The French government came up with a catchy slogan during the 1970s oil embargo imposed by Arab member countries of OPEC in retaliation for the US and Western European support of Israel during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The advertisement that aired nightly after the main evening news gave advise to the people of France on how to conserve oil, which as a result of the ongoing embargo, was in shortage, and the price at the pump had suddenly risen sharply. The typical infomercial, of which there were several different versions, ran about a minute or a minute and a half. Then, just at the end a voice would announce in a very serious tone: “In France, we don’t have oil, but we have ideas.”
This was a not-so-subtle way by the Europeans to let the Arab world know that in order to be successful a country needs more than just oil. It needs ideas. Today, more than 40 years later, little has changed in that respect. The French still have great ideas but no oil and the Arabs still have oil but few ideas, at least good ones that are likely to serve the good of their people.
Indeed, when it comes to the issue of progressive governance and in spite of much hope brought about by the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring two years ago, not much has changed in the Arab world. Regretfully, much of the Arab world remains stuck in a time warp. In Egypt for example, the people may have been successful in getting rid of one authoritative regime, but only to replace with it with another equally megalomaniacal administration. One wanted to remain in power under the pretext that they were the only ones capable of guaranteeing the future of the republic, while the other claims the same in the name of God. The end game of both is to remain in power as long as possible. Term limits appear to be an alien concept in most Middle East countries.
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Some regimes, as may be the case with the one in Syria today, are still under the illusion that they can remain in power with no regard for the loss of human life and the destruction of property, so long as it is not their lives nor their property that is in play.
Watching the inauguration of the US president this past Monday on television it struck me just how important ideas can be, with or without oil. The United States is built on an idea, an incredible idea, particularly given that this idea was conceived some 237 years ago. This idea is what made the United States what it is today, a country that attracts people from all over the world because of the freedoms it guarantees its citizens. Granted, the United States and its system of government are far from perfect. The US legal system remains filled with multiple potholes and contradictions. Yes, there are disparities in the United States, as in all countries in the world, but there remains this wonderful idea called the Constitution.
The idea is simple enough: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The US Constitution goes on to say, “That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.”
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These are not mere words they are the basic belief of every American that he or she had not only the right, but the duty to confront injustice. The American system of government is far from perfect yet it remains ahead of those practiced in most countries around the world. Many of America’s critics – whether they have oil or don’t have oil, would greatly benefit in taking a break in the relentless bashing of America, and to look at just how important that concept, that idea of democracy, really is. At the same time watching the inauguration made me reflect on two things;
First, there is a certain magnanimity in seeing the playing out of a democratic process and knowing that the strongest man in the world is there for another four years and no more. After the US president serves his term he becomes a normal citizen again. And second, the pettiness of these dictators is further dwarfed by the magnitude of the democratic principles and processes.
To cite Winston Churchill; ‘Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.’
By. Claude Salhani of Oilprice.com
Claude Salhani is a political analyst and journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia, terrorism and political Islam. His latest book is Islam Without a Veil.