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Middle East Comment from a Traveling Journo

Why Monarchy is Democratic

Tanya Brown’s article on our ‘puddle of feudal nostalgia’ was a very funny read. The Archbishop’s Easter message on social obligations was among the subjects of her amusing rant, mocking his suggestion that government figures should take some time out and see how ‘real people live’ by doing a bit of volunteer work. I loved for instance her image of Ken Clarke ‘burning turkey twizzlers at some luckless primary school,’ as she put it.

But her misguided ramblings about the ‘ghastly’ royal wedding, and her out-dated moaning about the government being a ‘pile of old Etonians,’ took the shine off somewhat. Yet again, a royal event has brought the class warriors out in full, banging their drums louder and harder than anyone else, seeking to drown out the very reasoned debate they claim they want.

We all know the royal family is slightly strange – a borderline racist grandfather, a tight-lipped frosty granny, a bonkers and estranged daughter in law, a party loving younger brother and an uncle who just won’t admit he’s gay – Why ridicule the ridiculous?

Indeed many of the elements above (if not all?) remind us of our own families in some way. But their importance goes deeper than this. Tanya Brown sees – quite wrongly – our monarchy as feudalistic. Although journalistically  it serves a purpose to blend the two, she has conflated the two rather drastically.

Feudal monarchies of old used systems of patronage and privilege to consolidate power. Those in the Middle East still function as such. But those systems are long gone in Europe, and in fact I would say we are now surrounded by feudal republics and democratic monarchies. Just look around – over the past decade, Democracy Index has consistently placed western European democracies as 7 of the top 10 most democratic nations on earth – three of those with our queen as head of state. And then look to the bottom of the list – all republics. You may say these countries outside Europe have suffered for different reasons, and you may be right. Then look closer to home – at Russia, Italy, France, Greece – corruption levels are far higher in these countries than here in the UK. Talk about a system of feudalistic patronage!

And why is this? Because a family at the top breeds an atmosphere of personal and not just official accountability. Only the most ruthless and calculating individuals will achieve power in a democracy – a monarch however must work constantly to legitimize the position he has inherited. Politicians are self-serving and short-termist, looking for policies that will best serve their interests for the next election. The monarchy seeks to consolidate its position for the long-term, and as such must find ways to make its positive presence in society felt. Monarchy remains steadfast whilst politicians are transient, and the former creates an atmosphere of duty and accountability in public office from which the latter can learn.

I’ll be watching the wedding tomorrow. Not in either a puddle of feudal nostalgia or, like Tanya perhaps, in jealous contempt of privilege. But surrounded by family and friends, thinking about the parties going on around the world, and listening out as royal trumpets drown out the class warrior’s drum, as they salute the arrival of a new princess, and a new stage in British history.

Filed under: British Politics

The View from Beirut

‘The Doctor needs to go. When the Assads leave, Lebanon will be free.’ So said my driver in clouds of cigarette smoke as we sped from the airport into downtown Beirut. I met a lot of people with the same sentiment: a weaker Syria means a stronger Lebanon.

This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, because no matter what side they’re on, the Lebanese regard a Syria without Assad as a weaker Syria. And they’d be right. I’m no apologist. What Assad’s security forces are doing is unforgivable – and he’s squandering the one chance Mubarak and the like didn’t have. But the Alawis have made it their mission to divide Syria over the past forty years in what is basically a coalition of the wealthy – Shi’a, Christian and Sunni elites all in a shaky partnership of economic convenience. And Assad is at the head. If he goes, that partnership breaks down. Whilst I certainly don’t agree that a heterogeneous country needs an autocrat to rule it, sectarian politics die hard.

Second, although that taxi driver may be keen to see the back of a regime which has caused chaos in his country, instability in Syria will further weaken already contested borders. The Sunni working class – which has formed the backbone of these protests – may see a similarly under-represented ally in the Lebanese Sunni. Indeed Lebanon in its entirety will be left even more exposed to Syrian claims at re-establishing ‘Greater Syria.’ It won’t do an already unstable Lebanon any favours to have a leaderless country with a political landscape so deeply entrenched along sectarian lines on its somewhat porous border. A weaker Syria will mean a weaker Lebanon.

No one is sure what is going to happen. Beiruties are for their part just soaking up the sun in their usual fashion. The bars and pools of the capital seemed a world away from the dramas unfolding so close by. Generally the Lebanese would love to see Assad fall. But not all ‘rebels’ are the same. They should be careful what they wish for.

Filed under: Middle East

Ready, Steady…..DEMOCRACY!

Isn’t it just wonderful being western?! For so long we’ve all been dying to get those crazy non-western type folk to wake up and realise how much better off they’d be with our life model – and now the battle for democracy is on throughout the Middle East. Another triumph for democracy! At last, the world has come to its senses.

Egypt and Tunisia – you’ve made it onto the list. Congratulations! We knew you could do it. We’ll put a tick against your names. Meanwhile a whole host of other nations have yet to make the leap. No ticks for you guys. Not yet. One day – like us – your people will be able to wake up each morning, breath in and say ‘hey, you know what, I really feel like a good bit of western democracy today.’

This is the kind of mentality that has gripped the international community. We are obsessed with our democracy and their tyranny. It allows us to bunch all these countries into one convenient category. The Cote d’Ivoire and Syria – countries bursting to be ‘democratic’.

Mohamad Bouazizi didn’t set himself alight because he had mighty visions of instituting a revolutionary democratic state. He did it because he’d had enough of the daily humiliation and degradation he was subjected to at the hands of government agents. We have this obsession in Europe with thinking that people in countries not quite like ours must spend their days discussing politics, writing manifestos, contemplating just how un-democratic they are. That’s just not true. From Dagenham to Damascus, people have very common concerns about things that affect them directly.

People have come out onto the streets all over the region because they want a better way of life, a better standard of living, a better future. They have come out to tackle issues that affect them on a very local level – corruption, police brutality, lack of opportunity.

Yes, reforming the system is what needs to be done to tackle these things, but lets not cram all these protests into one over-arching cry for ‘democracy,’ because that ignores the very particular nuances evident in each country.

It ignores the actual grievances, which is the most damaging effect of pushing for a carbon copy ‘western’ system. Make the superficial change to ‘democracy’ and all those issues remain. They become legitimized, if anything, and subsumed into the ‘new’ system.

It’s a question of timing. Democracy doesn’t just happen. It’s not ours to ‘give’ either, and when we’ve tried it totally lacks legitimacy. It’s on a continuum and we’re all working towards it.

If democracy does come to these countries, it should be seen as a result of reform, not the motivation that drives it. And it won’t happen tomorrow.

Filed under: Middle East

Middle East Comment from a Travelling Journo