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U.S. Democracy Promotion in the Middle East: Is It Working?

Author: Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
August 16, 2005
Islam Online


On June 20, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a landmark speech at the American University in Cairo. Her remarks were noteworthy for both their content as well as her chosen location. Delivered in the heart of downtown Cairo, Secretary Rice challenged the Egyptian government-Washington's closest strategic ally in the Arab world-to undertake democratic reform. According to Western journalists and American officials in attendance, if anyone had any doubts that the Bush administration was serious about promoting reform in the Middle East, Secretary Rice's words should have put their concerns to rest. Yet, some Arab reformers and activists remained unconvinced. They simply cannot reconcile the decades of US policy that were geared toward stability, US support for Israel, and the invasion of Iraq with Washington's seemingly sudden interest in a democratic Middle East.

Despite these reservations, there is no denying that some sort of change is underway in the Middle East. In the first eight months of 2005, the Palestinians, Iraqis, and Saudis held elections; anti-regime protests in Egypt gained momentum; Lebanese "people power" forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon; Bahrainis demonstrated for political rights and constitutional change; and the right to vote was extended to Kuwaiti women. Do these developments indicate that democracy is breaking out in the Middle East? And if so, is it the result of US 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 those questions are "maybe," and "maybe."

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 and ahistorical, lacking both context and nuance. A broader perspective is clearly warranted. After all, Arab democracy activists and reformers did not emerge simultaneously with the alteration of US-Middle East policy after September 11. Indeed, as recent events suggest, the problem in the Middle East has not been a lack of demand for change, but rather the extreme compulsion under which many Arabs have been forced to live-an unfortunate state of affairs to which the United States has indirectly contributed.

At the same time, however, Washington's efforts to drive events in the region, ranging from the relatively successful elections in Iraq and demands for Palestinian reform to encouraging Egypt and Saudi Arabia to move toward political openness, have had an effect on politics in the Middle East. For example, Washington's public support for democracy has forced Hosni Mubarak to style himself a reformer in an effort to defuse the Bush administration's demands for change. To be sure, much of the limited institutional change that has occurred in Egypt has been largely 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. It seems clear that the combination of American pressure and Mubarak's efforts to deflect it have actually provided political cover for Egyptian democracy activists to pursue their agenda.

While many of Cairo's reformers oppose US policy in Iraq and Palestine, they nevertheless seem to support-some more grudgingly than others-the Bush administration's pressure for political change. Hisham Kassem, chairman of the board of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and a leading figure in the opposition party Hizb al-Ghad (Tomorrow Party), has argued that US policy has been decisive in cracking open the door of Egyptian political reform. While not entirely unexpected of Kassem, even Abdel Halim Qandil, a spokesman for Kefaya (Enough) and editor of Al-Arabi (hardly a pro-American bastion) acknowledged that Washington's outspoken support for democracy was providing him and his movement a certain amount of protection from the Egyptian state. Yet, this dynamic is not just occurring in Egypt. In February, the long-time Lebanese Druse leader and fierce critic of the United States, Walid Jumblatt, told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that US policy was providing momentum for grassroots demands for change in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. Still, policymakers and supporters of the Bush administration should take cold comfort in these statements. The demands of activists like Qandil, Jumblatt, and others are borne, in part, of anti-Americanism. They believe that only truly democratic Arab governments will be able to effectively resist the depredations of US policy in the Middle East.

In the end, on the key reform-related issues of the day, the effect of US-Middle East policy is as diverse and varied as the Arab world itself. Not many Arabs currently look at Iraq as a model for their own societies, yet the sight of ink-stained Iraqi index fingers after the January 30 elections-elections that, it must be noted, were not initially part of the Bush administration's reconstruction plans-has had the important effect of inspiring fellow Arabs to demand change more vocally and assertively. In an altogether different way from Iraq, Egypt provides an example of how Washington's public pressure for change has had a discernible effect on politics in Cairo. The same is also true of Saudi Arabia. While one can argue that now-King Abdallah recognized the need to pursue a measure of political reform independently of US policy, the timing of the Kingdom's recent municipal elections-the first in more than 40 years-betrays an implicit effort to respond to the Bush administration's assertive calls for political change in that country.

In contrast to Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, countries like Tunisia and Syria demonstrate the limits of the Bush administration's emphasis on reform. Washington's calls for democratic change have gained little, if any, traction in Tunis and Damascus. And then, of course, there is Lebanon. 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 US 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 Aljazeera and Al-Arabiya broadcasts) that galvanized and emboldened Lebanon's opposition.

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 Washington's new 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. At the same time, however, Washington can and has played a constructive role-mostly through blunt rhetoric-in helping to bring these pressures and problems into sharp relief in some Arab countries.

And while it is fair to assail a past policy that placed a premium on the status quo, it should matter little that Washington's support for democracy in the Arab world is based on a calculation of national interest. When, after all, do the leaders of any country pursue policies that are not based on a determination of what is in that country's interest? 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. Washington will continue to work with Middle Eastern leaders on a variety of issues as its interest dictates, but policymakers are no longer willing to turn a blind eye to the predatory policies of Arab governments. 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, PhD is the Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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