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Too much democracy may damage your health

A few decades ago, one widespread quote in the Arab world was that it was facing the danger of “partitioning what has already been partitioned.” Those days, several Arab capitals were run by leaders who hid their tribalism and sectarianism by claiming to be pan-Arabists and anti-imperialist globalists.
No doubt the region was affected by the demise of the Arab nationalist project after the defeat by Israel in 1967, and later by the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and 1990s due to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the USSR. Thus evaporated all fake slogans, and emerged the true chemistry of most of these regimes.
It did not take long before the discourse of armed political Islam began establishing itself at the expense of pan-Arabism, the liberation of Palestine and the globalist discourse of the socialist left and liberal right.
But there was no place for armed groups under state authority, which meant that armed political Islam — namely Sunni — bolstered by some electoral successes, became the democratic choice in the struggle for political change against regimes unwilling to accommodate reform.

It may be in the Kurds’ interests to be cautious in over-relying on international promises of support. They may be wise not to burn all their boats, even with the Arabs, who are now the weakest player in the Middle East.

Eyad Abu Shakra 



On the other hand, the states’ legitimate armies and security forces (and later Shiite militias, as we have witnessed in Iraq and Syria) became the effective means of stemming the tide of Sunni political Islam. The Arab Spring has been a turning point. While many Arab intellectuals continue to debate the meaning of this term, many have been questioning and arguing some serious issues.
Why seek change if the human, political and economic costs were so high? What is wrong with tolerating dictatorships if the alternative is chaos? Are we not immature nations that hardly deserve democracy anyway? So why ask for what we do not deserve?
Why must we show empathy with other suffering Arabs who trouble us and let us down, instead of looking after our own interests? What is wrong in being weak — even against regional challenges — when we can rely on superpowers that are always ready to protect us?
Being able to address these questions would enrich our political culture and refocus our outlook to the challenges faced by the region and its peoples. But we are approaching these questions neither in a responsible way nor with a commitment to accountability.
For example, a lot has been written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the nature of Israel, to the extent that many have lost interest. Later we lived, and continue to live, under Iran’s hegemonic project that today controls four Arab capitals. We also follow Turkey’s tumultuous hankering to go back to Ottoman times.
Meanwhile, Arab division and disintegration gather pace against a backdrop of inflated individualism, and delusions about what the future might hold for the region. In Sudan, the south seceded, and this may only be the beginning. In some North African countries, there are stirrings of dormant factional problems. In Yemen, the Houthi phenomenon, coming hard on the heels of the Al-Qaeda phenomenon, is a worrying sign.
But the real catastrophe is that taking hold in Iraq and the Levant. The Kurds have decided on independence from Iraq, and had things been more conducive, they would have done the same in Syria.
As the creation of Daesh brought down the Syrian popular uprising and rehabilitated the Assad regime under US-Russian auspices and Iranian firepower, the transgressions of Saddam Hussein and Nouri Al-Maliki gave Iraqi Kurdish leaders a ready-made excuse to seek an independence that they had worked for all along, regardless of what they claim today.
There is no moral or political justification to oppose the Kurds’ right to seek independence, whether in Iraq or Syria, or even Iran and Turkey. But as is often said: “The devil is in the detail.” What sort of country will the new Kurdistan be? What will its borders look like? What political system will it have? What are non-Kurds to expect in a nationalist Kurdish entity? The early signs in disputed areas are not encouraging.
During the war on Daesh, Iraqi Kurds made haughty pronouncements that the peshmerga (powerful Kurdish militias) “will never withdraw from any territory they liberate.” Then there is the volatile situation in the oil-rich, ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, and the issues of Tel Afar and the towns of the Nineveh Plain, not to mention the bouts of ethnic and sectarian cleansing in Diyala province.
Not to be outdone, Syria’s Kurds are steadily working to establish their ever-expanding Rojava autonomous region at the expense of Arab, Turkmen and Syriac/Assyrian/Chaldean towns and villages, changing their mostly Arabic names in the process.
Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government — who has insisted on including the disputed areas in the independence referendum — continues to reassure world leaders that the newly independent Kurdistan will be a Northern European-style pluralistic democracy, but under the arms and banners of the peshmerga.
The Kurdish parties working for an autonomous area in northern Syria, which are also trying to impose their hegemony over mixed areas, claim they too are committed to democracy. They have been conducting elections under the watchful eye of the attractively called Syrian Democratic Forces, which are dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia.
This brand of democracy does not reassure many living within or outside Kurdish-dominated areas. If helpless minorities find themselves willing to accept the lesser of two evils — living under Iranian Shiite militias or under Daesh — others do not feel compelled to accept such a scenario.
Honest aspirations and goodwill aside, Kurdish leaders today face many serious doubts and strong opposition. And if lamentable Arab weakness cannot save the identity and sovereignty of Iraq and Syria, Iran’s and Turkey’s national interests may be able to disturb Kurdish calculations and impose conditions of their own.
It may be in the Kurds’ interests to be cautious in over-relying on international promises of support. They may be wise not to burn all their boats, even with the Arabs, who are now the weakest player in the Middle East.

• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article is also published.
Twitter: @eyad1949