• Obama
  • January 23, 2009
  • 5 minutes read

Resilient Arab regimes deaf to Obama’s words

Resilient Arab regimes deaf to Obama’s words

President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech cautioned “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” that they are on the wrong side of history. But regimes across much of the Middle East appear confident that they can at least postpone the verdict of posterity.

Arab states have demonstrated an “extraordinary ability to renovate and develop their instruments of authoritarian rule,” notes Carnegie Endowment’s Amr Hamzawy, “despite moments of public activism and the relative rise in demand for democracy” across the region. Regimes have consolidated their rule through a dual strategy of co-opting economic and financial forces that have historically sided with democratizing movements, and undertaking cosmetic reforms designed to suggest political dynamism and to deflect Western pressures for genuine reform.

Hamzawy criticizes the “legalistic ruses to which the ruling regimes in republican systems resort in order to perpetuate their authoritarian grip behind a democratic façade.”

Pseudo-democratic reforms can also undermine prospects for genuine change and reinforce the argument that democratization will foster instability and extremism. “Political reforms had little effect on promoting norms of tolerance or inclusive political institutions, as democracy advocates might expect,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, co-author of a recent RAND analysis. “Instead, they often exacerbated existing societal cleavages, because those in power tended to ‘stack the deck’ to maintain their power when implementing reforms.”

But the study rejects the notion that democracy prejudices U.S. interests in the region, recommending a strategy of “realistic democracy promotion“:

Such a policy would apply sustained pressure to strengthen democratic institutions and practices and to scrutinize reforms; emphasize human rights, transparency, judicial reform, and the rule of law; avoid taking sides in elections; safeguard security while respecting the rule of law; engage Islamic parties while leveling the playing field for other types of political opposition; and recognize political motivations behind both sides of the democratization debate.

Some observers have questioned whether the new administration will promote democracy in the Middle East and asked what it means to “seek a better balance between democracy promotion and U.S. interests.”

But Obama’s words offered some comfort to Arab liberals and democrats, including Gameela Ismail, whose husband Ayman Nour was jailed three years ago for his temerity in challenging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “The words make anyone feel optimistic about the future, but I hope it will develop into real actions and real policies and strategies,” she said.

Even the anti-Western al-Quds al-Arabi felt obliged to make conciliatory noises, moderating its traditional anti-democratic positions. “A new era begins in the US today, an era which proves that Western democracy, even though we have our reservations about it, is still the best, most just method of government as far as ethnic and religious minorities are concerned,” it conceded.

Arab democracy’s prospects are further diminished by tension between secularists and Islamists which can only be addressed by a commitment to reconcile ijtihad with human rights and democracy.

“Secularists in the Arab region make a mistake when they ignore the religious element,” Radhouane Masmoudi of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy told a recent Tunis organised by the Arab Institute for Human Rights (AIHR). “Islamists also make a mistake when they reject ijtihad, social development and the defence of freedoms as a religious duty.”