Views on Middle East Democratization Policy

I will spotlight the various academic and scholarly views on Middle East democratization policy in Middle East policy blog to serve eventually as an open source on this topic.

Here is an excerpt from Amy Hawthorne's article "Can the United States Promote Democracy in the Middle East?" appeared in the Current History, January 2003:


There is no “one size fits all” answer for Middle East democracy promotion. The approach must be tailored for each country, taking into consideration local conditions. The following four basic recommendations should inform at least the initial stages of a serious United States effort, building on much of what the administration has already devised for beyond Iraq and the PA, but giving it more teeth. First, democracy promotion is a very long-term effort, requiring a consistent series of steps to demonstrate United States sincerity over many years. Toward this end, the United States must shift from zero-sum thinking—that the only alternatives are the status quo or Islamist takeovers—to trying to foster a middle zone of democratization before the question of national leadership is decided. Calling for sudden transfers of power would not lead to democracy or protect American interests. But neither should America endorse cosmetic reforms with the idea that they will suppress grievances or satisfy yearnings for participation and accountability among Arab publics. Every Arab country has a need for some systemic political change, and the longer that steps toward this goal are deferred, the more thorny the problems will become and the more difficult their ultimate resolution.

Interim steps beyond controlled multiparty elections include lifting emergency laws, improving human rights, allowing greater freedom of speech and association, making budgetary processes more transparent, allowing new political parties to form, and granting greater powers to legislatures. As the experience of the 1990s showed, democracy-aid programs, however well intended, have little impact when the broader environment remains stagnant. Further, although economic issues are pressing—and the United States must help Arab governments address them—these problems often have their roots in political distortions, and are unlikely to be resolved without attention to the underlying political structure.

Second, the United States should concentrate its initial efforts on governments, recognizing that if actual democratization takes root, and if regional tensions abate, the United States will have more allies within Arab societies. Arab regimes hold most of the cards in the game of political reform. To the extent the United States has any influence, it is with regimes more than with societies. But even this influence should not be overestimated; in particular, the United States has less leverage with countries that supply it with oil and with those on whom it depends for access to military facilities and counterterrorism support. Nevertheless, since most friendly Arab governments do care what America thinks, the United States must take into account Arab governments’ treatment of their citizens when determining the closeness of its ties.

To this end, the United States should issue a high-level policy directive that makes engagement on human rights, political reform, and democracy top priorities. This would empower officials at all levels of the bureaucracy to raise these issues without worrying that they will be left isolated by Washington. In countries where it provides significant economic aid, such as Egypt and Jordan, the United States should explore the feasibility of linking aid to political reforms. But it should introduce these conditions slowly and deliberately, through discussions with each government, rather than impose them abruptly. The United States must also carefully craft the language it uses to talk to and about Arab governments. It should compliment those Arab governments that are taking positive steps, but resist the tendency to overpraise them, as it has in the past. It should speak out, consistently, when governments—even close friends—violate human rights or pursue undemocratic policies. These moves will not change any Arab regime overnight; indeed, they will antagonize some and create a degree of discomfort for the United States. But they would add a new calculation to Arab governments’ decision making: the reaction of the United States.

Third, democracy-assistance programs must be taken more seriously. This means conducting honest evaluations to determine what is working and what is not, and avoiding programs that are more about public relations than real change—and more about Washington’s priorities than the region’s needs. It also means understanding democracy aid as just one aspect of a broader effort, not as a substitute for diplomatic action. This is not a call for American officials to interfere in program activities; that would be extremely counterproductive. In the Arab context especially, United States–funded programs must remain at an operational arm’s length from Washington. But it does mean that the message delivered at the highest levels should reinforce the stated goals of the activities taking place on the ground.

Fourth, the United States should embark on the long journey of democracy promotion only if it is ready to accept that change is inherent to democratization, and that change may be painful. If Arab governments open genuine political space, many long-suppressed voices will rush to fill the void, some friendly to the United States, many not. But more tinkering at the edges only helps the real problems fester and worsen; specifically, continued repression seems mainly to benefit extremists. Islamists are now a fact of life in Middle East politics; ignoring this is unrealistic. The goal should be to help create conditions that will not only empower other potential reformers, but also encourage the possibility that moderate Islamist groups (those that accept democratic principles and renounce all violence) could commit to long-term democratic competition. This is key: a democratic transition in any Arab country is certain to involve some kind of pact between moderate Islamists and moderates inside the regime.


Nassim Yaziji's Neo-Internationalism

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