Memo to Obama: don’t abandon Arab democrats

Memo to Obama: don’t abandon Arab democrats

Several dozen scholars and experts, including Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim -are urging the Obama administration to support democracy in the Arab and Muslim world. An open letter to the president, to be released at a Washington news conference tomorrow, states that the West has “supported repressive regimes that routinely violate human rights, and that torture and imprison those who dare criticize them.”

The letter calls on the new administration to make support for democracy and its proponents in the region a foreign policy priority, even within U.S. allies such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. The United States should “use its considerable economic and diplomatic leverage to put pressure on its allies in the region when they fail to meet basic standards of human rights.” Signatories include Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, a co-convener of the letter; Francis Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins University; Morton Halperin, former State Department director of policy planning; Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House; Larry Diamond of Stanford University; and Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

“Because of its association with the Bush administration, there is a temptation to move away from any discussion of democracy promotion in the Middle East. That would be a mistake,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

“Advancing sustainable and meaningful political reform in the Middle East will require the efforts of governments on both sides of the Atlantic,” write Tamara Wittes and Richard Youngs. The US and the European Union should establish a high-level transatlantic forum for coordinating policies in the region; jointly stress the West’s continued commitment to Arab democracy and human rights; incentivize reform efforts through common criteria for positive conditionality; insist on the principle that civil society can receive foreign assistance; maintain consistent positions on engaging with non-violent Islamists; and maintain a regular dialog on funding strategies for democratic development.

Resources for democracy assistance in the region have been “miniscule” relative to official government-to-government aid flows. US democracy assistance in the first five years after 9/11 averaged 80 cents per capita, in marked contrast to the $14.60 per capita spent in the formel Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War.

Far from developing alternative or competing approaches, the US and EU have both pursued a blend of civil society-based and top-down governmental approaches, often duplicating each others‘ programs. It has often been suggested, they note, that

.. the European Union and the United States need each other – that the United States lacks the reach and credibility of European diplomacy, whereas the European Union lacks the “punch” of American capacity.

Wittes and Youngs conclude that closer coordination could yield genuine benefits.