Recovering from Arab Spring Fever

At Friday’s conference on the prospects for political change in the Middle East, a panel of distinguished political observers presented mixed views on the future of democracy in the region.

On Friday, September 28, participants in "Recovering from Arab Spring Fever", a roundtable sponsored by The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and The National Interest, grappled with what moderator and TNI editor Nikolas Gvosdev called "the larger questions of democracy in U.S. policy in the Middle East." The event was inspired by two articles from the September/October issue of TNI dealing with the prospects for political change in the region: "Arab Spring Fever" by Nathan J. Brown and Amr Hamzawy and "Fear and Loathing in Tehran" by Suzanne Maloney.

To open the discussion, Gvosdev raised three questions. The first was whether analysts should "think in black and white or shades of gray" when assessing moves toward democracy in the Middle East. Second, he asked "whether or not the process of liberalization . . . can be stopped, frozen, managed, controlled." Finally, does current U.S. policy "help or harm" the future of democracy in the Middle East?

Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University, spoke first. He expressed his desire to shift the prevailing debate on democracy in the Middle East. Noting that recent interest in democracy promotion has been focused on failed and authoritarian states in the region, he argued that "these are not places" ripe for liberalization because they lack strong state institutions. Instead, Brown argued that change is closer in "semi-authoritarian regimes" like Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain, where the "bounds shift from year to year" on acceptable levels of dissent.

While noting that within Middle Eastern body politics and intellectual circles "there has been tremendous change", as well as some progress on freedom of the press, Brown admitted that there has been "remarkably little" institutional liberalization in the region. Outlining three scenarios that could lead to more open ruling parties, he also evaluated their prospects for success. "Incremental change" and "external shock" hold little hope, he said (with the notable exception of when a country has to deal with the question of political succession, which can prove to be risky). However, potential "standoffs" between opposition (often Islamist) groups and autocratic regimes present some cause for optimism. If governing elites compromise and start treating them as political movements rather than security threats, political openings might occur sooner than often assumed.

Amr Hamzawy, a senior Middle East associate at the Carnegie Endowment and co-author of "Spring Fever", spoke second and told conference participants that he and Brown had been "struck by the discrepancy in debating democracy and democratic transitions in the U.S. and the Arab world." While many are questioning the suitability of democratic systems for Middle Eastern societies, he reported a "growing consensus over democratic transitions" among "intellectual and political movements" there. Furthermore, Hamzawy noted, the same Islamists skeptical of democracy in the 1980s and 1990s now "seem to have been coming to a consensus with regard to favoring democratic transitions and feeling gradual political reform is the only way ahead to contest the power of" despotic regimes. But despite some limited political reforms and an increase in democracy rhetoric by Middle Eastern leaders, he admitted that "no breakthroughs" have occurred.

Like Brown, Hamzawy bemoaned the "disproportionate focus" of U.S. policy on failing and authoritarian states, arguing that semi-authoritarian regimes held greater promise and pointing to measured progress in these nations. For example, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has established internal review of state security apparatuses, permitted greater press freedom and established a human rights council. The 2005 elections there were far from fair, but nevertheless produced greater representation of the opposition in Parliament; also, the presidential race was contested for the first time. Another of these states, Morocco, continues to move toward gradual political change, as liberals and Islamists slowly gain power and women move toward equality.

The focus then shifted to Iran, with a presentation by Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. A member of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department from 2005 to 2007, she saw the "convergence of two intellectual and policy trends" in the Bush Administration: the need to promote democracy abroad and the notion that some problem regimes left the U.S. with no option but to replace them. After a brief period of dialogue with Iran that ended in 2003, she said, Washington took a more adversarial tone toward Tehran.

Maloney criticized the $66.1 million allocated by Congress for promoting democracy in Iran as counterproductive. The funds endangered prospects for political change there, she said, increasing the paranoia of the regime and leading to the recent arrests of Iranian-Americans working in Iran. To support this claim, Maloney cited statements by prominent Iranian dissidents opposed to the program, "critiques . . . largely shrugged off by the administration" that "undercut" the president's freedom agenda.

Another problem identified by Maloney was a lack of regional expertise. "We don't know what we don't know about Iran", she said. "People are flying blind." To support this claim, she said that the State Department lacked sufficient Farsi speakers or even officers with experience in Iran. The result, she implied, was a flawed policy.