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Close, but No Democracy

Close, but No Democracy

Mini Teaser: Washington must realize that unless Arab regimes allow pluralism, power-sharing and judicial independence, liberal autocracy--not democracy--will be the result.

by Author(s): Ray Takeyh

September 11 and its aftermath caused many Americanpolicymakers, both Democrats and Republicans, to re-evaluateWashington's traditional emphasis on promoting "stability" in theMiddle East, even at the expense of democratization. Support forautocratic regimes, far from pacifying the region, came to be seenas the root cause for the growth of Islamic radicalism, culminatingin the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. A strategy ofpromoting democracy throughout the so-called Greater Middle Eastwas no longer considered to be an idealist dream but a realistnecessity to ensure the long-term security of the UnitedStates.

The necessity for reform in the Middle East has never been morecompelling. The Arab world faces the real possibility of socialimplosion. The Middle East confronts a demographic revolution, withnearly half of its population under twenty years of age. It isestimated that the region must create 100 million jobs over thenext 15 years to accommodate its "youth bulge." Such a dauntingchallenge requires that governments implement structural reformsdesigned to boost economic growth by promoting investment andtrade. Yet it is difficult to see how any government in the MiddleEast can undertake meaningful economic reforms without politicalmodernization. After all, the preconditions for a successful markettransition, such as the rule of law, accountability andtransparency, are also the essential components of a democraticpolity.

It is customary for U.S. officials to cite the successfulcampaign of unseating the autocracies of eastern Europe as thenecessary paradigm for political change in the Arab world. Yetdespite a bipartisan consensus, America's democratization effortsin the Middle East have historically eschewed any vigorouspromotion of reform in favor of offering technical assistance.Instead of utilizing intensive diplomatic and economic pressure toforce reluctant states to comply with reform criteria, successiveU.S. administrations have opted for dialogue with the incumbentregimes. The region's leaders, far from being viewed as the mainobstacles to reform, are often seen as the necessary partners in ashared progressive enterprise. And so Washington's strategy ofpolitical change, endorsed by both parties, follows a well-wornpath of promoting liberalization rather than genuinedemocratization. And as a result, a strategy of incrementalliberalization necessarily conforms to the parameters establishedby the incumbent regimes.

Herein lies the fundamental weakness of America's approach.Washington has erred in its assumption that the region's rulingelites are prepared to initiate reforms but merely lack theexpertise with which to carry them out. That misconception isevident in the proposals envisioned by the State Department, whichemphasize technical assistance--aid to legislatures, training andexchange programs for civil servants, election monitors and soon.

The central dilemma of the Arab political order is notunfamiliarity with the process of political competition, but anentrenched elite that is determined to retain power. No amount oftechnical assistance can overcome that reality. This is not to saythat the region's elites are unaware of the need for change andadaptation. Yet most Middle Eastern leaders--hereditary monarchs,revolutionary mullahs and perpetual presidents alike--are moreattracted to the Chinese model, which seems to offer the promise ofeconomic growth and development without displacing any of thepolitical prerogatives of the ruling regime. This is not todownplay the value of the Arab world moving along a Chinese path.Liberal autocracies would certainly be an improvement overpolitically repressive, economically stagnant regimes--but theywould not be functioning democracies.

An Enduring Liberal Autocracy

It would be a mistake to claim that there have been no reformsin the Arab world. Indeed, since the end of the Gulf War, a numberof authoritarian states in the Middle East have undertaken programsof guided, selective liberalization. Although democracy advocatesroutinely acclaim measured liberalization as a necessary prelude todemocratization, in the Middle East such liberal autocracy seems tobe an end in itself. In such an order, the rulers may eschewfull-scale authoritarianism for a system that offers periodicopenings in response to a variety of social, political andstrategic challenges. Despite its tolerant pretensions, thisgoverning structure lays down clear "red lines", ensuring that theprerogatives of the executive are not circumscribed by legislationand judicial oversight. A liberal autocracy may hold elections andcountenance critical media, but all actors must agree to the rulespromulgated by leaders who remain unaccountable. Far fromchallenging the reigning autocrats, the current partnershipactually complements their survival strategies.

To be sure, there are still states in the region that subscribeto a totalitarian model. The House of Saud (in its self-proclaimedrole as the guardian of Islam) and the Al-Asad family in Syria (thelast Ba'athi state in the region) sanction their despotictendencies by appealing to a larger ideological mission and retainthe services of security forces to root out any opposition. Bothregimes also have sought to avoid reform by indulging in thepolitics of patronage, buying loyalty from key social actors. Yetthe exponential population growth in both states has eroded thefinancial resources available. The mismanagement of the economy andmassive corruption confront the profligate House of Saud with thereality of prolonged recession and double-digit unemployment. Theson of the Arab lion of Damascus sits uneasily, facing a restivepopulace burdened by the persistent erosion of living standards anda precipitous decline in social services. The era of absolutism ispassing; Saudi Arabia will hold municipal elections next year, andthe remaining holdouts will likely join their more enterprisingbrethren in embracing selective reform.

Indeed, today's Middle East is populated by regimes that aretolerant, even liberal. Jordan, Morocco, the Gulf sheikdoms andEgypt are examples of regimes that do not base their power ontransnational ideologies or sacred missions, but on a more adroitmanagement of political society. The prevailing ruling elites havecreated a series of incentives and penalties whereby the oppositionforces are either co-opted or marginalized. It is not so much thatvoices of dissent do not exist; they have accepted the role of aloyal opposition. The loyalists are allowed to organize,participate in elections and share in the spoils of patronage, butthey must display a commitment to the existing system. Conversely,those who challenge executive claims of authority are summarilydismissed, coerced and relegated to the margins of society. Theemergence of a loyal opposition is not unimportant, as they do attimes channel popular grievances to the palace. However, theirself-regulating nature and their investment in perpetuating thestatus quo makes them poor agents of democratization. Indeed, in adivide-and-rule political order, it is difficult to mobilizenationwide opposition that can force further democratization withinan existing liberal autocracy.

A closer examination reveals that some of the region's shiningexamples of reform often cited by both Republicans and Democratsare 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 rulingexecutive. One manner of imposing the relevant checks is for themonarch or president to retain the right to appoint a significantnumber of seats or an entire upper chamber of an elected parliamentor assembly. Morocco, for example, does have relatively freeelections for the lower house of its parliament. In the lastelectoral contest, the opposition parties--including the IslamistJustice and Development Party--did capture 42 percent of the seats.However, King Muhammad's control over the indirectly elected upperchamber subverts the democratic pretensions of the lower house. Ina similar vein, elections are held in Jordan, but King Abdullahstill reserves the right to appoint the prime minister, vetolegislative initiatives and dissolve the parliament. In Qatar thenew constitution stipulates that the emir has the authority toappoint one-third of the deputies to the parliament. In none of thecountries with elected parliaments does the majority within thelegislature have the automatic right to form the cabinet--executiveappointments remain firmly within the purview of the ruler.

An important precursor for a sustainable pluralistic order isvibrant political parties. The region's reigning autocrats are wellaware of this and have been effective in undermining parties. Forexample, Qatar, another oft-cited case of democratic success,promulgated a new constitution in 2003 that explicitly prohibitsformation of political parties. Throughout the region, theprevailing parties are little more than sanctuaries for regimeloyalists, spending their time acclaiming the virtues of the rulersas opposed to offering a viable alternative to the system. And"opposition" parties understand their choreographed role within thepolitical system--to act as agents of protest but not to seriouslycontest the status quo. Indeed, within the Tunisian system,opposition parties are in essence sponsored by the rulingregime.

As political parties have been undermined, popular energies arechanneled into NGO activity. The Arab world's liberal autocracieshave witnessed a proliferation of advocacy organizations promotinga variety of causes ranging from women's rights toenvironmentalism. Washington, Brussels and the democracy promotioncommunity erroneously see in such activism the nascent signs of aprogressive society deserving assistance. However, given theseorganizations' elite nature, foreign funding and lack of grassrootspresence, they are incapable of mounting sustained opposition tothe ruling regimes. It is political parties, not NGOs that cansustain a popular movement, which is the reason the rulers havecondoned the activities of the NGOs while preventing the emergenceof effective political parties.

In one of the region's many paradoxes, two of the Arab world'smore oppressive states, Egypt and Tunisia, actually do possess anenergetic NGO culture. In the 1980s it appeared that a newpluralistic framework may have evolved in Egypt, with a collectionof secular and religious parties such as the Wafd and the MuslimBrotherhood contesting parliamentary elections. In the 1987legislative elections, the ruling National Democratic Partysuffered one of its worst showings. Under the guise of suppressingan Islamic insurgency, Hosni Mubarak quickly imposed emergency lawsthat silenced the totality of political expression. However, asparties' fortunes declined, the NGOs flourished, with feministgroups, environmental organizations and human rights associationsdominating 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 exilingeven the most moderate of his critics. Yet Tunisia also features avery active League for Defense of Human Rights, whose advocacy hasbeen noteworthy and not entirely ineffective. All this is not todisparage the function of advocacy organizations, as they have beencourageous in highlighting pervasive discrimination and humanrights abuses, but merely to suggest that the proper agency forachieving pluralistic rule is not non-government organizations.

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