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Democracy in the Middle East
President Bush hosted by King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia on January 15, 2008.  (Photo: White House)Marina Ottaway


July 9, 2008††††




Editor's Note:

The lessons of democratization efforts in the Arab World, on the part of the United States and the European Union, was the topic taken on this week by "bitteremons-international," an on-line forum where thought leaders and policymakers weigh in on important issues in the Middle East. You should check out all four essays provided (link below) but we are pleased to provide for your consideration one of those, a call by Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for a new approach.


"..Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo. Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. 

President George W. Bush
Washington, DC, Nov 6, 2003

"..I think the importance of reform is that it satisfies the needs and aspirations of the people themselves. It should not have anything to do with any relations between any two countries. The first principle of democracy is people managing themselves. No other country can come into Saudi Arabia and say this is the kind of reform you should be pursuing or whether or not this other country is happy about the reform that is happening in Saudi Arabia. This is an issue that should be left completely to the Saudis.."

Usamah al-Kurdi, Member Saudi Consultative Council
SUSRIS Interview, Sep 16, 2004

"..I donít think that Asia, South Korea, Japan would be the allies that they are without there having been a commitment not just to interest in some balance of power sense but also to the freedom agenda. And the piece that has been missing from American foreign policy in that road has been the Middle East for 60 years. And I think we learned on September 11th that we paid a price for that and that price is the absence of legitimate channels for the development of political forces that are mainstream and moderate. It's absolutely not true that there wasn't politics in the Middle East, but the politics was in the radical mosque because that was the only outlet for it. So I think that it misses the point to assume that democracy is just a matter of moral principles in the United States. It is certainly that. But it is also a matter of strategic interest; that's when we've done best and that's when we've created -- helped to create circumstances that turned out to be secure and stable in an enduring sense. And so this President is committed to the democracy freedom agenda in the Middle East.."

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Washington, DC, December 14, 2006

Reviving Democracy Promotion
Marina Ottaway 

The Bush administration's Freedom Agenda--an undertaking rich in rhetoric and bombast and poor on substance--has been an unqualified disaster. It has not helped bring about change in the region, but it has undermined US credibility. Yet the next administration must not succumb to the temptation to simply dismiss the idea of democracy promotion in the Middle East. The deficit of democracy denounced by the UNDP Arab Human Development Report remains large. In countries like Egypt the problem is more acute, with gains made in the last two decades steadily eroded by a resurgence of authoritarianism.

Most important, the demand for democracy or at least for more openness and participation remains high in the region, even if it is ineffectual. It comes in part from liberal organizations and intellectuals who embrace the concept of liberal democracy. Theirs is not a powerful demand, because liberal organizations in the Middle East generally lack organized constituencies, hence are not significant political players. Demands for participation and democracy are also being set forth by Islamist political parties that have chosen to participate in the electoral political process of their countries, taking advantage of whatever opportunities exist to establish themselves as mainstream political actors.

Legal Islamic political parties now exist in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and Yemen; in Bahrain and Kuwait, Islamic organizations operate as "political societies" because the law does not allow parties; in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood, which is neither a legal association nor is allowed to form a political party, nevertheless successfully participates in elections by fielding candidates as "independents." The demand for democracy by Islamist organizations is looked at with a lot of suspicion in both the West and the region. Yet the question always raised, "are these organizations truly committed to democracy?" could also be asked about all ruling parties and most secular ones.

Demands for reform, though not for democracy, are also coming from many incumbent governments or at least from reformers within the ruling establishment, worried that their countries' sclerotic political and administrative systems are no longer capable of handling the challenges of twenty first century governance in a global economy. The Gulf countries in particular are facing a growing disconnect between economies that are increasingly integrated globally and better educated populations exposed to the outside world thanks to a communications revolution on one side, and political systems that have undergone little modification in decades on the other. Personal efforts by even the most enlightened members of ruling families cannot close the gap forever. Arab countries need new institutions of governance and participation. Many leaders are quite aware of this yet are uncertain about what to do and fear losing control.

Under these conditions, the next US administration cannot simply go back to a policy of supporting friendly regimes no matter what their domestic policies are. But it will not be easy for a new administration to devise a new policy. A major obstacle is the loss of US credibility engendered by recent events. Arabs who want to see democratic change in their countries no longer believe that the United States is willing or able to help. Governments that, when the freedom agenda was first launched, worried about US pressure or the possibility of sanctions stopped taking US democracy promotion seriously when the Bush administration started courting them to join an anti-Iran alliance.

Europe also needs to continue its efforts to promote reform in the Middle East. The challenge for the European Union is not to restore its lost credibility, but to increase its effectiveness.

The first step in an attempt to restore an approach to democracy promotion that will not be immediately dismissed by reformers and not taken seriously by governments is for the US to set modest goals and pursue them consistently. Modesty of goals is the key to consistency: in a region where the US has major security and economic interests, democracy promotion cannot be the only determinant of policy and ambitious democracy goals cannot be met.

The second step, admittedly a difficult one, is to tailor goals to the conditions of individual countries. For example, the next step toward reform cannot be the same in a country like Egypt, where the institutional framework for democracy exists although the government is not allowing it to function, and the United Arab Emirates, where there is no institutional structure. In Egypt, the US needs to understand what steps would be relevant to make the institutions work: putting in place an honest mechanism for registering parties would make much more sense than pushing to restore judicial supervision of elections, for example, because without party registration mechanisms elections will not be competitive. In the UAE, the challenge is to move from personal rule to institutions before anything else can happen.

The third step, intellectually easy but politically difficult, is for the US to recognize that it does not always know what the next step is in many countries. Thus it cannot prescribe or, worse, dictate. It can only work with democracy advocates but also with the more open-minded members of ruling establishments to devise and then support a process of change that is tailored to conditions.

The challenge for the EU is of a different nature. The EU has always followed a low-key approach to democracy promotion, focusing on dialogue as well as cultural and economic exchanges. As a result it has not suffered loss of credibility, but it has not had much influence either, as all ten-year evaluations of the Barcelona process show. The process has been slow, rigid and driven by bureaucratic rules rather than by opportunities.

The key to greater success for both the EU and the US may well be a middle way that combines the low-key, long-term European approach with the greater sense of political need and opportunities that drove the Bush administration.

Published 3/7/2008 ©

-- Marina Ottaway is the director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons- and, respectively.

[Reprinted with permission of]

Related Items:

         US-Arab World: Finding Mutual Respect - Rami G. Khouri - Feb 28, 2008

         The New Middle East - Carnegie Endowment Report - SUSRIS IOI - Feb 25, 2008

         Keeping America Safe By Fostering The Freedom Agenda - White House - State of the Union 2008

         The Advance of Freedom in the Middle East - Bush Abu Dhabi Address Reaffirms American Commitment - SUSRIS Special Report - Jan 13, 2008

         Can American Leadership Be Restored? - Chas W. Freeman, Jr. - May 31, 2007

         Secretary Rice on Middle East Democracy - David McKeeby - SUSRIS IOI - Dec 19, 2006

         Secretary of State Rice on Democracy in the Middle East - Interview With The Washington Post Editorial Board

         What the World is Saying.. About Democracy in the Middle East - SUSRIS IOI - Mar 10, 2005

President Bush Discusses Freedom in Iraq and Middle East - White House - Nov 6, 2003

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