The writer Samir Kassir recently published an essay in French titled, “Considerations on the Arab Misfortune,” in which he opened with a laconic phrase: “Is there any need to describe the Arab misfortune? A few figures would be enough to reveal the gravity of the impasse in which Arab societies are blocked.” He observed that what was unusual in this misfortune was how it was “felt even by those who, elsewhere, would be seen as having been spared [misfortune] … which has taken hold in terms of perceptions and feelings.” The year 2005, because of several possibly dramatic deadlines, will arguably be that in which the Arab world can go in one of two directions with respect to open societies: toward their decisive embrace, or their indefinite postponement.
In late January or February, if things go well, Iraq will hold a much-anticipated election that has all the makings of a seminal event, but also the potential to divide Iraqis along sectarian lines and spur a bloodbath. The success (or failure) of the venture will make or break America’s declared ambition of using Iraq as the lynchpin for regional democratization, amid general skepticism (much of it ill-willed) that the Bush administration can succeed. In early January, the Palestinians will hold a presidential election to choose a successor to Yasser Arafat. While less momentous for the region than the Iraqi poll, the event will determine whether Palestinian society can shake off the kleptocratic rule of many in the “old guard” and select a leader with enough legitimacy to take control of the INTIFADA, engage Israel in negotiations and make concessions if or when necessary. In that context, the popular favorite must surely be the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, who, upon Arafat’s death, saw himself upgraded to the role of “Palestinian Mandela.”
A third episode, or trend, to follow is the progress of various regional reform projects floated in 2004, all aiming to liberalize societies, make governments less stifling and place states on a track to genuine economic and social development and the fair redistribution of capital, while building up institutions to protect an array of rights. Among the things to watch out for is progress in the G-8 reform plan passed at the Sea Island summit, but also the so-called Alexandria document reached by civil society representatives in Egypt early in the year.
A fourth and more general development will be the reactions of other Arab societies to the first three, in particular to those changes brought about by Arab will as opposed to Western writ. Iraq’s elections, in particular, have the potential to be perceived regionally as an Arab affair if the results lead to national unity, greater representativeness and stability. The Palestinian election will be more complicated, as it will resume calls for Palestinian legislative and municipal elections to buttress a more legitimate leadership, but one also, perhaps, one that would support a more hard-line approach to Israel.
In all cases the role of the U.S. will be paramount. The Americans are in the untenable position of backing a democratic Iraq while appearing to sanction the denial of full democratic rights to the Palestinians. More specifically, the Bush administration, while supporting Palestinian elections, also seeks to shape them so they might not advantage Islamists and those most opposed to a settlement with Israel. Their fear is not of an anti-democratic pronunciamento, but of the permanent continuation of the armed struggle. However, how convincing is an argument that says “yes” to Iraqi elections but “we’ll see” to Palestinian ones?
The regional democratization impulse will be tested by two contrary tendencies: the possibility of growing American disinterest in Middle Eastern democracy if the Iraqi situation remains difficult to manage; and refusal of Arab societies to consider how an American presence in their midst might help them, directly or indirectly, loosen the power of states over their own citizens.
With the arrival of Condoleezza Rice at the US State Department, it is likely that democratization will mostly be a function of what US President George W. Bush desires. Rice, who has for long advocated a realist approach to foreign policy, has shown no real proclivity to advance democracy, and unless pushed, she is unlikely to concern herself with more than managing reform efforts while leaving the edifice of Arab autocracy largely intact. Conversely, there seems little hope that Arab civil societies will in their majority take the Americans up on their democratization promises. There has indeed been a response to the G-8 reform project from Arab civil representatives, in the context of the plan’s Forum of the Future, a sort of latter day Helsinki framework to allow an ongoing dialogue on reform between the Arab world and the G-8. However, only an Arab minority is willing to engage the West.
These are the dilemmas for 2005, and they bode ill for future regional democracy and open societies. Yet, rarely in the region’s past has the stimulus for democracy been as powerful and the illegitimacy of old-line Arab leaders so patently recognized. Arabs will have to choose: Do they want democratic reform to succeed, even if America’s hand is partly behind it, or do they prefer to harp on their independence and perhaps see all hope of domestic change evaporate as the democratic superpower sails home?