Democratic backsliding in Middle East addressed at NED/CSID event

At a joint panel of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) today in Washington, regional experts expressed concern over what they see as a backsliding of democracy in the Middle East of late.

Shadi Hamid, a founding board member of the Project on Middle East Democracy and a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University, said that after a wave of optimism among Arab democratic supporters in 2005 in the wake of notable reforms in some nations, a “total 180 has taken place in the last few years.” The United States – fearful that democratically-elected alternatives in the region could be Islamist, as was the case with the ascendance of Hamas in Palestine in early 2006 – has allowed Arab dictators to crush their opposition, he said.

“There was a democratic moment, but the moment passed,” Hamid said.

Hamid also said that, whereas U.S. regional policy had previously conveyed a rigid dichotomy of “dictators versus democrats,” it now stresses “moderates versus extremists.” The irony though, according to Hamid, is that the current Arab moderates in power are dictators, while the current Arab extremists in power are democrats. To help remedy these inconsistencies and promote genuine democracy in the region, he said that the U.S. needs to formulate a coherent policy that would, among other things, engage nonviolent Islamists, bringing a select subset to the U.S. as part of exchange programs; engender dialogue between Islamists and secularists; and create the conditions on the ground necessary to empower democratic groups. Doing this would also be consonant with U.S. national security priorities, as granting Arabs the legitimate avenues of expression that are inherent to democracy would also help to keep frustrated individuals from resorting to illegitimate avenues of expression such as terrorism.

Amr Hamzawy, a prominent Egyptian political scientist currently working at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, added that Arabs were wrong to assume that the notable concessions granted by governments in Egypt and Lebanon in recent years could be duplicated throughout the region. The Middle East today, Hamzawy said, is still beset by unbalanced governments that allow far too much executive authority, weak opposition parties, and a lack of a politically moderate center that can serve as an alternative to autocracy and theocracy. Hamzawy also addressed recent developments in Egypt, where a forthcoming referendum is expected on constitutional amendments that he says would further stifle opposition parties – namely the Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood – and extend executive power under the pretense of counter-terrorism.

Radwant Masmoudi, the founder and president of CSID, also linked reduced U.S. pressure on Arab autocrats of late with the Islamist threat made manifest by the ascendance of Hamas and Hezbollah last year and the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections – a development that Masmoudi attributed partially to purposeful tampering by an Egyptian government that recognized the potential advantages of such an outcome – but chided the Bush administration for failing to envision that such a scenario could occur. Masmoudi went on to attempt to dispel several common myths held by outsiders to the region. These include views that there is not a genuine desire for democracy in the region (he pointed to a recent Gallop poll that offers overwhelmingly evidence to the contrary); external pressure doesn’t create reform (U.S. pressure for democracy was effective in 2004 and 2005, he said); and secularists and Islamists can’t cooperate (both sides are willing, but Arab governments are wary of the possible implications, he noted). Masmoudi argued that the Middle East is at a crossroads; the significant unemployment rates currently evident throughout the region could spell problems in several years as a populace that is mostly under 21 comes of age. The U.S. must recognize that if the threat to regional stability that this impending development embodies is to be curtailed, democratic governments, which offer their citizens the best hope for expanded opportunities, must be supported.

Shadi Hamid is founding member and associate at The Project on Middle East Democracy. He is a contributor to Democracy Arsenal, the Security and Peace Initiative’s foreign affairs blog.

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