As the United States has turned spreading Middle Eastern democracy into a top foreign policy priority, it has also seen the broad boulevard of simple ideas on the matter turn into a warren of blind alleys. While the complexity of the problem must not mean discontinuing efforts to push the region’s states and societies toward openness, those interested in such an endeavor have to be aware of the headaches involved.
The most obvious initial question is what kind of democracy should the Middle East be asked to endorse? If it’s traditional liberal democracy, where people are allowed to vote regularly in transparent and unmanipulated elections, where there is a transfer of authority from leaders and representatives to elected successors, where there is freedom of expression and association, and where markets and exchanges are free, then that would be grand. But how realistic is this?
Take the case of Arab minorities. If liberal democracy is interpreted as one person one vote, or majority rule, then minorities, religious or ethnic, will feel far more threatened than reassured by democracy. By the same token, while many Arabs probably favor a regular, democratic transfer of power to new leaders, they would not necessarily see this as part and parcel of a smaller role for the state, particularly in economic affairs. And in some countries democracy may lead to instability, perhaps through the arrival to power of hitherto marginalized groups, for example Islamists, so that secular voters may fear the consequences of free elections.
A second question is what happens when Arabs, including Arab liberals, consider liberal democracy merely as an extension of American power? The fact is that instead of using American support to buttress indigenous democratic efforts and then afterwards shaping the consequences to serve their own national interests, Arab democrats often, simply, get hung up on America. As Barry Rubin has written in a book on the Arab struggle for democracy, liberals have not only argued that American assistance undermines Arab democratic efforts, some have insisted “that indigenous Arab reform [is] the best way to avoid US domination and intervention.”
Foreign help needed
What this liberal attitude leaves unsaid is that American or broader Western intrusion is often indispensable to protect Arab liberals against autocratic leaders, but also against another enemy they must increasingly address these days: Islamists. It also fails to mention that the myriad problems of the Arab world are not primarily related to “US domination and intervention,” but entail essentially domestic issues such as abuse of power, economic underdevelopment, mediocre education levels, stifled civil space, and much more. In other words, setting reform up as a barrier against the United States is a very narrow, indeed downright dishonest, justification. However, it is also so widespread that any outside effort to advance open Arab societies can be quickly labeled “neo-colonialist.”
A third question – one with consequences for secular Arab liberals – is whether Arab societies are that keen to embrace the whole package of liberal democracy? Societies in the region are often deeply conservative, so that while they may reject the violence used by Islamists, they do not see his as a compelling reason to play down the pivotal role of Islam. Similarly, this conservatism is easily manipulated by nationalist regimes as a means of enhancing their own power while aborting outside calls for change, which are swiftly tagged as efforts to weaken Muslim values.
All these obstacles, to which one might add the inhibiting insistence that nothing can truly advance in the Middle East before the Palestinian problem is resolved, mean that democracy promotion is destined to be a bumpy ride for its advocates, especially the US. And the Bush administration’s belief that things will improve thanks to more aggressive public diplomacy is bound to be disappointed, since the image of the US is so deeply, often preposterously, stilted in its disfavor.
So what can be done? Very little. At best, outside powers, mainly the US, must continue insisting that democracy is of vital concern to them, but also accept that the region’s contradictions allow only for ad hoc progress, where democratic principles are robustly advanced wherever possible, to be used later as building blocks elsewhere. Sometimes force, or the threat of force, may have to be employed, as in Iraq. For democracy to truly spread is up to the peoples of the region to resolve their incongruities. They are the ones living under oppressive dictatorships. Obsessing about America is convenient, but will not improve their condition one bit.