Incremental steps to democracy
In early August, Syrians gathered in U.N.-sponsored workshops in various cities and towns to offer ideas about how to modernize their country's local election laws.
This unprecedented - and under-reported - event is only the most recent in a series of developments suggesting that profound change is underway in the Arab world. Do the workshops in Syria, elections in Iraq and street protests in Cairo indicate that democracy is breaking out in the Middle East? And if so, is it the result of U.S. policy? While deeply unsatisfactory to both champions of the "Arab Spring" and those who believe the Bush administration's commitment to democracy is little more than skin deep, the answers to each of these questions is both yes and no.
There is a tendency among some to attribute much of the recent political ferment in the Middle East directly to Washington's support for democracy in the region. These analyses are generally one-dimensional, lacking both context and nuance. After all, Arab democracy activists and reformers did not emerge simultaneously with the alteration of U.S.-Middle East policy after September 11. As recent events suggest, the problem in the Middle East has not been a lack of demand for change, but rather the durability of the authoritarian state and the considerable resistance of many Arab leaders to open their political systems.
For understandable political reasons, the Bush administration sought to link massive demonstrations of anti-Syrian sentiment in the streets of Beirut in February and March to the war in Iraq and the White House's emphasis on democracy. Yet it was only fortuitous timing that made this seem plausible.
Rather than U.S. policy, it was a series of Syrian blunders - notably the heavy-handed manner in which Damascus extended Emile Lahoud's presidential term and the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Harriri - combined with the powerful demonstration effect of the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine (through al Jazeera and al-Arabiya broadcasts) that galvanized and emboldened Leba-non's opposition.
At the same time, Washington's effort to promote democracy in the Arab world has fundamentally altered the context of politics in the Middle East. Few Arabs consider Iraq as a model for their own societies, but the sight of ink-stained Iraqi index fingers after the January 30 elections has had the important effect of inspiring fellow Arabs to demand change more vocally and assertively. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak had to style himself as a reformer in an effort to defuse the Bush administration's demands for change.
The limited institutional change that has occurred in Egypt has been cosmetic, but with Washington watching, Egyptian officials have been forced to allow democracy activists leeway in other areas. Consequently, Egypt's opposition press has unleashed a torrent of criticism on President Mubarak, his family, and the Egyptian government. The same is true in Saudi Arabia. Publicly Riyadh has essentially told Washington to mind its own business on political change in the kingdom. Yet the timing of last winter's municipal elections in Saudi Arabia betrays an implicit effort to respond to President Bush's assertive calls for political change in that country.
Moreover, while many Arab reformers oppose U.S. policy in the region, they seem to support - some more grudgingly than others - the Bush administration's pressure for political change. Abdel Halim Qandil, a spokesman for the Kifaya (Enough) movement and editor of the daily Al-Arabi, which is hardly a pro-American bastion, ruefully acknowledges that Washington's outspoken support for democracy was providing him and his group protection from the Egyptian state. Still, policymakers and supporters of the Bush administration should take cold comfort in these statements. Qandil and others believe that only truly democratic Arab governments will be able to effectively resist U.S. policy.
Any American or Westerner who has visited the Middle East in the last three years has heard Arabs protest time and again that "democracy cannot be imposed from the outside" and that the Bush administration's concern with democracy in the Middle East is merely interest-driven. In one sense these criticisms are surely correct. Democratic development in the Arab world will ultimately be the result of internal dynamics, pressures, and contradictions.
Yet Washington's motives should matter less to Arab democrats than the very real changes that the Bush administration has wrought in its approach to Middle East policy. In a dramatic departure from the past, the Bush administration has determined that the United States now shares a number of important goals with reformers and democracy activists rather than the increasingly illegitimate authoritarian kings, presidents and revolutionary holdovers of the region.
Steven A. Cook is the Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.