Politicians and media were quick to dismiss the recent elections in Iran as being undemocratic, and rightfully so, seeing the fact that the mullah-led regime carefully handpicked the candidates it thought suitable for the people to choose from. Not surprisingly, some 1,700 reformists were barred from taking part.
Seeing the overwhelming attention was given to the Iranian take on democracy, it is striking to see how little we heard about similar practices in other countries in the region. Take Egypt. With an eye on the upcoming municipal elections, the Mubarak regime thought it best to pre-select candidates. From a total of 10,000 political hopefuls mostly associated to the Muslim Brotherhood, only 60 were allowed to register, while some 700 were detained.
Ever since 1981, when the state of emergency was introduced, the Egyptian authorities routinely arrest political opponents, or prevent them from participating otherwise. Likewise, who has heard anything about the 2007 parliamentary elections in Jordan?
Nothing ever happens in Jordan, seems to be the credo among newsmakers, which remains a self-fulfilling prophecy, as long as journalists and editors fail to even scratch the kingdom’s seemingly tranquil surface. And yet, it’s common knowledge that it’s extremely difficult to found a political party in Jordan, while the electoral process is designed in such a way that the country’s tribal provinces keep the upper hand over the urban majority, which is predominantly of Palestinian descent.
According to global watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Jordanian elections were characterized by nothing less than “outright fraud”. HRW furthermore criticized restrictions on freedom of speech, public gatherings and the country’s NGO law. In response, the Jordanian government did not do itself any favors by stating that the reason for banning demonstrations was “to ensure the safety of participants.”
In its 2008 World Report, HRW went on to say that in 2007 “too many governments, including Jordan, Nigeria, Russia and Thailand, acted as if simply holding a vote is enough to prove a nation is democratic,” while “the US and Europe ignored evidence of manipulated elections, particularly when the results were favorable to their administration.”
The deafening silence regarding democracy and human rights in Iran, Syria and other ‘rogue states’ is all the more remarkable among the more conservative members of the international press corps, as they were the main cheerleaders of the US-led invasion of Iraq, proudly presenting it as the beginning of a democratic blossoming in the region. Skeptics of this rather rosy picture were swept aside by labeling them as “(extreme) leftists,” who have become “anti-
American”, ever since the free market model became the world’s dominant force. So, British author Nick Cohen argued in his book “What’s Left?” that the left had lost its soul. Once it mounted the barricades in defense of human rights and secularism, yet now it sides with countries such as Cuba and Venezuela, and Islamist groups like Hizbullah and Hamas. In their urge to be anti-American, anti-Western even, the left is ready to embrace anyone, so Cohen and many others argue.
Now, this is hardly the place to deal with such thorny issues once and for all, yet a few question marks must be raised. Firstly, it is hardly fair and frankly rather ridiculous to nullify criticism of American foreign policy by making a matter of anti-Americanism. True of not, the claim that the search for weapons of mass destruction was primarily an excuse to invade Iraq, has nothing to do with some kind of metaphysical hatred of all things American, which includes everything from freedom and democracy to Elvis Presley, Hollywood blockbusters and the Rocky Mountains.
Note that Israeli conservatives do exactly the same thing, when arguing that criticism of the Zionist state is nothing but a veiled form of anti-Semitism, i.e. a deep hatred of anything Jewish. Noam Chomsky argues that this type of reasoning stems directly from the lexicon of totalitarianism. Soviet dissidents were accused of hating their country, because of their criticism of state policies, as for the totalitarian mind “the State is identified with the country, its culture, and its people.”
Secondly, the fact that the left is, hesitantly, willing to engage with groups as Hamas, Hizbullah or the Muslim Brotherhood is not so much due to an abandoning of secular values, but born of a deep awareness that one cannot have it both ways.
One cannot force elections upon Gaza and then ignore the end result when some 80% of the population votes for a party not of your liking. One cannot criticize Syria and Iran for human rights violations without ever raising a finger regarding similar practices in countries that happen to be US allies. One cannot criticize people for somehow engaging Islamists, while Saudi Arabia is among the main US allies in the region. That has nothing to do freedom or democracy. That is just a matter of plain and simple hypocrisy.
Peter Speetjens is a Beirut-based journalist.