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COLUMN

Uncivilized Arabs

Atif Qadir

Arab nations hate democracy. They are run by dictatorial powers bent on building their own glory and producing their largest export, hate. This is the truth; all you would need to do to learn so is take a glance at the blue posters dotting the MIT campus. They advertise “Mideast Elections and International Politics: A Series of Panel Discussions.” Listed with blaring exclamations of “cancelled-no elections” are a group of Arab nations spanning the entire political spectrum. All are labeled identically, obfuscating the truth and encouraging the development of the popular anti-Arab stereotypes. Worse, though, is that for at least six of the eight nations listed, the “elections cancelled” comment is either a lie or a proud and open expression of ignorance, assuming that the advertisement is referring to all elections. (It is unclear whether presidential and/or legislative elections were the intended targets.)

The MIT Students for Israel, the group organizing the event, declares on the poster that Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon all cancelled their elections. Beginning with Saudi Arabia, the only nation in the group which has never had a representative democracy, this is untrue. Elections have never occurred in the nation, so it is impossible for them to have been “cancelled.” In this nation, the current scion of the House of Saud, King Fahd, has held both the throne and the office of Prime Minister since 1982. Saudi Arabia has no parliament, nor are political parties allowed in this totalitarian nation, though there is an appointed consultative body of 90 members called the Majlis as-Shura. This makes it all the more strange that the nation is continuously courted by Israel’s most important ally, the United States.

Libya and Iraq, the American government’s long-term bogeymen, and Syria and Kuwait, are better. Libya is led by Muhammar Khadafi, the de facto leader since 1962, and has a general congress made of party-less appointees. The second has had an unelected executive as well since 1979, though its government-controlled multi-party legislature was last elected in 2000 and is due again in 2004. Kuwait’s government is formed by royalists and current prime minister who has been in office since 1978 was chosen by them. There are legislative elections, but only government-sponsored candidates are allowed to run. The next is due for July of 2003.

Syria has a legislative body which was due for reelection in 2002, so elections have in fact been suspended in this nation. The president, who is appointed by the legislature for a four-year term, was last chosen in 2000. Egypt and Yemen both have elected legislative bodies that are on schedule for reelection in the coming years. Although they are dominated by the official parties who form the government, a number of non-governmental parties hold seats. Like all the previously mentioned nations, Egypt has an appointed executive, but Yemen has a president that was elected in 1999 by the people for a seven-year term.

Lebanon has a multiparty elected legislative body independent of a government-sponsored group. Although the President and other top offices are not directly elected by the people, there are seats reserved for the three major religious groups, preventing domination by the most populous group. In a letter to MITSI from Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., posted last Tuesday, Feb. 25 in The Tech, Capuano comments on the Israeli supreme court’s reinstatement of Arab candidates for upcoming elections who suffered attempts at removal from the ballot, saying that “It is hard to imagine a court elsewhere in the region accomplishing anything comparable.” The statement gratuitously stereotypes Israel’s neighbors as uncivil racists; Capuano fails to realize, of course, that a governing body in the region has done a lot more than kindly allow a name on a ballot as required by law. Lebanon actually ensures that all parties will have a powerful say in government affairs -- a far cry from the status of the Israeli Knesset, where Arab members are made permanently irrelevant.

It is far easier to cast the Arab world as an evil universe of ignorance and barbarism than it is to portray the web of alliances, U.S.-sponsored dictatorships, and alternative civil societies that a careful consideration of these nations will find. Doubtlessly the designers of the posters thought they’d make a clever point about the virtue of Israel’s democracy by these signs. A bit more forethought would have served them well.

Atif Qadir is a member of the Class of 2004.