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Interview with Robert Fisk: we preach democracy yet befriend dictators

Middle East

Robert Fisk

How is Western-style democracy seen in the Middle East these days?

In Europe there seems to be less and less democracy. There’s more and more presidential government; members of parliament simply don’t have any power any more. People in the Middle East read about the West as we read about the Middle East. They are aware of conversations about the ‘democratic deficit’; they are aware of the degree to which voters in the West seem increasingly distanced from their representatives. So a lot of the people I talk to in the Middle East are asking why we are trying to preach democracy when we don’t have a lot ourselves.

There’s a good deal of cynicism about the word.

I think many people here would like quite a lot of democracy; they would like some packages of human rights off our supermarket shelf. But what they talk about is injustice – and justice is something that I don’t think we’re interested in giving to the Middle East.

Elections are central to the Western idea of democracy. What effect have they had in the Middle East?

The effects have been grotesque. Every president claims to have a fair election and every presidential election is rigged, which is why you hear that Mr Mubarak gets 98 per cent of the vote and Saddam used to get 100 per cent. It’s a mockery, but what’s interesting is that people seem to think it adds legitimacy to have an election – even if it’s totally rigged. They want to say: ‘We have elections too, we have a parliament, we have a president, we elect him’, even though we all know that in those Arab countries where there are elections – with the exception of Lebanon, where there is some fairness in the process – it doesn’t really count.

Elections here [in the Middle East] are a tool, they are a device; they are not meant to explain the thinking of the people: they are meant to explain the thinking of the man who is going to be elected.

‘in the Middle East you have mock elections which are supposed to be real; in the West we have real ones that often turn out to be mock’

So in the Middle East you have mock elections which are supposed to be real ones; in the West we have real ones that often turn out to be mock in the sense that our MPs don’t do what we want them to do. At least in the West we can be sure that the votes are tallied; they are not tipped into the Nile or burned overnight in the Ministry of the Interior.

But what we have done is that we have enshrined our own democracies while propping up dictatorships in the Middle East, which are allowed to play democracy. We were best friends of Saddam for many years. We love Mubarak, who is a ‘moderate’, even though when you have presidential elections in places like Egypt you know it’s a lie.

So what’s to be done?

Are we saying: have some democracy and you will be just like us? Or are we cheating them by saying that? We believe in justice but we do not dispense justice in the Middle East, do we? I mean, just look at the place. We have no intention of letting the Palestinians get their homes back. We preach justice but I don’t think we are interested in it.

There is a great understanding in the Middle East of what history has done to it and what we [the West] have done in history. So I’m not really sure that they always want to buy our products, like human rights or democracy – because we have not always demonstrated them to them. Very often we’ve bombed them, in fact.

Quite a lot of people used to say to me when I gave lectures in the US, Canada, Europe: ‘What can we do?’ I used to say: join Amnesty or Human Rights Watch. Now I say: come and have a look at the Middle East and learn about it. We can write about the injustice in the region so that people understand why the incendiary fury that people feel towards the West, towards each other, exists. We certainly can’t preach our wonderful political lives.

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