Arab Democrats – Doing it For Themselves?

Forty years’ after the war of 1967 exposed the true nature of regimes whose dubious legitimacy rested on their hostility to Israel, a new Arab Foundation for Democracy is on the way. Supported by Qatar’s absolute monarchy, the foundation will nevertheless aim to encourage the region’s rulers to “adopt democratic culture”, a worthy aspiration given the evidence that Arab regimes’ penchant for pseudo-democratic elections is feeding skepticism about democracy.

The foundation, announced at an Arab democracy forum attended by several hundred delegates from across the region, will be the “biggest civil organisation in the Arab world that supports democracy,” said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian academic and activist, who will join the foundation’s board along with Sadiq Al Mahdi, former Sudanese prime minister, former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, Canada’s former prime minister Kim Campbell, Emma Bonino, Italy’s European affairs minister, and Ali Fakhroo, Bahrain’s former minister of education.

While the region’s democratic deficit has prompted a range of governmental and civil society initiatives, they have been primarily externally-driven. Local activists have also expressed frustration that the West continues to deal with the region’s dictators, apparently contradicting their own rhetoric.

“Under no circumstances,” said secretary of state Condoleezza Rice would the president or administration “turn its back on … the essential fact about the Middle East, which is that without reform and democratization you’re going to have a false stability which will continue to give rise to extremism.” The fact that regional security and other imperatives necessarily temper such good intentions is scant consolation to those Arab democrats who question the West’s commitment to supporting Arab democrats and fear that the era of optimism for democracy in the Middle East has ended.

The rationale for the new foundation appears to be that perhaps an “Arab-formulated, -funded, and -managed process” may help spur what one commentator calls the “impressive — even heroic …. But powerless Arabs [who] believe deep in their bones that democracy will spur the sensible and stable statehood that has been such an elusive goal.”

The former Mauritanian president Ali Mohamed Ould Val and former Sudan president Abdul Rahman Sewar el-Dahab addressed the inaugural session as rare examples of Arab leaders who “gave up power willingly“. The forum urged Arab regimes to expand political participation, enhance the role of civil society groups by securing a suitable legal framework and to meet international standards on free and independent media. Participants stressed the importance of an independent judiciary for curbing arbitrary rule and establishing good governance.

Egyptian dissident Ibrahim reminded delegates that the Arab world took part in the first three global “democratic waves”. He remains guardedly optimistic about the region’s democratic prospects. “In the medium and long run, the region is discovering very slowly that democracy is a solution,” he says. He cites the silent majority potential constituency for liberal-democracy, including Egypt’s new “very exciting” Democratic Front Party that could fill the vacuum left by the incarceration of Ayman Nour and the suppression of his al-Ghad party. This may go some small way to addressing a fundamental problem described by the National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman: “Liberal reformers occupy a narrow political space between authoritarian regimes and Islamist opposition movements, both of which benefit from their mutual antagonism at the expense of the small democratic center.”

The forum’s closing statement insisted that reform in the Arab world must be an “internal matter that is based on national consensus.” Surveys of Arab opinion suggest skepticism towards externally-driven democracy promotion although there is widespread support for democratic values and a demand for assistance in capacity-building, expanding employment, and improving health care and education.”

The Qatar emir’s commitment to democratic reform prompted a few quizzically raised eyebrows. The region’s regimes have a notoriously dubious commitment to political reform. But the alternative, according to a recent analysis of Arab economies, is “a vicious circle in which impoverishment, discontent, militancy, and repression feed upon one another, deterring reform and impeding growth.”

Syria is “a terrific case study of how Arab dictatorships work – and why they stay in power,” argues Barry Rubin, author of an insightful analysis outlining The Truth About Syria. Yet the Baathist regime continues to defy confident predictions of its demise.

The Ba’athists are proven masters of a strategy commonly practiced by the region’s ruling cliques: flirting with radical Islamists while suppressing liberals and democrats, and using the pretext of conflict with Israel to justify internal repression. “The regime has given unprecedented leeway for opening mosques, setting up Islamic-favored institutions and preaching fiery sermons as long as they are not directed at Bashar,” notes Rubin. Similarly, public attention is deflected from the dysfunctional state and flaccid economy, he notes, as “the great excuse, the external enemy, is used to justify a system that is ineffective except to fulfill an elite’s greed and self-interest.”