With few exceptions, Western-style democratic institutions have failed to make significant inroads within Middle Eastern societies, even if Arab and Muslim visionaries have long affirmed democratic ideals as desirable. Several practitioners, from Al Jahiz to Ibn Khaldun to Muhammad Arkun, have insisted that such goals were probably necessary as well as attainable. Yet, the image — and it is primarily a matter of perception — of the Arab Middle East is one of ossified institutions, steeped in Byzantine traditions, with little or no relevance to the contemporary world. One is often told that Arabs and democracy are like oil and water. While less charitable analysts of the Arab world are unconvinced that there is light at the end of the political tunnel, sympathetic commentators bend over backwards to assign blame to autocrats or dictators, religious indoctrination, poor education, the subjugation of women, and economic strangulation, as well as a slew of intrinsic sociopolitical ills that have befallen 350 million souls. To conclude that the prognosis offered by awakened analysts is poor would indeed be an understatement.
Even if one were to find enough Arabs willing to pay the ultimate price for freedom, democratization takes on disproportional and bewildering dimensions as the goal turns into an “Uncharted Journey.” Roadmaps are filled with uncertainties, leaders are categorized into impossible or improbable groupings, and entire societies are condemned to suffer the consequences of illegitimacy. Vital signs may be detected here and there, but educated analysis has reached the conclusion that Arabs have a long way to go before seeing genuine improvement in their democratic or participatory lives.
This edited volume is filled with delightful insights into the dynamics of Arab democratization, even if its title is pedantic. A few authors insist on promoting democracy in the Middle East under Western auspices, but most realize that doing so under non-Arab and non-Muslim political guidance may be pointless, perhaps even counterproductive. Still, most are content to identify specific policy areas where real progress may be registered, offering solid recommendations to all concerned.
The volume is divided into three sections, with Part One examining “regional realities.” Daniel Brumberg tackles the difficult topic of “Liberalization versus Democracy,” calling for added participation — through elections and the rule of law rather than rule by law (p. 23) or even through various power-sharing mechanisms — between ruling regimes and groups that accept their ultimate authority. Although there is merit in this quest, it is critical not to overlook the fact that Muslim countries operate under Shariah, which, while not necessarily to the liking of some, is law nevertheless. Brumberg wisely concludes that “Washington will not be able to simply impose its preferences on the region” (p. 34), but could benefit from certain opportunities if it can persuade “both regimes and oppositions to think beyond day-to-day politics of political survival” (p. 35). Brumberg realizes that much rests on how well the United States does in Iraq, because the 2003 war created a new challenge, namely U.S. credibility. If Washington intends to promote democracy, it will naturally need to boost its sorely damaged reputation, a concept whose requirements include justice, fair play, and the use of force for legitimate purposes. While the U.S. record in Iraq is still incomplete, these attributes are difficult to locate in its current initiatives, and may not be readily available to superpowers that value power and its monopoly more than anything else.
Graham Fuller addresses the credibility issue head on in his “Islamists and Democracy.” With his inimitable honesty, Fuller accurately states that “the war against the Taliban, the invasion of Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the spread of U.S. military presence across the Muslim world, the new embrace of authoritarian Muslim regimes as allies in the war on terrorism, the ongoing deterioration of the situation in Palestine, and America’s close identification with the Likud party’s hard-line policy toward the occupied territories — all have led to a massive growth of anti-American feeling in the Arab world at nearly all levels of society” (p. 53). How can Washington restore its lost credibility when its policies — not its freedoms — are responsible for the gathering anti-American clouds? Can the United States reverse some of its failed policies to fill this huge credibility gap? Can it declare, as Fuller honestly does, that “democracy and political Islam are potentially compatible in principle” (p. 37)? In fact, can Washington bring itself to acknowledge that this compatibility is real? Who can deny that Islamic parties won elections, as well as upheld the rule of law in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran and elsewhere? That the practice was not as uncommon as it is sometimes erroneously stated, when not dismissed as mere cosmetics. Unabashedly, Graham Fuller concludes that existing regimes must fall before “genuinely open and democratic orders” can emerge, but he is equally adamant that “external sources of radicalization must also be curtailed” (p.55). Short of that, Fuller posits, “the region will remain radicalized” (p. 55).
In turn, Amy Hawthorne addresses this growing radicalization in her “The New Reform Ferment,” and identifies the terrible U.S. Catch-22. Hawthorne persuasively analyzes the Bush administration’s epoch-making policy shift. In November 2003, President George W. Bush announced a radical shift in policy to respond to his own bewildered “Why do they hate us?” Speaking at the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush opined that the longstanding U.S. policy of unquestioning support for friendly authoritarian regimes would be replaced with a “forward strategy of freedom” for the Middle East (p. 61). This approach was allegedly adopted because, the administration concluded, terrorism grew where freedom was scarce. Therefore, if Washington were to eradicate the roots of terrorism, it was bound to promote liberty. Hawthorne painstakingly evaluates how Arab governments and publics reacted to these generalizations, discussing the results of the first Arab Human Development Report, which was highly critical of Arab regimes. Even if lack of freedom was included in the academic criticism, its indigenous authors deduced that what stifled genuine progress were poor education, lack of accountability and transparency, and limited women’s empowerment, as well as inadequate economic liberties. Above all else, Arab reformers were not interested in outside meddling to resolve their problems, concluding that such interferences, no matter how well intentioned, tended to further exacerbate impossible situations (p. 69). To be sure, promoting reforms must be an internal affair, although Hawthorne recognizes that assisting civil-society groups and non-governmental organizations can be useful even if the process tends to be slow. Whether the United States and others may be satisfied with such a pace was an entirely different matter.
Hawthorne, Marina Ottaway and Eva Bellin then turn to four complicated alternative issues in a section titled “No Easy Answers.” First, Hawthorne asks whether “Civil Society” may be the answer to the looming democratization question. “Contrary to optimistic predictions,” she declares, “Civil society groups have not made a real dent in the Arab world’s surprisingly durable authoritarianism” (p. 90), even though Islamic organizations were more successful in mobilizing support (p. 95). Remarkably, she concludes that the United States may be “extremely apprehensive about real citizen mobilization in the Arab world and does not want civil society to play a mobilizing role” (p. 105). Even if civil society activities will not by themselves create democratic openings, and even if some actors may be true believers in democratization, leading Arab authors like Saad Eddin Ibrahim in Egypt (and others) have established beyond any doubt how critical their nascent institutions are. Yet, as Hawthorne concludes, unsettling Arab change may not necessarily be what is desired on the banks of the Potomac.
Second, Ottaway assesses “The Limits of Women’s Rights,” a recurring issue in the democratization debate. Ottaway writes: “Nowhere in the Arab world do women enjoy equal rights, let alone equal opportunities, with men” (p. 117). In fact, while tangible progress was made during the past few decades, Ottaway recognizes that reforms on this front will take time and could be more effective if outsiders, especially U.S. agencies, do “not meddle” (p. 120). For cultural rather than political or religious reasons, Ottaway deduces, “There should be no illusion that pressuring Arab governments to recognize the rights of women” would bear fruit, as these infringe on “the unchecked power of strong executives” (p. 127). Simply stated, a strong government can and often does promote policy objectives but fails when it attempts to re-engineer another society’s cultural norms. Conservative Arab and Muslim societies have sharply different visions of gender harmony. This may not be acceptable to Western values but policy makers may be incapable of resolving it on an expedited basis.
Third, Bellin looks at “The Political-Economic Conundrum,” positing that “the region has distinguished itself by spurning another worldwide trend: democratization” (p. 131). Bellin justly identifies poverty as a horrible scourge afflicting the entire region, where “more than 30 percent of the population is estimated to live below the human poverty line despite MENA’s [Middle East and North Africa] reputation for admirably extensive family-sponsored and state-sponsored safety nets” (p. 132). Nevertheless, economic crises are not, in and of themselves, insurmountable. Bellin declares that the United States (and the West in general) should refuse to bail out troubled Middle Eastern economies (Egypt, Jordan, Yemen), but should promote hope by removing certain tariffs that prevent these emerging economies from gaining modest footholds in international markets. Towards that end, the successful conclusion of free-trade agreements (to date with Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco, and with the UAE and Oman coming shortly), “are very positive steps” (p. 147). While Bellin acknowledges that economic reforms “will not deliver democracy,” they might “deliver limited growth that may create the margins of Islamic radicalism” (p. 147). Ultimately, however, much depends on how effective indigenous leaders are, both secular as well as Islamic, in fostering economic reforms.Still, Bellin’s assessments are entirely realistic.
Fourth, Ottaway looks at “The Missing Constituency for Democratic Reform.” She insists that, even if the desire is there, “broad-based political organizations” — that will have to do the actual work — are not. There is a good deal of food for thought in this essay. Yet, to maintain that “mass ideologies in the Arab world have remained antidemocratic” may be too facile. In fact, Arab masses have hardly experienced a mass ideology, as both Nasserism (or Arab nationalism) and Baathism were far too narrow, being chiefly popular among intellectuals. The only concept that came close was the quest for the Muslim umma, but that was not necessarily Arab nor, for that matter, an ideological phenomenon. Rather, the creation of a unified umma was and remains a largely religious aspiration, perhaps impossible to attain in the post-Westphalia nation-state environment.
Still, Ottaway is accurate to identify the dearth of Arab political institutions capable of shouldering democratization responsibilities. Those that do exist are doubly burdened by the many explanations they must provide wary constituents who point out myriad inconsistencies, on the internal level with respect to authoritarian regimes, and on the external level because the American support for democracy is “particular” — denying, for example, the existence of political injustices against Palestinians (p. 163).
Having addressed these difficult issues, the volume then provides four essays that assess policy choices facing the United States. Ottaway first examines “The Problem of Credibility,” which remains, in her worthy estimation, a double-edged sword. While Arab governments may only be interested in modest and very gradual changes, in the post 9/11 world, the United States is in a hurry. Still, Ottaway wisely affirms that Washington can only reach its declared objectives if it adopts consistent policies throughout the region.
In “Choosing a Strategy,” Thomas Carothers identifies inherent difficulties, that limit a decision maker’s options because the wiggle room is so constrained. In fact, according to the author, in “Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates the level of political repression is so high that there are few entry points available to the United States to promote democracy” (p. 194). Even if that were true, Washington could probably score several quick successes elsewhere, if it only tried. In Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and perhaps Iraq, one could envisage triumphs if Washington wished to adopt wiser policies. Carothers relies on Brumberg’s analysis — that Arab regimes are pursuing political liberalization, not democratization — to reach his recommendation: focus on economic reforms while indirectly promoting democracy because opting for direct support for democracy would necessitate a significant change of course (p. 208).
Michele Dunne is less sanguine as she calls for “Integrating Democracy into the U.S. Policy Agenda.” Dunne states that during the 1990s, Washington “cut deals with autocratic rulers [rather] than with unpredictable parliaments and electorates” (p. 211). In the twenty-first century, she recommends that the United States “pursue reform and democratization with every country, although the specific issues to be raised, the modes of engagement with government and nongovernment actors, and the kinds of influence the United States can bring to bear will differ significantly from one country to another” (p. 219). Doing so across the board (with Algeria as well as Saudi Arabia), will earn Washington sorely needed credibility among the Arab masses, she correctly points out. Simultaneously, Dunne cautions, “History has shown that liberalization does not necessarily lead to democratization” (p. 221). In the end, Dunne recommends consistency, “no matter what happens in Iraq,” and to make peace with “nonviolent Islamists” (p. 226). Can this ever become reality while so few distinctions are made between Muslims and Islamic extremists?
Richard Youngs answers this question in “Europe’s Uncertain Pursuit of Middle East Reform,” discussing various policy preferences in “Old Europe.” He laments how Europeans “wince at the directness of some U.S. statements — for example, the suggestion that anti-Americanism can be reduced to autocratic manipulation of popular sentiment and thus spirited away by democratic freedom” (p. 238). This, he reasons, is amateurish at best. What key European powers prefer to do, Youngs writes, is “to harness the United Nations Development Program’s two [now three] Arab Development Reports and the Sanaa Declaration as ‘internal’ pro-reform statements” (p. 240), and build on them.
Moreover, Youngs points out that European countries “have given negligible support to prominent [Arab and Muslim] exiles, opposing the notion of ‘picking winners’ among reformers in the Middle East” (p. 241). Such manipulation is indeed deemed to be counterproductive in both the short and long runs although the practice has not been discarded. Ultimately, the author questions whether the will as well as the means are there to stand by reform and reformers, especially when catastrophic developments color otherwise sane policies. Before 7/7, British Prime Minister Tony Blair argued “that security can best be achieved by ‘spreading our values’” (p. 234), whereas after the July 2005 London bombings, his rhetoric reverted to opposing “evildoers.” Where is the policy consistency and, more important, the distinction between Islamists and extremists in this messianic inclination?
In their introduction and conclusion, Thomas Carothers and Marina Ottaway raise and answer several important questions in thoughtful fashion. Above all, they ask about “hypocrisy”: How can the United States preserve its security and economic interests with a new preference for freedom in an unpredictable environment? And how can Washington accomplish its stated objectives while tackling a most unsettling credibility problem in the eyes of a billion Muslims? More devastatingly, the editors boldly declare that the “United States became concerned about democracy in the Middle East after September 11 , at the same time as it started planning war in Afghanistan and Iraq” (p. 253). For this reason, among others, they conclude that the world should “be prepared for a long, uncertain journey” (p. 267).
To be sure, Arab democratization will most probably be a very slow process. With the exception of Lebanon — the one functioning Arab democracy, despite significant problems— Arab political systems are relatively young, with few if any leaders relying on — much less trusting — their own people. Yet the day will surely come when Arab leaders will trust one another and their people, even if that day may be somewhat distant. Likewise, the day will come when Arab officials reject illegitimate policies — rendition and performing degrading outsourced tasks — while fully cooperating with major Western powers in the fight against terrorism and extremism. Ultimately, the day will come when Arab leaders will account for their policies to their citizens through indigenously devised mechanisms.
Because Eastern European political edifices collapsed under their own weight in 1989-90, giddy Western policy makers concluded that small shoves (a regime change, war or the threat of an assault) would lead to similar political changes in the allegedly ossified Arab world. When that optimistic vision withered on the vine, a different assessment was introduced: that democratic reforms will be slow, perhaps stretching over an entire generation. Proponents of haste did not bother to justify their latent desire to redraw maps and redesign societies with little relevance to local customs. Few worried about the danger to regional peace and stability; these were seldom concerns for galvanized and overzealous sociopolitical architects.
Even fewer bothered to inquire what Arab societies themselves were seeking. Why have thoughtful analysts neglected to examine what Arab historians and intellectuals actually have said about democratization? Do Westerners enjoy a monopoly over political references as we delve into Locke, Rousseau and the Federalists? Can Arabs be similarly aware of indigenous thinkers that may have offered thoughts about governance, leadership and political freedom? Can we entertain the thought that some of these pronouncements actually influence Arabs in any shape or form? Can we acknowledge that Arab thinkers like Ibn Khaldun and Al Mawardi move Arab societies, even if some question their current relevance? Most analyses of the Arab world will remain partial at best, because no efforts are actually made to genuinely assess contemporary Arab and Muslim political currents. If our ultimate objective is the promotion of freedom, then it behooves us to face facts about the Arab world. Some people are secular, others are Islamist. Some will reform, others will not. The process may be slow and painful, but in a true Jeffersonian spirit, the journey is far from being uncertain. In fact, freedom is a universal aspiration, and it will also flourish in the Arab and Muslim worlds.