Zakaria on Arab Spring: With Democracy, Less Is More

zakariaThe Arab Spring protests brought to the surface some interesting tension between elite rhetoric about democracy and U.S. interests. It’s not that you always heard pundits taking the side of autocrats and dictators; more often it was couched in language about security or “stability” or the “delicate tightrope” the United States was forced to walk, as the government’s dictator allies were thrown out of power.

And then you have Fareed Zakaria, who in his latest Washington Post column (1/30/13) argued that pro-democracy movements would be better off with less democracy.

Zakaria contrasts the violence and political chaos in Egypt with relatively peaceful Morocco and Jordan–where dictators are still in power, but are making gestures towards a more democratic future:

Compare the differences between Egypt and Jordan. At the start of the Arab Spring, it appeared that Egypt had responded to the will of its people, had made a clean break with its tyrannical past and was ushering in a new birth of freedom. Jordan, by contrast, responded with a few personnel changes, some promises to study the situation and talk of reform.

But then Egypt started going down the wrong path, and Jordan made a set of wise choices.

To Zakaria, Egypt tried too much democracy too soon. “In Jordan, by contrast, the king did not rush to hold elections”– shocking!–but instead “appointed a council to propose changes to the constitution.” As Zakaria concludes:

The best role models for the region might well be two small monarchies. Jordan and Morocco have gone the opposite route, making measured reforms and liberalizing their existing systems. The monarchies have chosen evolution over revolution.

Whatever one thinks of the state of things in Egypt, this isĀ  not a particularly convincing case. Zakaria points to one particular problem with Egypt’s constitution:

Some of its provisions ban blasphemy and insult and allow for media censorship in the name of national security. These are all ways to give the government unlimited powers, which the Muslim Brotherhood has used. More journalists have been persecuted for insulting Morsi in his six-month presidency than during the nearly 30-year reign of Mubarak.

That’s certainly not encouraging. But how is the evolution-not-revolution kingdom of Jordan faring on the same score? According to Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index 2013, things are getting worse:

A repressive royal decree in September was one of the reasons why Jordan (134th, -6) fell. The decree changed the press law and drastically restricted freedom of information, especially for online media, brushing aside all the reform promises that the government gave at the height of the popular unrest in 2011. Journalists are being tried before military courts, especially when they criticize the royal family.

That paints a very different picture than Zakaria is giving readers. (Egypt, though it ranks below Jordan at No. 158, actually gained rose eight places in 2012.) Then again, this might not be a big surprise, coming from someone who was an enthusiastic supporter of George W. Bush’s wars, which to Zakaria were likely to usher in a new kind of freedom. Zakaria wrote in 2005 that Bush “has been fundamentally right about some big things,” adding:

Bush’s capacity to imagine a different Middle East may actually be related to his relative ignorance of the region. Had he traveled to the Middle East and seen its many dysfunctions, he might have been disheartened.

By that logic, the people best suited to bring democracy to the Arab world could very well be invading American presidents and monarchs.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.