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MIDDLE EAST: Promoting Democracy

Author: Sharon Otterman
October 10, 2003
This publication is now archived.

How is the United States promoting democracy in the Arab world?

The Bush administration has taken two distinct approaches since September 11. It has pursued an aggressive policy of "regime change" regarding Iraq and the Palestinian Authority. But other Arab governments are participating in a long-term democracy "partnership" program that encourages gradual political reform. Many democracy experts say they believe the impact of this program will be limited.

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What is the "partnership" approach to promoting Arab democracy?

In December 2002, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the creation of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). The program aims to lay the groundwork for an eventual transition to democracy in the region's autocratic and semi-autocratic countries. Projects funded through the program fall into one of four categories:

  • reforming and opening economies;
  • encouraging political change;
  • promoting educational reform; and
  • enlarging the role women play in economics and politics.

In his speech, Powell made it clear that MEPI is not a "regime change" program but, rather, one that considers the region's governments willing partners in a U.S.-sponsored initiative.

Why was MEPI established?

U.S. policy has traditionally backed stable, autocratic Middle Eastern regimes and turned a blind eye to their lack of democratic structures and open economies, many experts say. But since September 11, there's been a growing recognition of this policy's shortcomings: pervasive poverty, corruption, illiteracy, and economic stagnation in much of the Arab world have fed extremism and terrorism. Democracy has emerged as the desired long-term policy solution to the Middle East's woes. "By failing to help foster gradual paths to democratization in many of our important relationships--by creating what might be called a 'democratic exception'--we missed an opportunity to help these countries become more stable, more prosperous, more peaceful, and more adaptable to the stresses of a globalizing world," said Richard N. Haass, the then-director of policy planning at the State Department, in a November 2002 speech about Middle East democracy. "Stability based on authority alone is illusory and ultimately impossible to sustain." Haass is now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

What countries are eligible to participate in MEPI?

All countries in the region except Syria and Libya, which the State Department classifies as terror-sponsoring states. Potential and current participants are: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. None of these countries are considered by experts to be democracies, though their governments range from highly repressive (Saudi Arabia and Tunisia) to relatively open (Morocco, Kuwait, and Jordan).

Representatives from Iraq and the Palestinian Authority participate in MEPI regional programs. Iran, a designated terror-sponsor and the only non-Arab nation eligible for MEPI, has permission to participate in the program, but no Iran-based programs have yet been funded. MEPI does not include Israel, which is a democracy.

What do the programs consist of?

In 2003, MEPI's primary focus is on economic reform programs to help Arab states restructure banking systems, boost trade, and develop more effective commercial law systems. These reforms are largely designed to prepare countries for a related Bush administration initiative: a Middle East Free Trade Area.

MEPI's political reform grants include training for political parties in Algeria, judges in Bahrain, and journalists and parliamentarians throughout the region. These "bottom-up" reforms operate on the assumption that better-trained professionals will press for democratic reforms and win the respect of their citizens and governments. Other programs include: a girls' scholarship program in Morocco, Internet access in high schools in Yemen, and a region-wide partnership program between U.S. and Middle Eastern universities.

What's the budget of the new program?

MEPI was funded at $29 million in fiscal year 2002 and $100 million in fiscal year 2003. The State Department plans to request $149 million in 2004, according to MEPI officials. After that, MEPI's fate is unclear; the U.S. presidential election in November 2004 could change the White House's occupants or priorities.

Other U.S. military and economic assistance programs in the region receive far greater funding. Egypt, the primary recipient of U.S. assistance to the Arab world, has received some $2 billion in direct economic and military aid annually since 1979 as part of an Egypt-Israeli peace accord. In 2002, some $1.3 billion of Egypt's funding went for military aid, and $660 million took the form of economic assistance grants administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Total military aid to the Middle East, not including Israel, was $3.4 billon in 2002; economic assistance grants totaled some $1 billion. Israel received $2.8 billion in direct military and economic aid in 2002.

How does the MEPI program fit into the broader picture of current U.S. aid to the Middle East?

Unlike other funding, the MEPI money is explicitly targeted for promoting democracy. MEPI may influence the distribution of other economic aid to the region, because the $1 billion in USAID assistance to the Arab world is now coordinated with the State Department's MEPI office. The head of MEPI is Elizabeth Cheney, the deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs and Vice President Richard Cheney's daughter. She reports to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who reports to Secretary Powell.

Will MEPI be an effective way of promoting democracy in the Middle East?

Because MEPI is a small, "bottom-up" program that works in partnership with autocratic and semi-autocratic regimes, administration officials acknowledge that it will take time for MEPI to have a significant impact. "I don't see this as something that is going to be done in one year or five years. This is a long-term prospect," Powell said in announcing the program. Administration officials also say they see MEPI as one part of a wider strategy that also includes diplomatic pressure on Arab regimes to reform.

Some experts argue that MEPI's gradual approach is flawed and point to the success autocratic Middle Eastern leaders have had co-opting previous democracy programs. "They all make important steps, but then a year or two later they go back on these steps," says Radwan Masmoudi, the president of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. Some of those who question MEPI say the Bush administration needs to push Arab states more forcefully, for example, to rapidly end press restrictions and embark on constitutional reform. "MEPI is an outgrowth of the same democracy programs that the U.S. has pursued in the Middle East for nearly a decade," says Daniel Brumbergof the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "However inspiring the administration's vision [of democracy] appears, the actual reform plan that it has thus far set out is unlikely to produce radical changes in the Arab world."

Why is the Bush administration taking a gradual approach?

One reason: U.S. policymakers say the pressure for democracy ultimately has to come from Arabs themselves. "Unrestrained zeal to make the world better could make it worse," Haass said in his November 2002 speech. "We must undertake this task with humility, understanding that the stakes for others are greater than for ourselves."

Among other reasons experts cite:

  • The United States has multiple national security priorities in the Middle East, many of which are not compatible with a quick and destabilizing transition to democracy, many experts say. In the short-run, the autocratic governments in the Middle East are important partners in the U.S. war on terror and vital suppliers of oil to the world market.
  • In many cases, the United States may object to the kind of government elected to replace an autocratic regime in an accelerated transition to democracy. In some Arab countries, especially the most repressive ones, anti-U.S. Islamists account for the most potent opposition and would likely do well in an election. Experts, however, disagree about the seriousness of this threat. In some cases, such as in Egypt, autocrats play up such fears to encourage tolerance for the status quo, says FouadAjami, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
In what countries is MEPI likely to have an impact?

The ones that are truly interested in reforms, many experts say. This is because all MEPI grants are coordinated with the governments of the recipient countries, so MEPI's success is dependent on the willingness of leaders to allow change. In 2002 and 2003, most MEPI grants went to Morocco, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, and Bahrain. On the other hand, there were no MEPI programs specifically targeting Saudi Arabia, though Saudis are participating in some regional programs. Even in countries that accept the grants, there is no guarantee that the programs will result in greater political freedom. "Some countries are more MEPI-ready than others," says Isobel Coleman, a Council on Foreign Relations expert on the role of women in the Middle East. "You can pour money into a country, but if it's not willing to support the policies, then it's money down a black hole."

What other factors will affect the spread of democracy in the Arab world?

Iraq is a key factor. If democracy succeeds in Iraq, it will enhance U.S. credibility in the region as a promoter of democracy. If it fails, or if U.S. democracy-promotion is interpreted as a smokescreen to disguise other geopolitical interests, anti-Americanism will continue to feed extremism in the Arab world. "It's incredibly important that we get Iraq right," Coleman says. Another critical issue is progress resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has inflamed tensions in the Middle East for decades.

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