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

Liberal autocracies are happy to encourage NGO discussion as asubstitute for political action. In January 2004, 820 delegatesfrom around the Middle East met in Yemen to create the "ArabDemocracy Dialogue Forum." The stated purpose of this organizationis to promote "dialogue between diverse actors, strengtheningdemocracy, human rights and civil liberties, especially freedom ofopinion and expression, and strengthening the partnership betweenpublic authorities and civil society." In March, Egyptian presidentHosni Mubarak even gave the keynote address at a pan-Arabconference convened to discuss the role of NGOs in Arabsociety.

The vast majority of Arab regimes have eschewed completelyclosed political systems that contain the risk of driving theopposition forces underground and radicalizing the voices ofdissent. The reigning despots have learned the lessons of Iran'srevolution, where the shah's draconian policies managed to uniteforces as disparate as Islamists, secularists, communists andnationalists. Instead, the ruling authorities are opting for agoverning order of rewards and penalties that has effectivelyfractured the opposition. The emergence of liberal autocraticregimes in the Middle East is not without its costs and burdens.Such an order causes political society to degenerate, weakenssecular opposition, engenders cynicism among the public andempowers extremist groups (religious and secular) by seeming tovalidate their ideological claims. The palliative to thedysfunction of the Middle East is not autocratic experiments butgenuine democratization.

Democratization vs. Liberalization

Despite all the discussions over the past few years regardingthe transformation of the Middle East, the Washington consensusstill sees the existing strategy of gradual liberalization as themost valid. As such, the focus of America's efforts has beenassisting with election commissions, voter registration programsand supporting civic awareness. The anemic Arab civil society hasbeen the object of perennial fascination for State Departmentbureaucrats and professional democracy promoters, as the lure ofthe NGO community has proven difficult to resist. To its credit,the Bush Administration did stress the need for economic reform butthen proceeded to recommend a set of entirely ineffective measuressuch as the Micro-Finance Consultative Group. Quite naturally,women's rights campaigns, literacy corps and parliamentaryexchanges further complement America's lackluster efforts.

Traditionally, much of Washington's strategy has evolved aroundassisting NGOs and civil society groups and working to changesocial norms (for example, enhancing the status of women andminorities). This strategy is derived from the democracy-promotioncommunity's claim that empowerment of the NGOs and civilassociations will lead them to successfully pressure the incumbentregimes toward progressive change.

This misapplies the Eastern European experience. In one-partystates guided by totalitarian ideology, providing assistance toNGOs was essential to provide room not only for oppositionpolitical forces, but simply for independent social actors. In theUSSR, where the state controlled all forms of public expression,the so-called neformaly (informal associations), even whenestablished to deal with cultural or humanitarian issues, were ofnecessity "political" actors--they challenged the power of thestate to set the agenda. Throughout Eastern Europe, NGOs played acritical role in laying the groundwork for true political partiesto emerge.

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

A genuine strategy of democratization would concentrate, firstand foremost, on placing significant curbs on executive power. Theproper prelude to fostering such a society is to shift the focusaway from NGOs and civil society groups to constitutional reformand an independent judiciary.

Throughout the region, the current constitutions enshrine thepower of the executive and immunize him from any challenge to hisprerogatives. Monarchs and presidents stand in a privilegedposition, as their decisions are unencumbered by eitherparliamentary legislation or judicial verdict. Moreover, many Arabconstitutions deliberately undermine the power of the legislativebranch by granting the executive the right to appoint an upperchamber that can obstruct parliamentary initiatives. Free electionsto such emasculated institutions will not pave the way foremergence of a democratic order, as the existing constitutionalprovisions effectively strangle any viable reform project.

The second imperative of democratic change is an independentjudiciary. Throughout the Middle East, the judiciary is staffed bythe compliant agents of the executive, and the courts have beenused to prevent media outlets and pro-democracy forces fromorganizing. Any attempt to create political parties in the regionis routinely denied legal sanction by the judiciary. Although thesecurity services are often decried for their abuses, it is thejudiciary that provides the legal cover for the arrest ofdissidents and closure of newspapers. Iran is the case study of howa cynical judiciary working in conjunction with the unelectedbranches of government can effectively undermine a progressiveregime and its reformist agenda. Through its contrived proceduresand arbitrary verdicts, Iran's judiciary effectively silenced theregion's most vibrant press and subverted parliamentaryinitiatives. The lesson of Iran is that in the absence of legalreform and independent judges, the hegemony of the unelectedinstitutions is unlikely to be disturbed.

If Washington is serious about democratization in the MiddleEast, as opposed to liberalization, it has to change strategies.Rhetorical commitments to democracy are no substitute for achecklist of steps that can be taken by regimes in the region. Thereality remains that Western governments have been complicit increating and sustaining the current autocratic order. Moreover, themasters from Cairo to Algiers have remained confident of America'sforbearance, as competing geopolitical factors have ensured thatU.S. assistance and loans continue even in the absence of anymeaningful change.

A viable democratization strategy would employ the considerableeconomic leverage that the United States and Europe possess topressure these states toward viable reforms. Preferential tradeagreements, foreign assistance and access to U.S. markets should becontingent on the level of progress that regimes make towarddemocracy. The U.S. experience vis-ˆ-vis Latin America, especiallyMexico during the 1980s and 1990s, and that of the EU towards itseastern periphery make it clear that when political reform islinked to economic benefits, regimes can be induced to introducechanges that lay the basis for a democratic transformation. TheWest should link aid to reforms designed to reduce state controlsover both political life and the economy.

In a similar vein, Washington should press for deep-seatedeconomic reforms designed to strengthen competing centers of power.The cases of Taiwan and South Korea demonstrate that an emergingentrepreneurial class is often a vocal constituency on behalf ofaccountability and transparency. In the 1990s, under the pressureof the IMF, many of the regional states, including pivotalcountries such as Egypt and Algeria, experimented with economicliberalization only to abandon them when they threatened thepolitical prerogatives of the regimes--with the tacit support ofthe West.

The United States can no longer ignore the need for fundamentaleconomic reform. Yet privatization plans that only benefit regimeloyalists and the cronies of the ruling families need to beavoided. And while the system of subsidies which keeps the pricesof consumer goods like bread and gasoline artificially low dodistort the economy, they need to be phased out in a gradual,systematic way that avoids eroding middle-class support forreforms.

Beyond the economic dimension, the United States can also useits political influence to pressure the existing rulers. If U.S.officials make democratic change the foremost item in theirdiscussions with their regional counterparts while the presidentapplies the powers of the bully pulpit, the seriousness of thisissue will be noted in the region. This would imply no more statevisits for President Mubarak and Crown Prince Abdullah until thebehavior of their regimes alters. Although this may seem a symbolicgesture, it is a gesture that will have an impact on the minds ofself-important rulers accustomed to lavish treatment in Washington.Ultimately, this strategy calls for imposing pressures on Arabstates that have too often received a pass from successive U.S.administrations because of their strategic value. If the objectiveof U.S. policy is to foster equitable societies in the Middle Eastand a political culture that does not sanctify violence againstAmerica, then it has to be willing to embrace the risk ofalienating traditional allies and potentially imperiling some ofits tangible security interests. The point remains that there aretradeoffs. One cannot promote democracy in the region whileexempting the House of Saud from responsibility and continuing toprovide generous economic assistance to the Mubarak regime.

The other facet of a democratization strategy is to focus on theresolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not tosanction the cynical Arab leaders' ploy of employing the conflictas a means avoiding reforms, but to acknowledge that the continueddisenfranchisement of the Palestinians has a corrosive impact onthe Arab body politic. The region's populace has visceral sympathyfor the plight of the Palestinians, and the perception of America'scollusion with Prime Minster Sharon has systematically destroyedthe peace process, fueling the radicalism that has proven soinimical to change. The region simply cannot move to its democraticfuture without resolving the remaining legacy of the OttomanEmpire's dissolution.

The Islamists Are Coming

One reason Washington has been historically reticent to pressfor democracy in the Middle East is its inordinate fear ofIslamists. More than any other factor, the specter of Algeriainforms and distorts the democracy debate. The ill-conceivedAlgerian democratization of the early 1990s led to the electoralsurge of Islamists, culminating in a civil war that costapproximately 150,000 lives. The reigning autocrats routinelyinvoke the "lessons of Algeria" as they claim that opening thesystem would only benefit religious zealots determined to usher ina theocratic order. In a strange nexus, the Western governments'fear of Islamists and the dictatorial regimes' cleverrationalizations have conspired to defer much-needed reform of theregion's political order.

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