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Close, but No Democracy

Author: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Winter 2004/05
The National Interest

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September 11 and its aftermath caused many American policymakers, both Democrats and Republicans, to re-evaluate Washington's traditional emphasis on promoting "stability" in the Middle East, even at the expense of democratization. Support for autocratic regimes, far from pacifying the region, came to be seen as the root cause for the growth of Islamic radicalism, culminating in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. A strategy of promoting democracy throughout the so-called Greater Middle East was no longer considered to be an idealist dream but a realist necessity to ensure the long-term security of the United States.

The necessity for reform in the Middle East has never been more compelling. The Arab world faces the real possibility of social implosion. The Middle East confronts a demographic revolution, with nearly half of its population under twenty years of age. It is estimated that the region must create 100 million jobs over the next 15 years to accommodate its "youth bulge." Such a daunting challenge requires that governments implement structural reforms designed to boost economic growth by promoting investment and trade. Yet it is difficult to see how any government in the Middle East can undertake meaningful economic reforms without political modernization. After all, the preconditions for a successful market transition, such as the rule of law, accountability and transparency, are also the essential components of a democratic polity.

It is customary for U.S. officials to cite the successful campaign of unseating the autocracies of eastern Europe as the necessary paradigm for political change in the Arab world. Yet despite a bipartisan consensus, America's democratization efforts in the Middle East have historically eschewed any vigorous promotion of reform in favor of offering technical assistance. Instead of utilizing intensive diplomatic and economic pressure to force reluctant states to comply with reform criteria, successive U.S. administrations have opted for dialogue with the incumbent regimes. The region's leaders, far from being viewed as the main obstacles to reform, are often seen as the necessary partners in a shared progressive enterprise. And so Washington's strategy of political change, endorsed by both parties, follows a well-worn path of promoting liberalization rather than genuine democratization. And as a result, a strategy of incremental liberalization necessarily conforms to the parameters established by the incumbent regimes.

Herein lies the fundamental weakness of America's approach. Washington has erred in its assumption that the region's ruling elites are prepared to initiate reforms but merely lack the expertise with which to carry them out. That misconception is evident in the proposals envisioned by the State Department, which emphasize technical assistance— aid to legislatures, training and exchange programs for civil servants, election monitors and so on.

The central dilemma of the Arab political order is not unfamiliarity with the process of political competition, but an entrenched elite that is determined to retain power. No amount of technical assistance can overcome that reality. This is not to say that the region's elites are unaware of the need for change and adaptation. Yet most Middle Eastern leaders— hereditary monarchs, revolutionary mullahs and perpetual presidents alike— are more attracted to the Chinese model, which seems to offer the promise of economic growth and development without displacing any of the political prerogatives of the ruling regime. This is not to downplay the value of the Arab world moving along a Chinese path. Liberal autocracies would certainly be an improvement over politically repressive, economically stagnant regimes— but they would not be functioning democracies.

An Enduring Liberal Autocracy

It would be a mistake to claim that there have been no reforms in the Arab world. Indeed, since the end of the Gulf War, a number of authoritarian states in the Middle East have undertaken programs of guided, selective liberalization. Although democracy advocates routinely acclaim measured liberalization as a necessary prelude to democratization, in the Middle East such liberal autocracy seems to be an end in itself. In such an order, the rulers may eschew full-scale authoritarianism for a system that offers periodic openings in response to a variety of social, political and strategic challenges. Despite its tolerant pretensions, this governing structure lays down clear "red lines", ensuring that the prerogatives of the executive are not circumscribed by legislation and judicial oversight. A liberal autocracy may hold elections and countenance critical media, but all actors must agree to the rules promulgated by leaders who remain unaccountable. Far from challenging the reigning autocrats, the current partnership actually complements their survival strategies.

To be sure, there are still states in the region that subscribe to a totalitarian model. The House of Saud (in its self-proclaimed role as the guardian of Islam) and the Al-Asad family in Syria (the last Ba'athi state in the region) sanction their despotic tendencies by appealing to a larger ideological mission and retain the services of security forces to root out any opposition. Both regimes also have sought to avoid reform by indulging in the politics of patronage, buying loyalty from key social actors. Yet the exponential population growth in both states has eroded the financial resources available. The mismanagement of the economy and massive corruption confront the profligate House of Saud with the reality of prolonged recession and double-digit unemployment. The son of the Arab lion of Damascus sits uneasily, facing a restive populace burdened by the persistent erosion of living standards and a precipitous decline in social services. The era of absolutism is passing; Saudi Arabia will hold municipal elections next year, and the remaining holdouts will likely join their more enterprising brethren in embracing selective reform.

Indeed, today's Middle East is populated by regimes that are tolerant, even liberal. Jordan, Morocco, the Gulf sheikdoms and Egypt are examples of regimes that do not base their power on transnational ideologies or sacred missions, but on a more adroit management of political society. The prevailing ruling elites have created a series of incentives and penalties whereby the opposition forces are either co-opted or marginalized. It is not so much that voices of dissent do not exist; they have accepted the role of a loyal opposition. The loyalists are allowed to organize, participate in elections and share in the spoils of patronage, but they must display a commitment to the existing system. Conversely, those who challenge executive claims of authority are summarily dismissed, coerced and relegated to the margins of society. The emergence of a loyal opposition is not unimportant, as they do at times channel popular grievances to the palace. However, their self-regulating nature and their investment in perpetuating the status quo makes them poor agents of democratization. Indeed, in a divide-and-rule political order, it is difficult to mobilize nationwide opposition that can force further democratization within an existing liberal autocracy.

A closer examination reveals that some of the region's shining examples of reform often cited by both Republicans and Democrats are actually not so stellar. A liberal autocracy creates a system, usually referred to as "managed pluralism", where elections, political alternatives, the ability to replace political leaders, and freedom of speech and the media are all regulated by the ruling executive. One manner of imposing the relevant checks is for the monarch or president to retain the right to appoint a significant number of seats or an entire upper chamber of an elected parliament or assembly. Morocco, for example, does have relatively free elections for the lower house of its parliament. In the last electoral contest, the opposition parties— including the Islamist Justice and Development Party— did capture 42 percent of the seats. However, King Muhammad's control over the indirectly elected upper chamber subverts the democratic pretensions of the lower house. In a similar vein, elections are held in Jordan, but King Abdullah still reserves the right to appoint the prime minister, veto legislative initiatives and dissolve the parliament. In Qatar the new constitution stipulates that the emir has the authority to appoint one-third of the deputies to the parliament. In none of the countries with elected parliaments does the majority within the legislature have the automatic right to form the cabinet— executive appointments remain firmly within the purview of the ruler.

An important precursor for a sustainable pluralistic order is vibrant political parties. The region's reigning autocrats are well aware of this and have been effective in undermining parties. For example, Qatar, another oft-cited case of democratic success, promulgated a new constitution in 2003 that explicitly prohibits formation of political parties. Throughout the region, the prevailing parties are little more than sanctuaries for regime loyalists, spending their time acclaiming the virtues of the rulers as opposed to offering a viable alternative to the system. And "opposition" parties understand their choreographed role within the political system— to act as agents of protest but not to seriously contest the status quo. Indeed, within the Tunisian system, opposition parties are in essence sponsored by the ruling regime.

As political parties have been undermined, popular energies are channeled into NGO activity. The Arab world's liberal autocracies have witnessed a proliferation of advocacy organizations promoting a variety of causes ranging from women's rights to environmentalism. Washington, Brussels and the democracy promotion community erroneously see in such activism the nascent signs of a progressive society deserving assistance. However, given these organizations' elite nature, foreign funding and lack of grassroots presence, they are incapable of mounting sustained opposition to the ruling regimes. It is political parties, not NGOs that can sustain a popular movement, which is the reason the rulers have condoned the activities of the NGOs while preventing the emergence of effective political parties.

In one of the region's many paradoxes, two of the Arab world's more oppressive states, Egypt and Tunisia, actually do possess an energetic NGO culture. In the 1980s it appeared that a new pluralistic framework may have evolved in Egypt, with a collection of secular and religious parties such as the Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood contesting parliamentary elections. In the 1987 legislative elections, the ruling National Democratic Party suffered one of its worst showings. Under the guise of suppressing an Islamic insurgency, Hosni Mubarak quickly imposed emergency laws that silenced the totality of political expression. However, as parties' fortunes declined, the NGOs flourished, with feminist groups, environmental organizations and human rights associations dominating the topography of opposition. In a similar manner, Tunisia stands today as one of the most repressive Arab regimes, with President Ben Ali routinely jailing, harassing and exiling even the most moderate of his critics. Yet Tunisia also features a very active League for Defense of Human Rights, whose advocacy has been noteworthy and not entirely ineffective. All this is not to disparage the function of advocacy organizations, as they have been courageous in highlighting pervasive discrimination and human rights abuses, but merely to suggest that the proper agency for achieving pluralistic rule is not non-government organizations.

Liberal autocracies are happy to encourage NGO discussion as a substitute for political action. In January 2004, 820 delegates from around the Middle East met in Yemen to create the "Arab Democracy Dialogue Forum." The stated purpose of this organization is to promote "dialogue between diverse actors, strengthening democracy, human rights and civil liberties, especially freedom of opinion and expression, and strengthening the partnership between public authorities and civil society." In March, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak even gave the keynote address at a pan-Arab conference convened to discuss the role of NGOs in Arab society.

The vast majority of Arab regimes have eschewed completely closed political systems that contain the risk of driving the opposition forces underground and radicalizing the voices of dissent. The reigning despots have learned the lessons of Iran's revolution, where the shah's draconian policies managed to unite forces as disparate as Islamists, secularists, communists and nationalists. Instead, the ruling authorities are opting for a governing order of rewards and penalties that has effectively fractured the opposition. The emergence of liberal autocratic regimes in the Middle East is not without its costs and burdens. Such an order causes political society to degenerate, weakens secular opposition, engenders cynicism among the public and empowers extremist groups (religious and secular) by seeming to validate their ideological claims. The palliative to the dysfunction of the Middle East is not autocratic experiments but genuine democratization.

Democratization vs. Liberalization

Despite all the discussions over the past few years regarding the transformation of the Middle East, the Washington consensus still sees the existing strategy of gradual liberalization as the most valid. As such, the focus of America's efforts has been assisting with election commissions, voter registration programs and supporting civic awareness. The anemic Arab civil society has been the object of perennial fascination for State Department bureaucrats and professional democracy promoters, as the lure of the NGO community has proven difficult to resist. To its credit, the Bush Administration did stress the need for economic reform but then proceeded to recommend a set of entirely ineffective measures such as the Micro-Finance Consultative Group. Quite naturally, women's rights campaigns, literacy corps and parliamentary exchanges further complement America's lackluster efforts.

Traditionally, much of Washington's strategy has evolved around assisting NGOs and civil society groups and working to change social norms (for example, enhancing the status of women and minorities). This strategy is derived from the democracy-promotion community's claim that empowerment of the NGOs and civil associations will lead them to successfully pressure the incumbent regimes toward progressive change.

This misapplies the Eastern European experience. In one-party states guided by totalitarian ideology, providing assistance to NGOs was essential to provide room not only for opposition political forces, but simply for independent social actors. In the USSR, where the state controlled all forms of public expression, the so-called neformaly (informal associations), even when established to deal with cultural or humanitarian issues, were of necessity "political" actors— they challenged the power of the state to set the agenda. Throughout Eastern Europe, NGOs played a critical role in laying the groundwork for true political parties to emerge.

Within liberal autocracies, however, there is already some degree of contested public space and there already exists a "non-governmental sector" in which NGOs function. Arab autocrats have been adept at fending off such pressures and have successfully manipulated domestic forces to their advantage. Providing aid to NGOs only makes sense if it is a first step in a process of political transformation.

A genuine strategy of democratization would concentrate, first and foremost, on placing significant curbs on executive power. The proper prelude to fostering such a society is to shift the focus away from NGOs and civil society groups to constitutional reform and an independent judiciary.

Throughout the region, the current constitutions enshrine the power of the executive and immunize him from any challenge to his prerogatives. Monarchs and presidents stand in a privileged position, as their decisions are unencumbered by either parliamentary legislation or judicial verdict. Moreover, many Arab constitutions deliberately undermine the power of the legislative branch by granting the executive the right to appoint an upper chamber that can obstruct parliamentary initiatives. Free elections to such emasculated institutions will not pave the way for emergence of a democratic order, as the existing constitutional provisions effectively strangle any viable reform project.

The second imperative of democratic change is an independent judiciary. Throughout the Middle East, the judiciary is staffed by the compliant agents of the executive, and the courts have been used to prevent media outlets and pro-democracy forces from organizing. Any attempt to create political parties in the region is routinely denied legal sanction by the judiciary. Although the security services are often decried for their abuses, it is the judiciary that provides the legal cover for the arrest of dissidents and closure of newspapers. Iran is the case study of how a cynical judiciary working in conjunction with the unelected branches of government can effectively undermine a progressive regime and its reformist agenda. Through its contrived procedures and arbitrary verdicts, Iran's judiciary effectively silenced the region's most vibrant press and subverted parliamentary initiatives. The lesson of Iran is that in the absence of legal reform and independent judges, the hegemony of the unelected institutions is unlikely to be disturbed.

If Washington is serious about democratization in the Middle East, as opposed to liberalization, it has to change strategies. Rhetorical commitments to democracy are no substitute for a checklist of steps that can be taken by regimes in the region. The reality remains that Western governments have been complicit in creating and sustaining the current autocratic order. Moreover, the masters from Cairo to Algiers have remained confident of America's forbearance, as competing geopolitical factors have ensured that U.S. assistance and loans continue even in the absence of any meaningful change.

A viable democratization strategy would employ the considerable economic leverage that the United States and Europe possess to pressure these states toward viable reforms. Preferential trade agreements, foreign assistance and access to U.S. markets should be contingent on the level of progress that regimes make toward democracy. The U.S. experience vis-ˆ-vis Latin America, especially Mexico during the 1980s and 1990s, and that of the EU towards its eastern periphery make it clear that when political reform is linked to economic benefits, regimes can be induced to introduce changes that lay the basis for a democratic transformation. The West should link aid to reforms designed to reduce state controls over both political life and the economy.

In a similar vein, Washington should press for deep-seated economic reforms designed to strengthen competing centers of power. The cases of Taiwan and South Korea demonstrate that an emerging entrepreneurial class is often a vocal constituency on behalf of accountability and transparency. In the 1990s, under the pressure of the IMF, many of the regional states, including pivotal countries such as Egypt and Algeria, experimented with economic liberalization only to abandon them when they threatened the political prerogatives of the regimes— with the tacit support of the West.

The United States can no longer ignore the need for fundamental economic reform. Yet privatization plans that only benefit regime loyalists and the cronies of the ruling families need to be avoided. And while the system of subsidies which keeps the prices of consumer goods like bread and gasoline artificially low do distort the economy, they need to be phased out in a gradual, systematic way that avoids eroding middle-class support for reforms.

Beyond the economic dimension, the United States can also use its political influence to pressure the existing rulers. If U.S. officials make democratic change the foremost item in their discussions with their regional counterparts while the president applies the powers of the bully pulpit, the seriousness of this issue will be noted in the region. This would imply no more state visits for President Mubarak and Crown Prince Abdullah until the behavior of their regimes alters. Although this may seem a symbolic gesture, it is a gesture that will have an impact on the minds of self-important rulers accustomed to lavish treatment in Washington. Ultimately, this strategy calls for imposing pressures on Arab states that have too often received a pass from successive U.S. administrations because of their strategic value. If the objective of U.S. policy is to foster equitable societies in the Middle East and a political culture that does not sanctify violence against America, then it has to be willing to embrace the risk of alienating traditional allies and potentially imperiling some of its tangible security interests. The point remains that there are tradeoffs. One cannot promote democracy in the region while exempting the House of Saud from responsibility and continuing to provide generous economic assistance to the Mubarak regime.

The other facet of a democratization strategy is to focus on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not to sanction the cynical Arab leaders' ploy of employing the conflict as a means avoiding reforms, but to acknowledge that the continued disenfranchisement of the Palestinians has a corrosive impact on the Arab body politic. The region's populace has visceral sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, and the perception of America's collusion with Prime Minster Sharon has systematically destroyed the peace process, fueling the radicalism that has proven so inimical to change. The region simply cannot move to its democratic future without resolving the remaining legacy of the Ottoman Empire's dissolution.

The Islamists Are Coming

One reason Washington has been historically reticent to press for democracy in the Middle East is its inordinate fear of Islamists. More than any other factor, the specter of Algeria informs and distorts the democracy debate. The ill-conceived Algerian democratization of the early 1990s led to the electoral surge of Islamists, culminating in a civil war that cost approximately 150,000 lives. The reigning autocrats routinely invoke the "lessons of Algeria" as they claim that opening the system would only benefit religious zealots determined to usher in a theocratic order. In a strange nexus, the Western governments' fear of Islamists and the dictatorial regimes' clever rationalizations have conspired to defer much-needed reform of the region's political order.

As with most ideological tendencies, the complexion of Islamism is changing, as more temperate forces are assuming the leadership of this movement. In states as varied as Turkey, Morocco and Bahrain, moderate Islamist parties are coming to the forefront, calling for participation in the political process as opposed to waging violent campaigns against the state. Indeed, beyond the glare of Western media, a subtle intellectual transformation is underway in many Islamist circles, with leading figures such as Iran's Muhammad Khatami or Egypt's Hassan Hanafi calling for harmonization of Islamic injunctions with democratic precepts. To be sure, given the retaliatory power of the state and the inability of radical Islamists to dislodge the regimes through violence in the early 1990s, such reconsiderations may seem a tactical concession to an altered balance of power. Nonetheless, the inclination of many Islamists to reconsider their ideological strategies should not be discounted. De-radicalization is not a new trend, as leftist forces in Latin America moderated their objectives once presented with the opportunity to participate in the political process. Once part of the governing order, the imperative of getting re-elected led many leftists to actually abandon their disruptive and costly utopian schemes in search of more practical solutions to their societies' conundrums. It is time to test the premise of "moderate Islam" and not continuously invoke the Algerian trauma as a justification for prolonging a deficient autocratic rule.

Whatever success Islamists may have in revitalizing their creed, it is important to appreciate how Islamism is proving a fading ideology in today's Middle East. Given the Islamists' inability to craft viable solutions to problems such as economic inequality and lack of political representation, they are proving a poor alternative to the prevailing regimes. The best manner of further marginalizing Islamism is to expand the marketplace of ideas and enhance competitive politics. Islamism has succeeded only because it has managed to survive in an authoritarian political landscape and thus assumes the mantle of opposition. The reality remains that over the past three decades, the Arab populace has gradually grown weary of radical ideologies and their self-proclaimed truths. From pan-Arabism and its promise of Arab renaissance to Islamism and its quest for salvation, the beleaguered populace has come to appreciate that the primary effect of such ideologies is repression and stagnation. After much experimentation, the Arab masses may finally be ready for democracy with all its burdens and rewards.

As the strong bastions of authoritarian rule in eastern Europe and Latin America have been overwhelmed by democratic forces, the Middle East remains in the trenches of despotism. However, the Arab predicament is not only inconsistent with the global trends, but with the region's own history. During the first half of the 20th century, Arab states such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq did have vibrant civil societies, lively presses and assertive parliaments. To be sure, this was elite politics, with Western-educated landowners and merchants interacting easily with the colonial powers. Nonetheless, the Arab world did have its own fleeting "liberal age", with checks and balances and power-sharing arrangements. The rise of military strongmen and dictatorships is a relatively new phenomenon, belying the notion that the region lacks its own pluralistic traditions.

Even more anomalous is the embrace of democracy as the foremost regional objective of the United States. In the contest between American values and interests, the latter has historically been predominant. The centrality of the oil economy, the imperative of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and the need for allies in the War on Terror have pushed U.S. administrations toward unsavory allies who pledged stability and cooperation. Last year, President Bush called for the end to the usual compacts and the need for a fundamental reformation of the Arab order. However, a crestfallen America entangled in the Iraqi quagmire seems to have abandoned its own idealistic aspirations in favor of returning to the old status quo.