Too hot for democracy?: Robert Fisk asks how long hangmen and dictators will hold sway in the Arab world

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IN THE year in which peace is supposed to be born in the Middle East, let's take a look at an election victory: 94.9 per cent. Redolent, is it not, of the golden days of Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko? A little disturbing, therefore, to realise that 94.9 is a referendum statistic from 'moderate', pro-Western, secular Egypt, the very figure by which President Hosni Mubarak, still America's favourite Arab ally, was re-elected for a third term in office last week. No one stood against Mr Mubarak, who is now set - barring assassination or act of war - to complete 18 years of rule in 1999.

True, a few opposition politicians were detained by the security police for suggesting that members of Mr Mubarak's family were involved in corruption. And true, the Egyptian police continue to use electricity to torture Muslim fundamentalists who oppose the regime. But no whimper of complaint came from Washington, whose democratic values the world is expected to emulate.

Yet President Mubarak's victory is modest in comparison to that of his old air-force academy comrade in Damascus. For it should not be forgotten that President Hafez al- Assad of Syria won a fourth seven- year term as president in December 1991, by a truly enviable 99.982 per cent. That spoilsport 0.018 per cent - a mere 396 Syrians - had no chance of stopping Syria's 250-seat parliament from approving the result. After all, 6,726,843 Syrians couldn't be wrong.

And note that word 'parliament'. It exists in Damascus, in Cairo, too, in Amman, even in Baghdad, where assembly members long ago performed the Reichstag- like ritual of electing Saddam Hussein president for life. In Saudi Arabia, we are encouraged to believe that King Fahd's unelected majlis is a substitute for democracy while in Tripoli, Colonel Gaddafi's 'popular committees' are intended to persuade Libyans of their representative power.

Of course, there are exceptions. Kuwait's parliament is investigating government corruption during the Gulf war. Egypt's parliament contains a genuine if impotent socialist and Islamic opposition. United Yemen's first multi-party elections last April gave seats to fundamentalists and socialists.

But human rights - the touchstone of democracy - present a sorry spectacle across the Arab world. From Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein keeps a team of hangmen on 24-hour duty, to Algeria - where elections were suspended in 1991 when the wrong party, the Islamic Salvation Front, was in danger of winning - torturers remain fully employed. In Saudi Arabia, Amnesty this year reported the second highest number of beheadings recorded in the kingdom: 110 men had their heads chopped off (and a Filipino woman was shot) for alleged murder, rape or drug-trafficking, after trials that failed to meet international standards.

In Kuwait, where all government ministers are automatically appointed to parliament, the post-liberation expulsion of 300,000 Palestinians and trials of suspected collaborators produced, in the words of Middle East Watch, 'a victory turned sour'. Lebanon's 1992 elections - the first in 20 years - were tragically boycotted by many Christian Maronites but gave the first democratically-elected voice to the Hizbollah and other Shia groups. Yet, despite the Taif agreement, Syrian troops remain in Beirut and Lebanese ministers make a ritual, almost weekly journey to Damascus for 'consultations' - instructions, according to Syria's critics - with their neighbour.

Over the years, the Arab struggle against Israel - with democratic Israel, at least so far as its Jewish citizens are concerned - became the excuse for domestic oppression. How could there be true democracy when the Arabs were in a constant state of war? How could individual Arab governments suspend emergency powers or curb their security police, close their prisons or fire their torturers when confronted by 'the Zionist plot'? How could any Arab oppose his own government before sacred Palestine had been 'liberated'? So went the years of rhetoric. Now come the days of reckoning.

If there is peace in the Middle East - and judicious souls will keep that conditional clause in place - then Arab leaders are going to have to think fast. Syria is already doing so. Up to 6,000 political prisoners have been freed from its jails in the past 18 months, although perhaps 2,000 remain. King Hussein of Jordan has decided, after much hesitation, to go ahead with November elections. But this will not be enough. The massive armies and the corrupting (and often corrupt) mukhabarat intelligence services of the Arab world are going to have to be tamed.

Because Arabs are going to remember the rhetoric. If they have been repressed by dictators for 45 years for the sake of Palestine, then with Palestine (or part of it) secure, what further excuse can there be to repress them - unless it is to preserve the personal power of despots? Besides, has not Yasser Arafat - the only man to have embraced President Saddam and shaken hands with Yitzhak Rabin in the space of two years - promised democracy in Palestine itself?

If the Arab world is not largely composed of 'tribes with flags' as President Sadat's old amanuensis Tashim Bashir would have us believe, then how will the West react to these calls for domestic freedom? Given our support for human rights, we must surely encourage them. Yet this is what we did in Algeria, only to find that an Islamic party would win the election. Now, half-heartedly - through fear of the fundamentalist alternative - the West supports a repressive, semi-military regime in Algeria that is hunting down the armed men who originally followed the West's advice and tried to gain power through democracy.

Talking of double standards, let us not forget Afghanistan, where the CIA and the Saudis paid and trained Arab volunteers to fight the Russians, knowing that those volunteers wanted an Islamic republic in Kabul. Why should we have been surprised when some of them went on to try to destroy the governments of Egypt and Algeria?

Faced with an Islamic party and Afghan veterans bent on his destruction, is Washington going to force President Mubarak to muzzle the Egyptian security police? Who is going to advise King Fahd to give power to his people when he is already faced with one of the most conservative Islamic opposition movements in the Middle East? President Assad ruthlessly smashed his fundamentalist opponents at Hama in 1982; if he should have to do so again, will the Western democracies intervene? Indeed, confronted by our latest enemy - the real or imagined threat from revivalist Islam - does anyone believe the West will call for democracy in the Arab world?

Repression is a necessary adjunct of war. And if there is to be peace with America's Israeli ally, then will there not be conflict now with America's fundamentalist enemies - a battle which would have to be fought by the very same Arab generals and kings who were hitherto 'confronting' Israel?

We will want dependable Arab allies - not undependable democracies - in the region. How the Arabs respond to this bitter irony could prove to be one of the most dramatic elements of the coming months in the Middle East.

(Photograph omitted)