Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Singapore Dream II

“Promoters of democracy in the Middle East will doubtless shudder at the idea of autocratic Arab states finding solace and refuge in soft-authoritarian Asia. Shaaban's (Muhammad Shaaban, advisor to the Egyptian foreign minister) belief that the process of democracy 'should take root through evolution and not through revolution' resonates strongly in Asia, where democracy has been slow to evolve. Shaaban thinks the time has come to look east for peace solutions. 'Asia is qualified to play a role', he told me. 'We are the East, be it the Far East, the Near East or the Middle East. Our common experience with the West was colonialism, so we have more in common than we have with the West.'"
- Herald Tribune, "Why the Middle East is Turning to Asia"

It is hard to know where to start responding to the second article, an opinion column by Michael Vatikiotis, "a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore". The essence of the argument being made here is that with the U.S. renouncing its "constructive engagement" mode of dealing with Middle East autocratic regimes in the wake of 9/11, there is an opportunity for the "Asian values" countries, led by Singapore, to cozy up to the alienated Baraks and Sauds. A rather cynical and opportunistic undertaking. Building on their tremendous success in helping Burma evolve toward democracy, the ASEAN nations seem to have decided to take their act on the road. A supporter of U.S. foreign policy might be tempted to ask: "Who are the idealists now?"

Painting countries as diverse as Singapore, Egypt, Saudi Arabia - or for that matter a true colonial trauma case like Congo - all with the same brush and indicating that they have some sort of common experience of colonialism is just not convincing. Egypt's encounter with western colonialism was primarily from about 1880 to 1945, not including the brief invasion by Napoleon in the previous century. That's a pretty brief time frame compared to, say, the centuries they were colonized by the Ottomans. Ten percent of Egypt's population is Copt Christian, and as recently as a hundred years ago a full one quarter of Egypt's population was non-Muslim. For those older populations, the last fourteen hundred years have been an experience of colonialization and marginalization. India, which had a far more protracted and profound experience of colonialism, is today the world's largest democracy and seems to be getting about the business of making their way in the world. The real problem for Egypt is not colonization but the encounter with the modern world, and the inability to adapt to it.

Arabia was under British suzerainty during the interregnum between the wars, but the Brits were mostly interested in controlling the coasts and sea lanes, protecting the routes to India. The interior was "controlled" by paying subsidies to the tribes – about 12,000 pounds to the Hashemites and 5,000 to the Wahabi- Sauds in 1919. The fact that the junior partners drove the favored patrons of the British off the peninsula hardly conforms to the idea that this was a conventional or heavy-handed colonial yoke. The western powers did traduce the tribes into rising against the Ottomons during World War I, and then broke their promise to grant them independence after the war. The colonialists, however, did not leave a deep mark on the culture and mores of the indigenous population. If anything, given the phenomenon of T.E. Lawrence and other "sand mad Englishmen", it was the English who were culturally infatuated. If the British had been more assertive colonialists, the more moderate Hashemites, and not the Wahabis, would be in control of all that oil and the sacred places of Islam, and the world would be a better place today.