New Internationalist

Interview with Robert Fisk: we preach democracy yet befriend dictators

Issue 436

Spreading democracy’ was the rationale for invading Iraq and Afghanistan. Middle East expert Robert Fisk describes how it now looks from his home in Beirut.

Robert Fisk
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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  1. #1 fupi Matata 05 Oct 10

    Democracy In Middle East

    Hamas won a democratic victory in Palestine,was propmtly ostracised by the West.the Kings of Saudi arabia,emir of Kuwait Bahrain do not allow Democracy to breathe ,yet they are the bosom pals of the West;In Iran democratically elected Ahmednejad in Iran is interfered by Westerners CIa as they did in Mussadik's time.
    The westerners seem to be a land of hypocrites.In Middl;e East Zionist Israel establish an Askenazi(nonSemitic accord to Prof.Shlomo Sands Of Tel Aviv)colony in sephardic Palestine (as arabs are children of Abraham via Ismail).they refuse to give equal voting rights to majority Arabs (They had to tried to change the demography by ethnic clensing)and claim they are a Democratic yt Jewish state! An oxymoron!

  2. #2 A.Shawki 06 Oct 10

    While western democracies are not perfect, they do work most of the time, and they are a far cry from what we have in the Middle East. People that are asking why you are trying to preach democracy when you don’t have a lot yourselves don't really understand what democracy is, they fall victims to their government's propaganda believing that the west does not have democracy, does not respect human rights and that they are much better off than the hypocritical heathen west, they are victims of decades of repression, poverty, ignorance and gross injustices, blaming their backwardness on the west and Israel instead of their governments. It's true that the west had for years supported dictators in return for stability, but the answer now cannot be a 180 course reversal, the results could be catastrophic. Institution building, education, human rights, social, political and economic reforms should be first priority, reversing past injustices can help the west's credibility, boosting people's belief in it's values. We have to start now so maybe within a few decades we can be ready to embrace full democracy.

  3. #3 Balaclava 06 Oct 10

    Democracy in west a sham

    A. Shawki, what part of the world or planet you from? The western elections are rigged big time by the corporations. We westerners seem stuck in a 2 party situation, even though there could be 10 parties to choose from. No our system is a far cry from perfect. Give me a Hugo Chevaz government anyday!

  4. #4 watermew 08 Oct 10

    ’Democracy’ exported through the barrel of a gun

    Robert Fisk writes eloquently in the New Internationalist that we ’preach democracy yet befriend dictators’. He is right of course and this does explain the growing resistance of occupied people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and other regions. In this piece however he is much too mild in his exposure of fake democracy in the ’West’. As Prof Kathleen Barry has recently said, the so-called democratic world is almost entirely under the control of the Pentagon allied with major international corporations, both heavily dependent on arms sales. He detailed research on sociology has exposed an even more alarming fact: most people in power have a neurological abnormality called psycho-pathology. There are incapable of empathy or remorse. They are not evil. They simply do not sense the effect of their destructive actions on other people. The increasing use of drones and robots to kill people increases the separation of those in control of the war machine from the death and destruction they are causing. And then they complain that the local people are throwing stones at them!

  5. #5 goodnews17 08 Oct 10

    Democracy in human hands is based on the majority of people doing the 'right' thing and having leaders lead by example with policy and government doing the 'right' thing. It is all based on the precarious assumption that humans are 'good' and do what is 'right'. The reality as indicated by social, economic, ecological and political stresses in both the West and East is that those assumptions are incorrect. Humans are flawed and selfish and are incapable of doing the ideal, the 'good' and 'right' things. I see no solution with humans, whether in the West or East. It lies beyond us and I would venture to say it is in the hands of God the Creator, not the created. The article by Robert highlights what is becoming increasingly apparent and all of us need to address it.

  6. #6 vanessa 08 Oct 10

    god and democracy

    I'm sorry, goodnews17, but recourse to 'God' as the only possible bestower of democratic justice fills me with dread. Religious belief has time and again been used and abused to commit some of the worst crimes against humanity. All too often faith in the divine is used by believers to try and give their human views, opinions, emotions or prejudices, some kind of extra, 'supernatural' authority. Dangerous stuff. Think Bin Laden. Think Bush. Think Blair.

  7. #7 A.Shawki 11 Oct 10

    @Balaclava, To say western elections are rigged by corporations is pathetic, public opinion is influenced by lobby groups sure. Rigging elections is where whole boxes are thrown away and replaced by new ones, when security forces block access to polling stations except to party loyalists, it's when party thugs intimidate people into voting for the ruling party. The ruling party can have hours of add campaigns and talk shows on TV and the opposition can't, they can't even hold rallies. You want Hugo Chavez? Ask Venezuelans, I'm sure they'll let you have him.

  8. #8 Careful Believer 15 Oct 10

    US elections may not have been free..

    Dear A.Shawki,

    I am afraid those times where rigged elections are only recognised the way you described it are over.

    G.W. Bush was ’elected’ mostly with (for the first time ever) touch screen voting machines. The two companies providing them have a criminal track record and I believe I remember that there was even a connection with the Bush clan.
    California refused to use these machines as they were considered unsafe i.e. easy to manipulate.

    I personally also wonder why a government would buy (rather than lease or use volunteers as everwhere in the world) such expensive machines that are only used every few years...and don't leave a paper trail...

    There were also some irregularities with black people not being allowed to vote in e.g. Florida etc..feel free to google for more info.

    Manipulation of people has become much easier in the west as anything from votes, media to money has become electronic and there is more to come.

    Gone are the days of burning boxes..

  9. #9 A.Shawki 15 Oct 10

    Careful Believer,

    Maybe the days of burning boxes are over in the west, but I'm afraid they are still practiced in many Middle Eastern countries and other totalitarian regimes. You think I'm exaggerating? Women have been beaten and molested at the polls, Judges monitoring the elections were beaten by security forces. Was George W. Bush elected for 30 consecutive years with 90% of the vote?

    Sure there are irregularities in the west, there is voter manipulation, elections have become big business, yet there is hardly any comparison. In western democracies, there are democratic institutions, there is separation of powers, there are so many guarantees and safety nets to prevent abuse of power and to hold the president accountable if it happens, at least there is a two term maximum limit. You have freedom of association, hold rallies and demonstrate without being arrested. In the Middle East there is none of that, the president has absolute power over everything for life, so please don't tell me you too have rigged elections.

    It's not just elections, it's a different world, and unless you've experienced it firsthand, there is no way you'll even begin to comprehend how bad it is.

  10. #10 Ques Tioner 13 Apr 11

    Democracy? Or de-facto plutocracy?

    I read Professor Geoffrey Blainey’s books, The Causes of War and The Great Seesaw, but felt they had missed important issues that should be considered, such as false flag operations incriminating other countries, wealthy interests infiltrating governments, and financial resource accumulators, such as international bankers, financing wars.
    The following hypotheses are based upon “who gains?” assumptions:
    Video clips of other controlled demolitions clearly indicate that controlled demolitions must have brought down New York’s World Trade Centre buildings. Moslem “terrorists” were blamed and the USA invaded two Moslem countries. Should a properly conducted transparent international public enquiry be held into the World Trade Centre collapse and the events of 11 September 2001?
    Referring to World War 1, reports indicate that the Zionist organization, including Rothschild financiers, coerced the UK into proclaiming the Balfour Treaty, by offering to bring the USA into the war. Did Zionists later realize that they may not have had enough settlers to occupy Palestine successfully? Did they wish to coerce much larger numbers of Jews to settle there?
    Later, Hitler published Mein Kamph, among other things, targeting Jews. Was the book financed or otherwise supported by Zionists, with, or without, his knowledge? Despite its alleged difficult to read style, described as turgid, millions of copies were sold, and copies were presented to every German bridal couple. Hitler, with the Nazi party, was accelerated into top German political power. When the Great Depression had largely financially crippled much of the world, how did Germany acquire finance to re-arm itself and, during World War 2, to invade adjacent countries? Was that strange? Who financed it?
    A holocaust industry then emerged, claiming 6 million Jews had been killed. An American Jewish Yearbook stated that Europe had 9.5 million Jews in 1933 and 3.5 million in 1950. Were 6 million killed? Or did they change identities to avoid Nazi Mein Kamph prejudice or Zionist Palestine settlement? Can convincing evidence of gas chambers be found? Did the Nuremburg Trial use factual evidence? Was it intended to kill persons, with intimate knowledge of Zionist/Nazi collaboration and considered potentially dangerous? Did a principle trial procedure organizer later become a Zionist ’Haganah’ military commander? Was he accidently shot dead? Were they cases of “Dead Men tell No Tales”? and indicate that the holocaust lobby might not be objective. Do holocaust reports disguise a Zionist minority? Are they now Zionist dogma? Was a Zionism referendum ever held? Are Zionists hijacking the Diaspora? Does a Zionist state benefit Zionist financiers?
    Does free enterprise, as presently practiced, cause dangerous financial accumulation and misuse? Can it invite top level bribery and corruption? Can it turn democracies into de facto self interested plutocracies? Who gets government interest payments? Are they entrenched powerful parasites? Who pays the piper? Who calls the tune? Should free enterprise be better regulated, or changed radically?

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This article was originally published in issue 436

New Internationalist Magazine issue 436
Issue 436

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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