Mideast democracy: can’t be exported or imported, but – despite dilemmas – must be supported

Mideast democracy: can’t be exported or imported, but – despite dilemmas – must be supported

The dilemmas of reconciling security and human rights, stability and reform, and external and internal drivers for change were the dominant themes running through a conference on Middle East democracy this week.

The event was organized by the National Endowment for Democracy in cooperation with the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, to give some leading Arab democrats a chance to outline their vision of the future and make recommendations for U.S. policy-makers.

The current administration is markedly more pragmatic when compared to its “democracy crusading” predecessor, said Howard Berman, (D-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Policy-makers faced profound dilemmas in pushing reforms which could arguably facilitate anti-American forces taking power and in reconciling compelling security interests with the imperative of reform.

The “most difficult and fascinating case”, he said, is currently in Iran where the administration must engage the Islamic Republic on its nuclear aspirations, but is being pressed to openly support the region’s largest and most vibrant dissident movement even if it jeopardizes the chance of a negotiated settlement. Timing is everything, he suggested, and while a new regime in Iran offered the best hope for resolving the issue, the nuclear and democracy clocks are ticking at a different pace.

Egyptian dissident Ayman Nour insisted that the threat of Islamist rule was a “big lie” propagated by the region’s regimes to justify authoritarian rule. The regime harasses him and his Ghad Party because “we disrupted the ancient and continuous formula” that autocracy is the only alternative to Islamist rule.

A recent tour of the country’s regions had convinced him that Egypt was “ripe for change” and the he was striving to create “integrated coalitions” with civil society groups “more cutting edge” than the country’s discredited political parties. He welcomed the prospect of Mohamed el-Baradei entering Egypt’s presidential race in 2011, but hinted that the Muslim Brotherhood would be inappropriate for a democratic coalition.

Nour recently formed a coalition of opposition groups – Did Al-Wirasa, or “against inheritance” – to oppose Gamal Mubarak’s pharaonic succession to the presidency. The Brotherhood is part of the group but a formal political alliance would be “problematic because of their ideology,” he said, speaking by audio link after being banned from traveling by the regime (folowing a video of his presentation, he took questions from the floor).

An ongoing factional fight amongst the Islamists has seen hard-line conservatives succeed in marginalizing the relatively moderate or reformist minority that is often invoked by Western commentators to suggest the Brotherhood’s liberalizing trends or democratic potential.

Liberal democrats can emerge “as a third alternative to authoritarianism and fundamentalism”, Nour insisted, if political reforms are enacted, including civilian and international election monitoring, an end to media restrictions, abolishing the Political Parties Committee that stifles the emergence of opposition parties, and  revoking the Article 88 and Article 76 constitutional amendments that facilitate electoral fraud and, in effect, prohibit opposition candidates  from contesting elections.

Some commentators argue that the Obama administration has discarded George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda and with it any drive for political reform in the Middle East.

But the charge of strategic retreat was dismissed by Tamara Cofman Wittes, recently appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. The Obama administration’s was in fact pursuing an energetic new strategy, transcending the “high politics” of traditional diplomacy, and engaging citizens and communities as well as the region’s governments.

It is an approach typified by the Middle East Partnership Initiative – previously analyzed and now managed by Wittes –   which, with its innovative grants program responding to local needs and demands, amounts to nothing less than “a transformation in the way the U.S. does foreign policy”.

The Arab world’s democratic deficit notwithstanding, the region has recently witnessed encouraging trends, including the elevation of leading Arab democrats and civil society activists to leading roles as ministers and legislators. The fact that two slated speakers were unable to attend the NED event because of pressing responsibilities is itself an indicator of progress, said NDI’s Les Campbell, NDI’s Middle East director.

Dr. Aseel al-Awadhi, one of four women elected to the Kuwaiti parliament in May 2009, was pushing the case for family-friendly working practices, while Ziad Baroud, a former civil society activist, had recently been appointed as Lebanon’s Interior Minister, a role usually associated with the most illiberal and anti-democratic personalities. 

But the conference did hear Musa Maaytah, Jordan’s Minister of Political Development and a founding member of Jordan’s Democratic Renewal Movement, outline the cultural obstacles to democracy that necessitated a long-term incremental approach. The former NED grantee cited the resilience of traditional tribal allegiances the absence of “any real force to promote liberal democratic ideas”.

Despite regular local and parliamentary elections, a relatively free media, independent political parties, and the presence of over 2000 civil society organizations within a population of only 5 million citizens, civil society was still not robust enough to sustain genuine democratization.

Women’s growing political participation was a key indicator of democratic progress, Nouzha Skalli, Morocco’s Minister of Social Development, Family and Solidarity, told the conference, citing a 3000% increase in women’s participation at the municipal level. Skalli played a leading role in the passage of the Moudawana personal status code that enhanced women’s rights, in a campaign which highlighted the need to engage political Islamists, she said. 

While recognizing the integrity and contributions of democratic reformists working within illiberal regimes, Carnegie’s Michelle Dunne stressed the limitations of top-down reforms in the absence of genuine political competition. With the exception of Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and, arguably, Kuwait, the region had seen no real change on the fundamental issue of “the way that political power is acquired and practiced”.

The region had seen dramatic improvements in media diversity, NGOs’ status, election monitoring and opinion polling, public debate and discourse on reform issues, and an increasingly vibrant culture of activism and protest, especially amongst youth. But, despite improvements in governance and human rights, most of the region’s citizens are still denied the basic right to change their government through free and fair elections.   

Asking what went wrong with the push for Middle East democracy betrays unrealistic expectations, said NDI’s Campbell. It was naive to expect that the region’s entrenched authoritarianism would be dissipated within 10 or 15 years, but activists can point to “absolutely transformative” trends in Morocco,  the Iraqi parliament’s role in determining that state’s politics, and even “stirrings of activism” in Saudi Arabia as evidence of continuing reformist momentum.   

The region’s democratic and reformist forces are creative, resilient and ideologically diverse, said Laith Kubba, NED’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa. By contrast, the region’s regimes have proven unable to adapt and, resting on fragile family-based or sectarian networks, lack the mass base and legitimacy that adoption of an alternative ‘China model’ requires. 

Foreign assistance has to be targeted and calibrated, he cautioned, reflecting local needs and interests. Excessive or inappropriate assistance can suffocate or politically compromise genuine local reformers. 

Calling for a shift “from tactical to strategic liberalization”, Georgetown’s Dan Brumberg criticized the excessive focus on and expectations of Arab civil society and the corresponding neglect of the state, stressing the need to open up and reform government institutions.

Recently returned from Cairo, he highlighted the “distressing strategic divisions” within the opposition – similar to those in Iran’s Green movement – and suggested that democracy assistance groups should establish safe forums in which strategic differences could be addressed and resolved. 

“Rhetoric matters”, said Scott Carpenter, not least in creating space for dissidents, faulting the Obama administration for easing public pressure on the region’s authoritarian regimes. Emphasizing mutual respect and interest is all very well, he said, “But where’s the mutuality?”

Don’t let Middle East governments define the agenda, he cautioned, citing Arab reformers, including the Bush administration’s detractors, who now say they didn’t realize pressure was there until it was gone. “Programs are not policy,” said Carpenter, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and democracy assistance is no substitute for U.S. government pressure.

Vidar Helgesen called for “honest but not humiliating” dialog with all legitimate actors, including political Islamists. Stressing the need to create political space for genuine reform, he based his comments on the findings of a major report produced for the EU by his organization, International IDEA, which drew on consultations with key regional players, including the Arab League.

“Democracy cannot be exported or imported, but should be supported,” said exiled Egyptian dissident, Saad Eddin Ibrahim. It is disgraceful that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was now the third-longest in Egyptian history, after the pharaoh Ramesses II [66 years] and Muhammad Ali [43 years], he said.

The conundrum of simultaneously addressing security and human rights could be dealt with through a Helsinki accord-like process of political conditionality. Arab democrats could fight their own battles, he insisted, but Western democracies should at least stop actively supporting the region’s autocrats.  

The contributions of analysts and activists alike had brought out the complexities and challenges of promoting democracy in the region, said Carl Gershman (the NED’s very own Ramesses II, joked NDI’s Ken Wollack). The challenges of reconciling freedom and security, programs and policy, internal and external drivers for change, would be considered in recommendations for the U.S. administration based on the day’s deliberations.

The Source