A sign of hope for democracy in Arab world: 52-48

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - If you listen closely to the emerging debate about Iraq, one of the themes you can start to hear is that culture matters - and therefore this whole Iraq adventure may be a fool's errand. Because the political culture in the Arab world - where family and tribal identities have always trumped the notion of the citizen - is resistant to democracy.

I believe culture does matter, although I have no idea how much it explains the absence of Arab democracies. But I also believe cultures can change under the weight of history, economic reform and technological progress, and my own encounters with young people in the Arab world since 9/11 tell me that is happening.


Consider what was the most talked-about story in the Arab world in recent weeks.






It was the Arab version of American Idol!

The Arab look-alike, called Superstar, was aired on the satellite channel of the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. (LBC). Over 21 weeks, viewers got to vote by fax, Internet or cell phone for their favorite singers. Thousands of singers from across the Arab world were narrowed down to 12 finalists from seven different countries, then two. Millions of Arab viewers voted in the finals.

On Aug. 18, the Associated Press reported from Beirut: "Competition went smoothly until last week, when front-runner Melhem Zein of Lebanon was eliminated in the semifinals. Angry fans [in the studio] pelted each other with chairs and anything they could find, and the two remaining contestants fainted. ... Both Jordan and Syria have launched campaigns urging people to vote for their candidates" - who were the two finalists.

Naturally, the fundamentalist Islamic Action Front condemned it all: "We urge official and popular parties to put an end to this sad comedy," it said, because this show "facilitates the culture of globalization led by America to change the cultural identity of the people."

I found out about all this when a Jordanian friend e-mailed me after the finals, saying: "Yesterday the Jordanian singer won through a vote over the Internet. 4.5 million people voted. People went wild in the streets till the early hours of the morning. ... The Arab basement can change!"


Rami Khouri, editor of The Beirut Daily Star, echoed that theme: "This was a fascinating example of how the power of technology - in this case, satellite television, Internet and cell phones - can tap sentiments and prompt people to action." But what was even more striking, Mr. Khouri said, was the Jordanian singer's victory margin. She won by only 52 percent to 48 percent in a region where presidents always win by "99 percent."

"I do not recall in my happy adult life a national vote that resulted in a 52 to 48 percent victory," Mr. Khouri added. "Most of the 'referenda' or 'elections' that take place in our region usually result in fantastic pre-fixed victories. ... So a 52 to 48 percent outcome - even for just a song contest - is a breath of fresh air. ... Thank you, LBC, for allowing ordinary Arabs to show that they are not always willing participants in the political freak shows that are the 'official elections' for president and other forms of Great Leader."

In the Arab world, where few can speak freely, let alone vote, satellite TV is becoming a virtual Democracy Wall. "They're the only opening, so people try to push as much through them as they can," said Marwan Bishara, a lecturer at the American University of Paris.

Technology, though, still can't trump two huge impediments to Arab democracy. One is the lack of institutions to ensure a peaceful rotation of power. "In too many countries there is still a tradition of rule or die - either my group or tribe is in power or it's exposed to great danger, so you must never give up power," noted Michael Mandelbaum, author of The Ideas That Conquered the World.

The other is that so many Arab economies are dominated by state oil revenues and state companies, with private enterprise very weak. Therefore, holding onto or being close to power are the only pathways to wealth. Control power, control wealth. "It will be very hard to install lasting democracy in this region," Mr. Mandelbaum added, "without institutions and economic reforms that guarantee that there is life after power and wealth without power."

So yes, culture and historical legacies matter, but so, too, do new ideas and technologies. All of which means America's attempt to bring democracy to Iraq isn't crazy - just something that will be very hard.


Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.