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Mideast Expert Brumberg: Bush Mistakes Arab 'Autocracies' for Soviet 'Totalitarianism'

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Daniel Brumberg
November 7, 2003

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Daniel Brumberg, an associate professor at Georgetown University and a specialist on democracy in the Middle East, says that President Bush’s speech on the importance of democratizing the Arab world mistakenly compares Arab “autocracies” with Soviet totalitarianism.

In the Arab world, Brumberg contends, there is considerable “liberty,” if not democracy, in the majority of Arab states, and the Bush administration has no intention of causing these states serious problems for fear of bringing hostile Islamic governments to power. Brumberg is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Democracy and Rule of Law Project.

He was interviewed on November 7, 2003, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.

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What is your overall impression of President Bush’s November 6 speech on bringing democracy to the Middle East?

This was an important speech because it defines what, from the point of view of the Bush administration, is a long-term commitment to transforming the region and making democracy a pillar of U.S. foreign policy. That concept has been floating around for a while, but now it is much more official. We’ve been very comfortable living with autocracies in one form or the other in that region for a long time. So, in that sense, the speech is very positive.

But on the negative side, if you read this speech closely, it really evokes the kind of neoconservative view of the region that tends mistakenly to equate the nature of autocracies in the Middle East with that of totalitarianism in the former Soviet Union. This is a major confusion that could lead the administration into misunderstanding what it is dealing with. You have a lot of aspirations and a good serving of ideology in Bush’s speech and in the administration’s approach, which ultimately will have to deal with reality.

What distinguishes what happened in Eastern Europe, where in the 1980s and ’90s the Soviet bloc collapsed and democracies arose in some of the countries, from what is possible in the Middle East today?

The difference is that, for the most part, the regimes of the Arab world are not totalitarian. They are autocracies that mix both elements of autocratic rule and a degree of freedom and openness. That is very different from the former Soviet Union and its allies, which tried the best they could to be totalitarian regimes that denied all freedoms. And Bush’s harping on this notion of freedom and his tendency to equate freedom with democracy in his speech reminds us that the administration is looking at the Arab world through the prism of the Soviet Union and through the prism of Iraq, which was the regime that came closest in many respects to the totalitarian model. The autocracy of the Arab world exists not despite, but because of, a certain measure of freedom.

You wrote an interesting essay for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in which you divided the autocracies in the Middle East between “full or total” and “liberalized or partial” autocracies. Could you explain your thinking?

Full autocracies, one of the categories, are closer to the totalitarian model. They strive for total control. They don’t brook any kind of dissent. In that way, they do echo the Soviet and Marxist-Leninist model.

Which countries fit that category?

Certainly Iraq was the primary example of that. Iran is as well. Syria is, to some extent. Tunisia is and, in many ways, so is Saudi Arabia. But all this is a matter of degree. Certainly, I suppose Iraq and Iran are closest to the model, and then I would put Syria there.

But in Iran, you have constant demonstrations and a president who disagrees with the ruling mullahs.

Iran is an interesting example of what I think is the possibility for even a total autocracy to find ways perhaps to liberalize over time. If Iran’s leaders were smart enough, they would see that it would be wise for them to engage in a certain degree of political opening. But they see this as a slippery slope to their own destruction and behave just as the former hardliners in the Soviet Union did. For the most part, these regimes are not willing to allow any formal political openings. In some respects, the election of President Mohammed Khatami in Iran was the result of a miscalculation by the hardliners, who failed to realize when he was elected in 1997 how much his candidacy would galvanize the discontent of the new generation of young people in Iran.

But the Iranians have also demonstrated their capacity to repress and survive. That demonstrates the limitations of the reform movement, certainly in the short and medium term. I don’t think the fundamental nature of the Iranian regime will change any time soon. That’s one of the hard realities that the Bush administration will have to face up to.

What is the other kind of autocracy?

The liberalized or partial autocracies are those that deliberately allow a certain degree of freedom and liberty and use this as a mechanism to divide the opposition, to let it blow off steam. This gives people, particularly in the political elite both within and outside the regime, a sense that they have some room to breathe; this creates a readiness to accept the regime, so long as it doesn’t use the kinds of violent totalitarian methods that would be typical of an Iraq. But reading Bush’s speech, you would think these regimes are all a replica of the totalitarian or neototalitarian or total autocracy model of Iraq, but they are not.

Which countries fit into this category?

Most of the regimes in the Arab world are liberalized autocracies. These include Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman. These regimes are in no way regimes that deny people the right to express themselves or to exercise a certain degree of liberty. They count on that exercise of liberty to stave off further demands for democratization. These are regimes that are good at political liberalization and which use it as a mechanism to ultimately prevent a step forward from liberalization itself to full democratization. They do it very successfully.

In Egypt, there are many media outlets and an elected government. How controlled is the press and how free are the elections?

First of all, you really don’t have a democratic election or legislative system. What you have is a ruling party that uses its capacity to distribute patronage to its normal constituents and uses its political machine essentially to replicate its power every few years in an election, which allows very little actual space to opposition parties to participate, to mobilize the population, or in any way to threaten the power and hegemony of the ruling establishment. Elections exist as a way of opening up a kind of safety valve, but overall they serve to enhance the power of the regime. And that’s true of all the liberalized autocracies in one way or the other.

As far as the press is concerned, there are opposition papers. They are allowed to publish criticisms of the regime that don’t go beyond a certain kind of ambiguously defined [so-called] red line. This is never fully clear. One of the red lines is that you are not allowed to criticize the military or to insult the presidential family, which is treated almost as a royal family in Egypt. But so long as you stay within those boundaries, a lot is said and has been said by the opposition parties and press, in terms of criticism. Once again, in no sense can that be compared to the Iraqi regime.

At the same time, the government has a whole host of laws in the constitution and in the statutes themselves that give it the power and authority to clamp down and silence any of these opposition groups it deems in some sense has crossed the red line. There is a joke: “You have freedom of speech, but you don’t have freedom after speech.”

How do you think Arab capitals will react to Bush’s speech?

I think most of the regimes will be pretty nervous about this rhetoric because they are really afraid that Bush will start pushing for changes that will open up the doors to the [so-called] Islamists and empower forms of opposition that are in many respects threatening to the status quo. And these Islamist groups would be perhaps even more autocratic than many of these regimes right now. At the same time, [the regimes] know that the United States counts on the political support of the leaders of most of these nations in the Arab world and is not about to pull the rug out from under them. The United States counts on these regimes to maintain the geostrategic balance of power in the region. So, we can’t compare our attitude toward Egypt with our attitude toward the government in Poland in the 1960s and 1970s or something like that.

It occurred to me, before the Iraq war, that if there really were free democracies in the Middle East, the unpopularity of the United States would likely have guaranteed that Washington would never have had any bases or support against Iraq in the region. Do you agree with that?

Yes. In the current conditions, if you had open elections, you would find yourself in a serious problem because it would only empower those opposition groups that are adamantly opposed to policies such as any kind of peace with Israel, for example. The mainstream Islamist groups—not just the radicals—the ones prepared to participate in elections for the most part, with very few exceptions, reject any kind of peace treaty with Israel. Most of these Islamist parties engage in and use as a regular part of their ideology the most anti-Semitic forms of rhetoric that you can imagine.

The choice for the liberal autocracies is not to clamp down on the Islamists—these governments are too smart for that—but to offer them ways of state-managed inclusion that really don’t give them political power but nevertheless give them some controlled voice. You find Islamists included in elections in places like Algeria, Morocco, and Kuwait, but that doesn’t allow them to wield actual power. It’s an interesting division of labor.

Is Bush advocating a policy that would be self-destructive to the United States?

No, because I think that ultimately there is a huge gap between the rhetoric of democratization and the reality of our actual policy. I think the people in the administration know very well that, in practical terms, there is a huge difference between liberalization and democratization and that even a measure of freedom by itself doesn’t necessarily add up to a process of democratization. Bush said in his speech: “Working democracies always need time to develop—as did our own. We have taken a 200-year journey toward inclusion and justice.” I am not sure the Bush administration is willing to say it is ready to wait 200 years, but that’s the loophole in the speech. The administration can say that those countries have their own traditions; we’re not going to impose this; it took us 200 years. It is a standard conventional American approach, which is to promote liberalization in the hope that down the road it opens the door to democratization. But in no way are we ready to push the democratization button because we know this could empower the Islamists.

So, it is more of an evolutionary approach?

This approach has always been at the heart of our [vision of] political change in the region. The difference is that in the past we had a policy of advocating democratization programs: USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development], the National Endowment for Democracy. They are all there. Now it is elevated to high policy. It is more prominent. But when you look closely at the rhetoric, you will see that the aspiration for democratization and the policies are not quite the same. It is not as if the administration is totally unaware of the nature of these regimes. So, on the one hand there is an equating of these regimes with the Soviet Union, a notion that liberty will produce democracy. That’s on the level of aspiration and ideology. And then there is the level of hard politics, which is: “We know that political liberalization doesn’t necessarily open the path to democratization. And we don’t even want it to, because if it did, it would only empower the Islamists. So we are going to talk about women’s rights. We’re going to talk about economic liberalization. We’re going to talk about free trade. We’re going to talk about civil society. We’re going to talk about freedom. But we’re not going to talk about constitutional reforms.” Nobody in the administration is proposing the kind of constitutional reforms you had, for instance, in Indonesia in the last few years, which created a problem but actually represent the populace. No one is talking about that, either in the [government’s] Middle East Partnership Initiative [to promote reform], or in USAID, or in the State Department. It is this gap between reality and the actual policy that I think is interesting.

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