Regime Change in Bangladesh? Biden’s Arab Spring Desire in Dhaka No Better Than Obama’s Middle Eastern Nightmare

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The United States should realise that its ‘democratic experiment’ in Bangladesh would only see the replication of its Middle Eastern disaster

When it comes to democracy, the United States often acts like a jilted lover. It is obsessively in love with the notion. And when spurned, it turns crazy. Possessed by the idea, it wants to have it at any cost — even by resorting to undemocratic means. The result has often been catastrophic, to say the least. For both the US and the country bullied into adopting the idea of democracy.

As Bangladesh gears up for elections early next month, the ‘democracy-exporting’ Americans are on the overdrive again. They are cajoling, coercing and even confronting the Sheikh Hasina government to hold a “free and fair” election where all political parties, irrespective of their ideological moorings, fight for people’s mandate. The American move gains significance as Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the country’s main Opposition party, has said that it would contest the elections only if a neutral caretaker government is installed before the elections.

For a while now, the West led by the US has been pushing the Bangladesh government to put in place ‘credible’ machinery to hold ‘free and fair’ elections. It has categorically expressed its displeasure at the Hasina government for failing to uphold high standards of democracy in the country. Even the street violence resorted to by BNP goons on the Bangladeshi streets on 28 October, 2023, seeking the installation of a caretaker government, failed to bring the West out of its anti-Hasina stupor.

A country is well within its rights to wish for the spread of democracy across the world. But it’s bizarre to see the American idea of democracy growing out of the barrel of an Islamist gun. This ideological dichotomy was evident when a top US embassy official reportedly met a prominent leader of Jamaat-e-Islami in Dhaka recently while seeking to strengthen democracy there. The Jamaat openly advocates the Islamisation of Bangladesh and seeks the implementation of the Shariah. There is no space for minority rights in its scheme of things.

Incidentally, the Bangladeshi Supreme Court, on 19 November, 2023, dismissed the Jamaat appeal seeking to overturn a 2013 ruling that barred the Islamist outfit from participating in elections for violating the constitutional provision of secularism.

The US, instead of respecting the verdict of Bangladesh’s apex court and supporting the Sheikh Hasina government, which for all practical purposes is the only hope of democracy and liberalism in Bangladesh right now, is today not just busy in holding talks with Islamist forces, which have hijacked the Opposition space in that country, but also threatened the Awami League government of consequences, including the imposition of visa restrictions on those trying to undermine “free and fair” elections.

The US Ambassador to Bangladesh, Peter Haas, went a step further and met Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal. Haas said, “Any action that undermines the democratic elections process — including violence, preventing people from exercising their right to peaceful assembly and internet access – calls into question the ability to conduct free and fair elections.”

What makes the entire Western exercise comical, if not outright tragic, is the governance record of Sheikh Hasina who, during two decades in office as Prime Minister, has “presided over momentous poverty alleviation in her country of 170m, fuelled by average annual GDP growth of 7% for much of that time”, if The Economist is to be believed (24 May, 2023). Hasina has also done a remarkable job in marginalising Islamist forces within the country. So much so that one expert on Bangladeshi affairs said during the release of his book recently that the fate of minorities in that country rested primarily on how long Hasina stayed in power.

The American endeavour to safeguard democracy in Bangladesh, thus, has nothing democratic about it. It’s, in fact, geostrategic in nature. The US is the largest foreign investor in Bangladesh; it is also Dhaka’s third largest trading partner. However, in the last two decades, Chinese imprints in Dhaka have grown by leaps and bounds. This has alarmed Washington, which doesn’t want to lose any grip on the country with such an important strategic location.

What the Joe Biden administration doesn’t realise — it’s quite possible that the Bangladeshi affair is being handled by a not-so-significant bunch of officials at a time when the US’ attention is diverted to Ukraine and Gaza — it’s utterly unwise and dangerous to choose between Islamists and communists (Chinese) in order to forward the country’s geostrategic interest. India is equally, if not more, worried by Chinese presence in Dhaka, but that has not stopped it from standing in support of the Sheikh Hasina government. For, Chinese influence cannot be curbed by getting in an Islamist regime in Bangladesh. In fact, the two otherwise antithetical forces work well in tandem when there is a common enemy in sight: And that enemy in the current scenario is the US and India.

By seeking to dislodge the Sheikh Hasina government, something which the Bangladeshi prime minister herself spoke about in April 2023, the US may end up replicating its Middle Eastern blunders in Bangladesh. Every time the Americans have pushed for democracy in the Middle East, the resultant electoral outcome has been the emergence of an Islamist group in power. Fareed Zakaria recalls in his book The Future of Freedom, how Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak would snap at the American diplomats raising the issue of democracy and human rights in Egypt: “If I were to do what you ask, Islamic fundamentalists will take over Egypt. Is that what you want?”

That’s exactly what happened when Mubarak was deposed after the Arab Spring in 2011. He was replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood President! A similar trend was witnessed in many other countries of the region where autocrats were replaced by Islamists.

Zakaria expounds this phenomenon via the term “Islamic exceptionalism”. He writes, “In most societies, dissidents force their country to take a hard look at its own failings. In the Middle East, those who advocate democracy are the first to seek refuge in fantasy, denial and delusion.” He elaborates, “The Arab world is a political desert with no real political parties, no free press and few pathways for dissent. As a result, the mosque became the place to discuss politics. As the only place that cannot be banned in Muslim societies, it is where all the hate and opposition towards the regimes collected and grew.”

This explains why when the West pressurises a Middle Eastern country to go democratic, the rule of “Islamic exceptionalism” sets in. As the country is forced to hold elections, the only group capable of galvanising the masses are Islamists. No wonder jihadi groups invariably lead the first democratically elected government in these countries.

Bangladesh may not be as closed a society as those in the Middle East, but it has a strong Islamist presence. In fact, the Opposition space in Dhaka is largely organised and manned by such fundamentalist elements. The US should, therefore, realise that its ‘democratic experiment’ in Dhaka would only see the replication of its Middle Eastern disaster.

Biden’s Arab Spring desire in Dhaka won’t be any better than Barack Obama’s Middle Eastern nightmare. Those who don’t learn from history, as the saying goes, are doomed to repeat it. Unfortunately, the US has a tendency not to learn from its past.

Source: First Post