Presidential elections the Arab region are not an occasion to celebrate the joy of democracy and public participation in bringing about change, except exceptionally as in Egypt now. Instead, most elections are an occasion to be terrified of a conflagration in a given country. In most cases, the groups supporting the incumbent president remaining in power, often for decades, threaten that instability is the only other alternative. Algeria is a case in point, despite President Abdulaziz Boutaflika’s old age and chronic health issues. In Syria, the presidential election is a one-horse race, as the only real candidate is current President Bashar al- Assad, who insists on holding presidential elections this summer as a means to circumvent the international consensus on the establishment of a transitional governing body with full powers, followed by presidential and parliamentary elections. In Iraq, there are fears of an open-ended bloody confrontation over the elections, in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki clings on to power. Lebanon’s presidential election is somewhere between fear of vacuum and avoiding the extension of the term of President Michel Suleiman to safeguard the constitution, and the precarious or permanent alliances among sectarian leaders and parties in a game that is far from being actual democracy. In the folds of change, development, and adaptation playing out in the Arab republics, which hold elections, and the Gulf countries, Morocco, and Jordan, which are governed by monarchs, there are threads weaving national and individual identities, which have different or similar features, and interesting approaches to the notion of democracy.
The identity battle is not confined exclusively to the Arab region or the third world. It is chronic and it is currently raging in Russia, for example, where the link between identity and democracy is taking authority towards a dictatorial turn.
Unbridled ultra-nationalism fueled and inflated by Russian President Vladimir Putin has given him – by his decision – dictatorial powers. Putin did not content himself with using those powers at home, but also found foreign adventures – especially in the Crimea – to be additional tools to boost Russian nationalism in a populist way and to harness this to expand his dictatorial powers.
This is a bad development for Russia in the long run, no matter how much Putin’s actions revive national euphoria, pride, and joy over its might and bullying. Putin is deliberately forging a dictatorial identity, and sucking the blood of the democratic identity to spit it in the faces of those who protest against him. This carries a lot of contempt for the people of Russia, no matter how much he seems today – in Putin’s view – to be laughing it off with broad shoulders, challenging the hated West that dared to disrespect the dignity of Russia. But as the West suggests that it is unable or unprepared to stand up to Putin’s adventures, it might be actually implementing a strategy to lure Russia into making the mistakes of unbridled nationalism.
In Israel, the Jewish identity is taking over the political and actual future of Israel and the Palestinians living inside Israel, numbering about one million people, or about a quarter of the population - and who are growing in numbers. Israel’s rulers have chosen to believe that the best way to deal with the demographic dilemma inside Israel is to force the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state before negotiating the two-state solution: Palestine living side by side with Israel.
Practically speaking, what the Israeli politicians are asking is to turn Israel into a state for Jews only, which would invalidate democracy that guarantees equality within the state. Here, identity is not only taking a form that completely contradicts democracy, but also a form that is racist and discriminatory against one million Palestinians within Israel.
It is clear where Israeli politicians stand on the question of the identity and meaning of the Jewish state. What is a mystery, however, is where the Jewish popular base within Israel stands on the idea of an Israel exclusively for Jews, where non-Jewish Palestinians would be excluded from having equal rights within the Jewish state. This is a great challenge that raises questions about how much democracy is rooted in the Israeli mentality, but also in the mentality of those who support Israel's insistence on being recognized as a Jewish state as a precondition for the two-state solution.
Those who pretend that this is a semantic issue are required to clarify that they support a Jewish state where Jews, Christians, and Muslims are equal in access to posts, national privileges, and rights – not verbally but in writing through treaties and the constitution, which Israel seems to be comfortable without.
The issue is really about the supremacy of one identity and its power trample another. In other words, abolishing the Palestinian identity within Israel requires excluding it from the Jewish state. This is an ethical dilemma that is not only facing the Israeli people and government, but also the American sponsor of the peace process and the two-state solution, as well as the European partners who have buried their heads in the sand for fear of admitting to what is meant really meant by emphasizing the religious identity of the State of Israel.
Religious identity is clear in the strategy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where autocracy is coupled with religion in a theocracy that has become a national identity, which the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard who rule Iran seek to impose on the rest of the country. This does not conceal the reality of the restlessness among Iranians toward such an identity. To be sure, this regime does not enjoy popular consensus over its choices. Iranian youths are divided, and many of them reject this identity that has been imposed on them by the regime. Here, imposing an identity could be one of the most undemocratic and dictatorial practices at large, as it forces compliance in the name of God.
The Arab Gulf identity differs somewhat between one country and another, but, at its core, it is conservative and is comfortable with the idea of compliance. The Arab Spring did not reach the Gulf states not because of a preemptive suppression of protest, as much as the popular satisfaction with the existing social contract with their governments. This applies to the majority of Gulf countries, though not ....
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