All is not lost

As President George Bush’s State of the Union address and Secretary Condoleezza Rice’s recent Middle East trips showed, the Bush administration has shifted its public rhetoric back from the democrats- autocrats divide of the freedom agenda to the moderates- radicals distinction of yore. Facing an urgent need to defuse crises in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, understandably the United States is now focussing primarily on Arab states’ foreign policy behaviour and relegating democracy promotion to the background. Although this may seem the worst time for the United States to encourage unpredictable political change in an already chaotic region, abandoning Middle East democracy as a strategic goal would be a tragic mistake, and an unnecessary one.

The reasoning that drove the United States to reverse 60 years of support for authoritarianism in the Middle East is still sound: the region desperately needs political freedom in order to foster human and economic development and undermine extremism and isolationism. Last year’s events have made abundantly clear that democracy alone will not solve the problems of Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, but will have to be paired with serious efforts at conflict resolution. But in the majority of the Middle East that is distant from such crises, opportunities for progress towards democracy abound.

Calls to abandon democracy promotion are built partly on the false assumption that conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon have endangered stability throughout the Middle East. It is simply not true that growing Shia-Sunni tensions in Iraq are provoking political instability elsewhere, even in nearby Gulf countries with significant Shia communities. Equally, the rise of Iran as a regional super power, although a source of concern among Arabs, has had little impact on domestic politics except in Iraq and Lebanon. Granted, the 2006 Lebanon war highlighted the polarity of anti-US resistance movements and pro-US governments, but this development has not harmed countries outside the crisis hubs.

Countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen have in different ways begun to open up political space in recent years. Undoubtedly, the tentative progress made in most of these cases has neither lived up to international expectations nor to the hopes of homegrown democracy activists. But all have remained remarkably stable in the face of regional crises and have maintained the trajectory of gradual political opening, albeit with many ups and downs. In Jordan, for example, the Arab society most directly affected by deteriorating conditions in Iraq and Palestine, the pattern of controlled confrontation between the regime and a strong Islamist opposition reveals a democratisation potential based on including Islamists in the political process as a way to strengthen the regime’s legitimacy and promote moderation in the Islamist camp.

Egypt, the most populous Arab country and a political linchpin, offers a special opportunity now, but one that may be squandered if the United States does not encourage forward movement. The ruling National Democratic Party has reinvented itself as the champion of political and economic reform under the leadership of presidential scion Gamal Mubarak, who is positioning himself for a future run for the presidency. The party is proposing extensive constitutional amendments, spurring intense debates with opposition politicians and civil society activists. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that won almost a quarter of the parliament’s seats in 2005, has developed a strategic commitment to peaceful participation in legal politics. Contrary to its international image, the Egyptian Brotherhood is becoming an opposition that plays politics by the rules.

The United States should combine conflict resolution and democracy promotion in the Middle East’s trouble spots, while pursuing democratisation with seriousness and patience in other countries. In so doing, the United States should base its strategic friendships with Arab governments not only on shared regional objectives, but also on whether they are fostering freedom and development for their citizens. Unless so-called moderates reform their polities, they are doomed to be less effective than they might be and permanently on the defensive in an Arab public space increasingly disenchanted with America’s authoritarian friends.

Michele Dunne and Amr Hamzawy are senior associates at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.