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The Promise of Pacts: Getting to Arab Democracy

Author: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
January 2006
Journal of Democracy

“There are compelling reasons for Arab leaders to seek the graceful and gradual exit that pacts can provide. Although the demand for change has long existed in the region, the present period of political ferment is unprecedented. In part this is due to the Bush administration’s determination following the events of 11 September 2001 that domestic political developments in Arab countries are within the realm of U.S. national-security concerns. U.S. policymakers concluded that the prevailing authoritarian political systems in the Middle East are contributing to political alienation, extremist ideologies, and ultimately violence. Thus they reasoned that, while battling terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda requires military force, only the development of democratic political systems in the Arab world can provide a long-term solution to the problem of terrorism. If young Arabs could seek redress of their grievances through democratic institutions, they would be less likely to resort to violence.

The dramatic shift in U.S. Middle East policy has had a dynamic effect on Arab politics. President Bush’s forceful rhetoric advocating freedom and democracy in the region has both placed Arab leaders on the defensive and emboldened opposition groups. With Washington paying close attention, Arab reform activists have a measure of political cover to pursue their agendas. While Lebanon’s Intifada al-Istiklal (Independence Uprising) probably had little to do with U.S. policy, the confluence of internal and U.S. pressure for change certainly contributed to, among a variety of developments, street demonstrations in Cairo and Amman as well as unprecedented calls for reform in the Saudi press.

The Bush administration’s support for democracy in the Middle East has in many ways altered the context of political debate in the region. To be sure, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains extremely important to a vast majority of Arabs, but with opposition movements more vocal in their demands for change and a range of previously taboo subjects being openly debated, it is increasingly difficult for Arab leaders to deflect calls for change on the basis that the historic conflict over Palestine remains unresolved.

Attempting to relieve the political pressure generated by the changes in U.S. policy, Arab leaders have resorted to a variety of methods—cosmetic changes to constitutions, seemingly bold plans for reform, outright repression, or a combination of all three. These methods have been largely ineffective, indicating that something profound is afoot in the Middle East. While there are few clear signs that the Arab world is in a prerevolutionary stage, it is equally hard to demonstrate that massive social and political upheaval is not at the doorstep. Indeed, social science has proven notoriously bad at predicting revolutions. Arab regimes may seem stable, but so did the Shah’s Iran and the communist dictatorships of East Central Europe.

Increasingly unable to elicit compliance through ideological or economic means, Arab authoritarians have resorted to the least efficient method of political control—coercion. Thus the brutal treatment of democracy activists (particularly women) during the May 2005 referendum on changes to the Egyptian constitution, the arrests of reformers in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the Jordanian king’s use of temporary laws to restrict individual liberties and political rights. If repression intensifies even as Arab leaders commit themselves to reform, this may serve only to radicalize the opposition. Though there has not yet been a widespread crackdown on opposition activists in the region, Arab leaders’ use of repressive measures to corral their opponents reveals a deep concern for the stability of their regimes.

Arab leaders would be wise to get ahead of the curve by entering pacts with their opponents rather than risk being swept away in a potential political convulsion. Arguably, a grand bargain between the regime and opposition groups—protecting the welfare of ruling elites and providing a political horizon for Arab heads of state—would decrease the likelihood of the opposition resorting to revolution and the regime to violence. Moreover, the region’s authoritarian leaders may be more willing to undertake democratic reform if they have a guarantee that they will not meet the same fate as the Shah of Iran—who was driven from his country, stripped of his dignity, and left to die in exile. Such guarantees would provide a “soft landing” and undermine the logic of predatory policies.

To most Arab leaders, extrication through a political deal should seem a much more attractive option than running the risk of being overthrown by a revolution. Unless they understand this, however, they may well place their bets on the success of repression. To make the deal more palatable, leading regime figures would be shielded from prosecution and their followers would be guaranteed an agreed-upon minimum level of representation in elected parliaments. In Algeria, one of the issues that so unnerved the military was the FIS’s stated determination to try members of the high command for corruption and human rights abuses. Given the prospect of prosecution and humiliation at the hands of the Islamists, the officers calculated that repression was their best survival strategy.”

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