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QATAR: Arabs embrace democracy over wealth in Doha debate

November 12, 2010 |  9:51 am

Janardhan and Seznec_low res

You can't buy them off.

That was the reigning sentiment at a recent round of the Doha Debates when audience members voted overwhelmingly in favor of democratic reform before economic liberalization.

While the vote was by no means a conclusive or scientific poll, it did offer a clear rejection of the philosophy of the region's so-called moderate Arab states, where economic incentives are offered in place of meaningful political reform.

According to a poll, 63% of the audience voted against a measure proposing that the freedom to make money was more important than democratization.

The debate over whether Arabs are ready for democracy has been ongoing for many years, with increased urgency after Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Palestine made gains in the elections there in 2005 and 2006. Since then, the United States has toned down its pro-democracy rhetoric in favor of stability and economic opportunity, a position that was soundly rejected at this week's debate.

The debate coincided with parliamentary elections in Jordan that were widely seen as predetermined and boycotted by the major opposition groups. Jordan, despite its poor record on human rights and democratic reform, has received huge amounts of American aid since making peace with Israel,  and is widely held up as an example of American priorities in the region.

The Doha Debates are held in Qatar once a month and are intended to be a forum for free speech in the Arab world, although the host country is an absolute monarchy ruled by the al Thani royal family.

The debate featured a panel of academics, businessmen, writers and others, who argued both for and against a motion promoting economic liberalization over democratic reform. Following the debate, 63% of the audience rejected the proposal.

“If you have open microphones in today’s gulf societies, we will have Islamists take over, and I am not sure they will let you speak out,” warned Jean-Francois Seznec, a visiting academic from Georgetown University who argued against immediate democratization.

Mani Shankar Aiyar, a member of the Indian National Congress Party and a former government minister, countered, saying that “prosperity under a dictatorship cannot be sustained.”

“Democracy is a safety valve ... you can get more money and more freedom if you move into a democracy -- not an autocracy,” he said.

Egyptian blogger and activist Wael Abbas also criticized arguments against democratization on the grounds of an Islamist takeover.

“You need to achieve participatory politics," he said.

"To do so you need an active civil society, a free media, a reformed educational system away from government controls and political parties that rely on grassroots support.” He added: “If the government keeps shutting up leftists, Nasserites, liberals and democrats, the Islamists will win.”

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Panelists debate whether economic opportunity should take precedence over democratic reform. Credit: Doha Debates