seventh Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade

At the Seventh Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade, held in Qatar on 24-25 April 2007the Arab Reform Initiative ran a round-table discussion on the impact of external intervention on the establishment of democracy under the title “Does the establishment of democracy require international intervention?”

Participants were Dr. Salim al-Hoss, the former Lebanese Prime Minister; Dr. Mouloud Hamrouche, former Algerian Prime Minister; Professor Ahmad Baha’ Eddin Sha‘ban, one of the founders of the Kifayah movement in Egypt; Iraqi historian Siyyar al-Jamil; Pascal Boniface, the Director of the Institute for International and Strategic Studies in France; Dr. Anush Ihtishami, Director of the School of Government and International Affairs, University of Durham in Britain; and Dr. Michael Brown, Dean of the Elliot College for International Studies at George Washington University in the United States.

Bassma Kodmani, Director of the ARI, chaired the discussion. She stressed the importance of the topic in Arab debates as it arouses fundamental differences among people in the region. The idea of foreign intervention is not in principle rejected as there is a consensus over the demand for international intervention to solve the Palestine problem for example. On the issue of democracy, what is under discussion is really about the goals and methods of intervention: can the outside world influence the behavior of existing regimes and does it have the desire to do that? Can it influence the potentials and strategies of social and political forces, and if so, by what means? what courses our societies should follow to use the language and concepts that grow out of our historical and social reality, to organize systematically the production of a vision and the formulation of the issues and challenges that we face. Salim al-Hoss opened the discussion by drawing a distinction between two concepts of intervention. He noted that there is foreign intervention by violent means aiming at pulling the target country into the orbit of the intervening power – regardless of what excuses are used to justify such intervention – as sometimes they plead that they are bringing democracy, as happened in Iraq. This must be distinguished from regarding the great democracies as true examples and taking their transformation as a model. The possibilities for this are present today and have greatly increased thanks to the development of the means of communication and information. But although the great powers are democratic internally, they do not make democratization their goal in foreign policy and do not hesitate to support autocratic regimes whenever it suits their interests. Al-Hoss pointed to America’s approach to Lebanon, and Washington’s disavowal of the practice of Palestinian democracy – something decided by a small group of people that is inflicting enormous sufferings on the population. He concluded his remarks by saying that the definition of terrorism has become a matter of opinion.

Hamrouche raised the central question of the conditions required for the formation of democracy in accordance with national will. He stressed the role of the state and the importance of providing a framework that allows representatives of the society and the authorities together to formulate those conditions. While we agreed to import all the commodities produced by the West and its educational and university systems, we still refuse to draw inspiration from the democratic system on the pretext that it is foreign to us.

Baha’ Eddin Shaban took up the situation in Egypt and the way that the authorities are circumventing democratic fundamentals on the grounds that democracy would scare the West with the specter of the rise of Islamic currents. A successful transition to democracy in some Eastern European countries happened thanks to the presence of strong civil societies there, not the foreign intervention, however great that was. But such a situation cannot be fabricated, and it is important to support the political and social movements that are making demands on the authorities and to protect them from repression and tyranny.

Sayyar al-Jamil stressed democracy as a comprehensive way of life and the importance of education in promoting it. External intervention, however, leads to disastrous results as in the situation in Iraq, where the practices of the occupation led to rampant sectarianism. Al-Jamil demanded a new Iraqi constitution that does not rest on a religious basis and that political formations adhere to secular, not sectarian, principles.

Michael Brown noted that the failure of American policy in the region will have far-reaching results, and proposed the promotion of democracy through international cooperation in three areas, namely: technical assistance to civil society organizations and universities; work towards developing authoritative values and expectations; and finally a focus on the educational dimension. He noted that outside support for democracy was best done through persuasion as a model to emulate.