February 02, 2005

Democratization in the Arab World: Ways Ahead?

Ray Takeyh writing in the National Interest:

It is customary for U.S. officials to cite the successful campaign of unseating the autocracies of eastern Europe as the necessary paradigm for political change in the Arab world. Yet despite a bipartisan consensus, America's democratization efforts in the Middle East have historically eschewed any vigorous promotion of reform in favor of offering technical assistance. Instead of utilizing intensive diplomatic and economic pressure to force reluctant states to comply with reform criteria, successive U.S. administrations have opted for dialogue with the incumbent regimes. The region's leaders, far from being viewed as the main obstacles to reform, are often seen as the necessary partners in a shared progressive enterprise. And so Washington's strategy of political change, endorsed by both parties, follows a well-worn path of promoting liberalization rather than genuine democratization. And as a result, a strategy of incremental liberalization necessarily conforms to the parameters established by the incumbent regimes.

Herein lies the fundamental weakness of America's approach. Washington has erred in its assumption that the region's ruling elites are prepared to initiate reforms but merely lack the expertise with which to carry them out. That misconception is evident in the proposals envisioned by the State Department, which emphasize technical assistance--aid to legislatures, training and exchange programs for civil servants, election monitors and so on.

The central dilemma of the Arab political order is not unfamiliarity with the process of political competition, but an entrenched elite that is determined to retain power. No amount of technical assistance can overcome that reality. This is not to say that the region's elites are unaware of the need for change and adaptation. Yet most Middle Eastern leaders--hereditary monarchs, revolutionary mullahs and perpetual presidents alike--are more attracted to the Chinese model, which seems to offer the promise of economic growth and development without displacing any of the political prerogatives of the ruling regime. This is not to downplay the value of the Arab world moving along a Chinese path. Liberal autocracies would certainly be an improvement over politically repressive, economically stagnant regimes--but they would not be functioning democracies.

It would be a mistake to claim that there have been no reforms in the Arab world. Indeed, since the end of the Gulf War, a number of authoritarian states in the Middle East have undertaken programs of guided, selective liberalization. Although democracy advocates routinely acclaim measured liberalization as a necessary prelude to democratization, in the Middle East such liberal autocracy seems to be an end in itself. In such an order, the rulers may eschew full-scale authoritarianism for a system that offers periodic openings in response to a variety of social, political and strategic challenges. Despite its tolerant pretensions, this governing structure lays down clear "red lines", ensuring that the prerogatives of the executive are not circumscribed by legislation and judicial oversight. A liberal autocracy may hold elections and countenance critical media, but all actors must agree to the rules promulgated by leaders who remain unaccountable. Far from challenging the reigning autocrats, the current partnership actually complements their survival strategies. [emphasis added]

I think this is all largely true. And, on the "one man, one vote, one time" fear--Takeyh appears relatively sanguine:

As with most ideological tendencies, the complexion of Islamism is changing, as more temperate forces are assuming the leadership of this movement. In states as varied as Turkey, Morocco and Bahrain, moderate Islamist parties are coming to the forefront, calling for participation in the political process as opposed to waging violent campaigns against the state. Indeed, beyond the glare of Western media, a subtle intellectual transformation is underway in many Islamist circles, with leading figures such as Iran's Muhammad Khatami or Egypt's Hassan Hanafi calling for harmonization of Islamic injunctions with democratic precepts. To be sure, given the retaliatory power of the state and the inability of radical Islamists to dislodge the regimes through violence in the early 1990s, such reconsiderations may seem a tactical concession to an altered balance of power. Nonetheless, the inclination of many Islamists to reconsider their ideological strategies should not be discounted. De-radicalization is not a new trend, as leftist forces in Latin America moderated their objectives once presented with the opportunity to participate in the political process. Once part of the governing order, the imperative of getting re-elected led many leftists to actually abandon their disruptive and costly utopian schemes in search of more practical solutions to their societies' conundrums. It is time to test the premise of "moderate Islam" and not continuously invoke the Algerian trauma as a justification for prolonging a deficient autocratic rule...

I think it is becoming increasingly clear that al-Qaeda's brand of nihilistic fanaticism is alienating, more than attracting, the Muslim masses. This is a controversial area, and there is much CW that Bush banged the bee-hive of Islamic fanaticism because of Iraq and so on, but my take is that the winds are going out of UBL and ilks sails of late. Nor did the successful Iraqi elections help Al Qaeda much, of course.

Regarding other aspects of Takeyh's article, I agree that State has, perhaps, too often focused on the latest NGO programs and such as a barometer of success--initiatives that do not cross "red lines" and are in accordance with the "survival strategies" of liberal autocrats like, say, Mubarak. And B.D., for a while now, has argued for using the West's economic leverage to link economic assistance to real political reforms.

But what more can we do? In Iraq, of course, we are proceeding full-bore on democratization. But what of Egypt? Saudi Arabia? I think Takeyh is right that we need to start thinking very seriously about a) tangible curbs on executive power and b) fostering independent judicaries. Indeed, both such ostensibly legal/political reforms have major economic impact too. What businessperson is ever wholly comfortable (unless acting solely in lock-step with local elites) doing deals in environments where the executive is omnipotent or the local judges corrupt? Perhaps, as an intermediate step, such prospective legal/political reforms should be more linked to free-trade style initiatives like the Barcelona Process (only taken more seriously--with a robust U.S. role in tandem with our Euro partners, monitored closely, with more carrots and sticks brought to bear systematically).


Throughout the region, the current constitutions enshrine the power of the executive and immunize him from any challenge to his prerogatives. Monarchs and presidents stand in a privileged position, as their decisions are unencumbered by either parliamentary legislation or judicial verdict. Moreover, many Arab constitutions deliberately undermine the power of the legislative branch by granting the executive the right to appoint an upper chamber that can obstruct parliamentary initiatives. Free elections to such emasculated institutions will not pave the way for emergence of a democratic order, as the existing constitutional provisions effectively strangle any viable reform project.

The second imperative of democratic change is an independent judiciary. Throughout the Middle East, the judiciary is staffed by the compliant agents of the executive, and the courts have been used to prevent media outlets and pro-democracy forces from organizing. Any attempt to create political parties in the region is routinely denied legal sanction by the judiciary. Although the security services are often decried for their abuses, it is the judiciary that provides the legal cover for the arrest of dissidents and closure of newspapers. Iran is the case study of how a cynical judiciary working in conjunction with the unelected branches of government can effectively undermine a progressive regime and its reformist agenda. Through its contrived procedures and arbitrary verdicts, Iran's judiciary effectively silenced the region's most vibrant press and subverted parliamentary initiatives. The lesson of Iran is that in the absence of legal reform and independent judges, the hegemony of the unelected institutions is unlikely to be disturbed.

Readers are invited to comment on Takeyh's piece--particularly with regard to how to move liberal autocratic societies towards real democratization. I think, at this juncture (and Iraq aside), we are mostly pursuing a gradualist course--seeking small improvements within the 'red lines' we informally agreed with the leaders in the region. Given how disorienting the massive changes taking place in Iraq right now, a bit of caution in not forging ahead too strongly in other countries might make sense in the short term. The cup runneth over and all that. Still, however, we need to be thinking about a mid-term strategy for moving, in calibrated fashion, the momentum of Iraq (should the political governance structures there stabilize) so as to help shoehorn this precedent into further democratizing liberal autocracies in the region. To tee that up, I mostly agree with Takeyh that we should get more serious about linking aid and the extension of diplomatic prestige to governments in the region that are, in return, agreeing to real, material curbs on executive power; the fostering of increasingly independent judicaries, to the allowance of parliaments unshackled from upper chambers solely answerable to the executive, to more profound economic moves towards liberalization. No, that doesn't mean wholly abandoning incrementalism, NGO's, civil society groups--but, as Takeyh points out, it's ultimately free political parties that will prove effective in introducing real democratization in the region. And, for political parties to flourish, curbs on executive power and free courts are pretty important prerequisites.

Posted by Gregory at February 2, 2005 03:43 AM | TrackBack (11)

I know I'm going to get flamed to pieces for this, but I'll say it anyway. There are a lot of people on the "Iraq war bad" side of the aisle, like myself, who have long felt that there are better options that war in many cases. This is the underlying view of the world, that more is possible with economic and diplomatic tools, that drives my skepticism when war is presented as the first and obvious solution.

That being said, I'm not comparing the situation with Saddam to the situation in Iran or Egypt. They're qualitatively different, and war with Iraq may well have been the only choice. I'm just pointing out that my read of your post and of Takeyh's piece is that we have other tools that we rarely use.

Posted by: just me at February 2, 2005 05:09 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Given how disorienting the massive changes taking place in Iraq right now, a bit of caution in not forging ahead too strongly in other countries might make sense in the short term."

Perhaps this is precisely wrong. It is in the unsettled period after a major upheaval that the established order is most fluid; hence this is the precise time at which we can effect maximal change from a given level of effort.

It seems on the surface that, due to the present disorder, changes introduced during this period will be harder to control and their effects harder to shape. However, this is likely an illusion. Our opponents, such as the beneficiaries of existing autocracies, will also in calmer times have more power to shape outcomes; their power in the region is as great as ours.

The distortion from our aims to our achievements will not be increased by our acting precipitately; it will simply be less influenced by the other powers, and, it seems, more influenced by the people of the Middle East.

Posted by: sammler at February 2, 2005 08:26 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg is right that we can't really do a lot beyond "technical assistance" in many cases, short of roaring in there and twisting everyone's arms till they agree to play nice or go into exile. This is a long process of opening things up, and then it gathers momentum after a couple of successes. The key is to stick with it and do not provide negative incentives- such as continued aid- if they don't behave better.

The one place where we fall down pretty consistently now, after "The Fall of the Wall", is on the most important battlefield of all- information and, well, "propaganda". We don't do anywhere nearly as effective a job of getting real messages out to the populace, and if there were ever a time in history where it is possible to do so, it is now.

The one place that, on balance, you can criticize the Bush Administration regarding Iraq (most of the other carping is hindsight "I told you so" over decisions that were 50-50 calls; e.g., de-Baathification, disbanding the army, cracking down on looters, etc.) is in not planning for the blanketed broadcast and print mass media campaigns after the end of fighting. From the earliest days after the statue fell, Iranian TV was all over Iraq with little countering information. It took a long time to get the other side rolling, and there's not a good excuse for that.

Perhaps that is because essential elements of DoS don't believe in our message or that mission?

Posted by: Duane at February 2, 2005 04:33 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Duane, that's at least a little unfair to the State Department, whose capacity to conduct public diplomacy was very substantial during the Cold War and has atrophied under Congressional pressure ever since.

Indeed, American public diplomacy as a whole is far less effective than it used to be, because the American government devotes far fewer resources and attention to it. The problem starts right at the top, with Presidents -- and George W. Bush did not start this -- who couch all their statements in language targeted at the domestic audience. I find references to "freedom" and "liberty" as inspiring as any American, because I am able as an American to define what these terms mean in very practical terms. Foreign audiences (and Arab audiences in particular) lacking experience with anything like our system of government can't always do that.

This is not a new problem. During the Cold War every Communist government called itself a "People's Republic" and held elections. That didn't mean their people had any idea how a genuine representative democracy was supposed to work. The public diplomacy (and, to a lesser extent, technical assistance offered by) the US government helped to bridge the gap then. The situation now, though, is that in addition to elected officials preoccupation with holding their domestic audience the government departments that could reach out to foreign audiences often lack the means to do it, an institutional problem that we need to address.

Posted by: Zathras at February 2, 2005 04:55 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Zathras brings up a good point. My sis has spent some time working with public interest law NGOs in China, helping workers and people understand what legal rights they do have in China. She's mentioned several times that, culturally, many people there just have trouble getting the fact that they can sue an employer or others in power.

It's obviously a tough problem. I don't really have any answers, but my instincts say that we shouldn't underrate technical assistance. Even having courts that are independent still requires people who are comfortable with suing people or defending themselves.

Another gut response is whether we've had success with sanctions in the past. South Africa is the only thing that comes to mind, and again I just don't know enough about that to evaluate it without spending a long time doing some sleuthing and reading.

Posted by: just me at February 2, 2005 05:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

China is a LIBERAL autocracy? Since when?

Posted by: Tamquam Leo Rugiens at February 2, 2005 07:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

[I]t's ultimately free political parties that will prove effective in introducing real democratization in the region. And, for political parties to flourish, curbs on executive power and free courts are pretty important prerequisites.

Indeed. That's why it's imperative that Mubarak should not be given free reign in rounding up and prosecuting any such burgeoning movements (let alone the emergency law and the pathetic judiciary, etc.). This should be a real priority for Condi Rice. I hope there's a strong backbone in Bush II to go ahead with this. To quote Michael Young (Reason Magazine, Feb 2005): "Echoes of Arab democracy can still be heard in Washington, even if the advent of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state promises the inert realism that allowed so many Arab autocrats to prosper -- unless Bush orders the pliable doctor ... to place democracy at the top of her lexicon."

Posted by: Tony at February 2, 2005 11:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It's all about the benjamin's. Why work along the same diplomatic lines of the past. Why not use Lewins change model to unfreeze the status quo by decreasing the resistence in a given direction we want. The West needs to convince Mubarak that it is in his best interest to facilitate democratic reform rather then hinder it. What would the result be for a Democratic X-prize given personally to leaders who reached certain targeted milestones toward democratizing their governments. We need to restructure the paradigm.
Just my .02 :)

Posted by: Matt S. at February 3, 2005 02:28 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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