“I blew a few smoke rings, remembering those years. Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it … And if the high didn’t solve whatever it was that was getting you down, it could at least help you laugh at the world’s ongoing folly and see through all the hypocrisy and bullshit and cheap moralism.”
This testimony does not come from a reformed addict or bohemian artist, but from the autobiography of President Obama, “Dreams From My Father.” He is not shy about confessing that, in moments of weakness, he resorted to drug use, but then willed himself out of that dark tunnel and set about working on a path that would lead to the White House.
Like millions, I was fired up when Mr. Obama became the first African-American president. But perhaps also like those of millions of others, my hopes have been dashed by his performance in office, particularly with regard to the Middle East. Still, his autobiography remains a moving piece of literature, and contains an important lesson.
It would be impossible to read a confession similar to Mr. Obama’s from an Arab ruler. Arab rulers tend not to write autobiographies, but if they did, they would speak of nothing but their own heroism and historic achievements. You would never read about their follies or personal shortcomings.
A case in point was Egypt’s president from 1970 to 1981, Anwar el-Sadat, who did publish a memoir. In the introduction, he praised himself thus: “Every step I had taken over the course of years has been for the good of Egypt, and has been designed to serve the cause of right, liberty and peace.”
The difference between the two presidents’ approaches to autobiography reflects the difference between their political systems. A president in a democracy is a civil servant who works in the service of the people; they scrutinize his actions and hold him to account. A dictator, on the other hand, positions himself as a national hero and an inspiring leader — above criticism and beyond accountability. The Arab world has more than its share.
How long will these autocracies endure? Since 2011, revolution has broken out in several countries, in order to establish, in the hopes of some, a democratic order. But is Muslim Arab society ready for it?
Islamist extremists, certainly, do not believe in democracy. The global Islamic Liberation Party (also known as Hizb ut-Tahrir) argues that there are several fundamental points of incompatibility between Islam and democracy. Most Islamist extremists share this view; the moment they take power, they will establish a quasi-fascist theocracy.
A professor of Middle East studies at the University of Haifa, David Bukay, argued that “the Islamic world is not ready to absorb the basic values of modernism and democracy” because “individual rights and freedoms inherent in democracy do not exist in a system where Islam is the ultimate source of law.” For his part, the Iraqi intellectual Abdel Khaleq Hussein considered that Arab-Islamic culture imposed a pattern of patriarchal relations beneath the absolute authority of the father figure, who is also the tribal chief. In this view, the Arab state was an extension of the tribe.
Other thinkers have argued to the contrary that Islam is no less compatible with democracy than any other religion. The foremost legal research organization in Egypt, Dar al-Ifta, published a study in 2011 affirming that as a system of government, democracy is consistent with Islamic principles. Where is the truth among all these contradictory opinions?
The accusation that the Arabs and Muslims are not ready for democracy is less a scientific hypothesis than a statement of prejudice. Let’s not forget that some of the 20th century’s most notorious dictators, who held power for decades in advanced Western countries, were European and not Muslim: Portugal’s António de Oliveira Salazar, Spain’s Gen. Francisco Franco and Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu. Dictatorships have existed in the East and the West alike, regardless of culture or religion.
So why does a dictator emerge and how does he make the people submit to his will? In his 1895 book “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” the French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon wrote that crowds, as opposed to individuals, lack the capacity for reason and instead act impulsively. Thus a crowd needs a leader to control it and spur it to action, whether to deeds of heroism or criminality. In his work “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude,” the 16th-century French thinker Étienne de La Boétie wrote that the persistence of dictatorships is due not to a dictator’s power or prestige, but to people’s relinquishing their right to freedom. He likened this subservience to an illness. With the passage of time, La Boétie argued, the dictator can even acclimatize people to the idea of hereditary rule.
The only cure for such submissiveness, wrote La Boétie, is the appearance of a new social force to restart the struggle for freedom. In Egypt, it took a new generation, which had a different outlook and agitated for reform, to bring down the autocratic President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Apparently, though, people sick with subservience need a period of convalescence for the full cure to take effect. In Egypt, there is a group called “We’re Sorry, Mr. President,” whose members consider Mr. Mubarak a national hero. They regret the 2011 revolution, which they consider an unmitigated disaster — the work of ungrateful children who turned against their wonderful father.
This condition is not unique to Egypt. In 2007, a poll conducted by a television channel in Portugal found that 41 percent of viewers agreed that Salazar, who ruled from 1932 to 1968, was the “greatest Portuguese who ever lived.”
Democracy is the body politic in good health; dictatorship is a long-term illness. Western nations have already been cured of it, but the Arab nations are still stubbornly fighting toward a recovery that must surely come.
Alaa Al Aswany is the author of the novel The Yacoubian Building and other books. This article was translated by Russell Harris from the Arabic.