The Middle East’s Democratic F-Words

LONDON – The Middle East continues to have the highest concentration of dictatorships in the world. But 2009 was the year that democracy appeared to take root in the region – and yet the future looks as bleak as ever.

In the Palestinian territories, Gaza’s democratically elected Hamas government and the democratically elected president of the Palestinian Authority are locked in a seeming death grip, which has seen Gaza fall into an economic black hole and paralyzed as it also allowed space for Israeli intransigence. All the while the supposed political savior, Marwan Barghouti, sits in an Israeli prison with a life sentence.

Meanwhile, the result of Iran’s presidential election was effectively hijacked, which in turn fractured the ruling elite and left the rulers more suspicious and insular than at any time since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s. Next door, Afghanistan’s president similarly decided not to leave his re-election bid to chance – or to the Afghan people.

These are but the latest signs that, more often than not, the Middle East’s recent democratic experiments have only increased instability. Sometimes the source of that instability is embedded: succession problems, electoral fraud, corruption, the absence of the rule of law, human rights violation, or official ethnic discrimination. Whatever the case, the region’s populations are growing restless, and the gap between rulers and ruled is widening.