Op Ed: Jamil Sbitan’s “Reflections on Democracy in the Arab World”

February 28, 2011


Jamil Sbitan is a BU freshman from Saudi Arabia.

For many years, I have seen comments on the Internet from Westerners saying things like, “Democracy and Islam are incompatible.” They say that the two cannot coexist in a society at the same time, as if people can’t hold onto their religious and cultural values while living in a relatively free state where people are capable of choosing their own leaders and enjoy basic rights.

Throughout my life I have heard many denounce the idea of democracy in the Arab World altogether, deeming it a political system that necessitates letting go of traditional beliefs and values. In essence, Arabs are constantly brainwashed through their educational systems and media to believe that their current tyrannical political systems are the only ways to preserve society’s traditions. It seems evident to me, as a person who was born and grew up in the Middle East, that people are skeptical of the term ‘Democracy’ in the Arab World in the same way as people in the United States are skeptical of the term ‘Communism.’ Democracy represents to many Arabs a Westernization of society that demands a kind of revolutionary change that the public isn’t willing to adopt.

Changes such as the one that Dubai has undergone in the past decade – transforming itself into the hub of the West in the Middle East – are exactly what traditional Arabs do not want. Dubai’s liberalism is what many may fear is the result of opening up society. Many Arabs today consider Dubai to be superficial, an unreal representation of the Middle East designed to appease Western tourists.

I disagree with both extremes. I wholeheartedly believe that traditional and religious values and culture are still capable of being the grassroots of a progressive democratic community. The changes which Dubai adopted, I believe, are not a necessary component of democracy and are, in fact, extreme for an Arab country.

It is unfortunate, then, to observe that in many Arab countries, tyranny seems to be the only option. Most Arabs live under constant oppression, deceived into believing that their governments are legitimate. These regimes give themselves the right to censor the internet (sometimes blocking major social networking websites), to deny certain books from being sold or discussed in schools, to deny certain movies from being shown in theaters and to deny their people the right to express their opinion on the politics of their own country. These governments have been known to hire intelligence workers to befriend and monitor the speech of common citizens, thereby marginalizing trust among common people. Imagine yourself unable to speak truthfully to your best friend on political matters because he or she might be a government spy.

What I believe is that totalitarian Arab regimes don’t understand that it’s not about them. Their legitimacy exists only because the people haven’t become fed up yet. What they cannot fathom is that their legitimacy isn’t as important as serving the people, which is why they exist in the first place. Therefore, there is no such thing as an inherently legitimate government. A government only exists just as long as people don’t grow disapproving enough to overthrow it.

This is what we learned from the Egyptian revolution. People in that country grew tired of Hosni Mubarak’s government’s oppressive, totalitarian rule. Under his regime economic conditions were poor, hundreds of cases of police brutality were reported and basic rights were nonexistent. Mubarak has been known for a long time in the Arab world as not acting in service of his own people, but as a puppet to the demands of the US and Israel. For example, during the Israeli conflict with Gaza, he closed the Egyptian border, not allowing any Palestinians to flee.

It was ironic, but definitely not surprising, to hear American Vice President Joe Biden say that he wouldn’t describe Mubarak as a ‘dictator,’ as he’s been a strong American ally. Ironic because President Obama, right before his inauguration, gave a speech in Egypt in which he underlined the importance of democracy in the Arab world. Unsurprising because the Middle East has always been skeptical of American foreign affairs because the US government has only sought its own self-interest in the region.

Despite initial hesitance from the West, the Egyptian people showed great courage in their demonstrations, exemplifying revolutionary Martin Luther King-like civil disobedience against their Orwellian government. Their movements solidified for me the fact that Arabs are willing to live in just, democratic states which uplift their humanity rather than deny it. They proved to me that regional misconceptions on democracy are withering. They showed me that they did not only care for the betterment of the Egyptian Muslim or Christian community, but for equality and justice for all people. Arab Muslims, whether Shia, Sunni, or any other sect, Christians, and people of any other religion, or of no religion, deserve liberty.

It amazed me how the Egyptian people’s determination was capable of switching the media’s stance on the issue and exposing the world to the injustice they had been living in for too many years. There is a picture that has gone viral on Facebook and is a powerful representation of the current situation in the Arab world. The picture is of a man who has a hand covering his face; however, there is a hole in this hand which shows his mouth shouting in anger. This is exactly what tyrannical states need to understand: no matter how much or how long they suppress their citizens, the people will eventually speak out and strike back, replacing their abusive government for a more just one.

Martin Luther King once said, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” I feel that these are the words resonating throughout the Arab world right now; the people have stopped cooperating with injustice and finally said, “enough.”

Jamil Sbitan is a Freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences who grew up in Saudi Arabia but is of Palestinian descent. He speaks English and Arabic fluently, and is currently learning Jamil’s interests include politics, international development, journalism, psychology, debate and creative writing. He views himself as a progressive Middle Easterner, but in his own way. In his free time, Jamil is a reporter for the Daily Free Press newspaper, a singer in BU’s Choral Society, and currently an intern at Bostinnovation.com. Feel free to contact him through e-mail jmsbitan@bu.edu or Twitter @Jamillionaire92