Arab Spring Fever

August 29, 2007 Topic: DemocracySociety Tags: Bush DoctrineDiplomacy

Arab Spring Fever

Mini Teaser: All hope is not lost for democracy in the Middle East. Political pluralism may be taking root, but real change will not emerge on any U.S. administration’s timetable.

by Author(s): Nathan J. BrownAmr Hamzawy

What should be noted about all three of these scenarios is that none necessarily brings democratic nirvana overnight. The second and the third paths depend very much on an incorporation of Islamist movements as normal political actors. There simply is no way to democratize by crushing the region's most popular groups-in almost all of these countries, Islamists. If Islamists are to be confronted as security challenges and suppressed, chances for democratization are bound to remain minimal. And there will be little liberalization as well; the repressive tools built by some states to use against Islamists can be turned against opposition forces of all stripes.

WE NEED to avoid choosing between unrealistic idealism and brutal cynicism. The wider regional scene does not look as bleak as the democratization pessimists in the United States tend to depict it. In contrast to the pessimists, we offer a sober but more hopeful view: Change has been occurring and further reform is possible. But it is neither inevitable nor bound to be purely democratic in nature. Moreover, while the American push for Arab democracy between 2003 and 2005 was not misguided in its essence, it was pursued in such a clumsy and manic manner that the current disillusion was inevitable.

From the beginning, the United States focused on the most difficult cases: failed or weak states, and unbridled autocracies. And while American leaders have spoken of a long-term struggle, they showed stunning impatience in practice. The United States quickly recoiled when initial efforts led down a worrying path. Lebanese demonstrations against Syrian hegemony served both our interests and our values, but when the Jordanian government cracked down on professional associations, the Bahraini government lashed out at demonstrators calling for constitutional reform, and the Egyptian government used some of its harshest tools (long detentions and military courts) to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, short-term security interests forced American leaders into a shameless silence.

Finally, while the American thrust was accompanied by inspiring, almost soaring, rhetoric, it was never married to an effective set of policy tools. Indeed, it might even be said that there was no real policy-only a mentality and a rhetorical commitment that supported democracy and freedom in very general ways. This was coupled with a fairly familiar set of training, technical assistance and capacity-building programs that had been borrowed from very different experiences in Eastern Europe and Latin America, where the United States assisted a pre-existing democratization process bolstered by the strong support of significant local actors and generally good bilateral relations.

A course correction could help the United States promote positive change consistent with its own interests. First, the United States should concentrate on the most likely candidates for reform, the semi-authoritarian states. Democracy promotion should not be a tool solely to depose despots who do not cooperate with the United States or to conjure capable states into being. We will need to adopt a long-term view. There will be no sudden collapse of an "Arab Berlin Wall", and we need to disabuse ourselves of the idea that all societies are democracies waiting to emerge. It would help if U.S. policymakers would be franker-and more sophisticated-about short-term tensions between security and democratization. When the effort has adopted an attitude of realistic, rather than messianic, democracy promotion-such as in Egypt in 2004 and 2005-it has produced tensions but also results, and the bilateral relationship remained largely intact.

Ultimately, we have to be able to devise an appropriate set of tools, especially in the diplomatic realm. The standard democracy-promotion tool kit-involving activities like parliamentary strengthening, support for the judiciary, civil-society training and electoral assistance-does little harm and in some Arab states actually has some accomplishments to claim. But it is unlikely to lead to systemic change.

This mix of approaches and policies will not transform the Arab world overnight. But it will bring a greater dose of realism, promote sustainable efforts rather than sudden lurches, lessen the tension between American interests and values, and put the United States more firmly on the side of positive political change in the region.

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Amr Hamzawy is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Essay Types: Essay