Are We Serious About Arab Democracy?

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The spectacle of Eastern Europe-style “people power” demonstrations erupting in a major Arab capital is a sure sign that momentous changes are afoot in the Middle East. And the street protests in Beirut aimed at forcing out Syrian troops are only the most dramatic of a series of developments that underscore the pressure on the region’s longtime autocrats. Many of those autocrats, of course, are traditional U.S. allies who now find themselves wedged between a mounting democratic clamor from their own people and a cold shoulder from their traditional backers in Washington, whose leader has warned friend and foe alike that he’s no longer willing to tolerate tyranny and repression.

In the past two months alone, we've seen Iraqis voting for a National Assembly, Palestinians voting in presidential and municipal polls (and they'll elect a new legislature in the summer), Saudis (well, male Saudis, anyway) voting in unprecedented elections to relatively toothless municipal councils, Lebanese protestors forcing the resignation of a pro-Syrian government, and last weekend’s proposal by Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak to open up the traditional single-candidate elections that have endorsed his 24-year reign to other candidates (albeit only those approved by a legislature heavily stacked in the ruling party’s favor). Clearly, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has prompted the beginnings of what could be a seismic shift in power throughout the region.

Possibilities and perils

The growing popular demand for Arab democracy also presents a major strategic challenge to the U.S. to put the democratic process above its outcome, as the Bush administration has done thus far in Iraq. If Washington accepts that given the choice, Arab electorates will most likely choose candidates quite different from those the U.S. would prefer to see in power, we could be in for a profound change in the region's prospects. But that requires dispensing with the Cold War mentality that puts the outcome above the process, i.e. better a pro-U.S. autocrat than a democratically elected socialist (or, these days, Islamist). Henry Kissinger once justified U.S. support for the Pinochet coup in Chile by saying "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people." If a similar attitude prevails in Washington if Arab electorates choose Islamists to lead them, the current moment of democratic hope will come to nothing. Once the floodgates of democracy are open, slamming them shut because we don't like the outcome will inevitably ensure the long-term survival of terrorism and extremism.

It has become an article of faith shared by the advocates of the Bush administration’s foreign policy and by their liberal critics that terrorism is fueled by political systems that don’t allow for effective democratic participation that gives citizens a peaceful means to seek their government's ouster. It's no coincidence that the core leadership of al-Qaeda came from countries where no legal, non-violent avenues exist to channel their political viewpoint. (This in no way excuses, or even explains their choice to begin murdering innocent civilians, but it certainly explains the context of the appeal of extremism to the region’s angry young men.)

The absence of non-violent channels of expressing political and national anger and aspirations creates a certain inevitability about terrorism. Ask the Israelis: During his successful 1999 campaign to become prime minister of Israel, Ehud Barak shared this startling observation with the Israeli daily Haaretz: "I imagine that if I were a Palestinian of the right age, I would, at some stage, have joined one of the terror organizations."

Isolating extremists

Creating democratic options won't necessarily bring existing extremists back into the mainstream: It's hard to imagine al-Qaeda's Dr. Ayman Zawahiri settling for the job of Health Minister in his native Egypt. But it stands a good chance of isolating them and limiting their ability to recruit a new generation. That's why there’s remarkable agreement between liberals and neocons that democracy and the creation of institutions for peaceful political participation in the Middle East are among our best hedges against terrorism in the long run — even if they disagree fundamentally on how to pursue those goals.

U.S. policy towards the Arab world since World War II was largely guided by Cold War calculations that not only forgave friendly authoritarian currents in the Middle East, but in some cases actually helped them seize power or propped them up. In most of the U.S.-friendly Arab autocracies, the citizenry is not only burning with frustration at the authoritarian and repressive nature of their governments and the stasis of the societies they rule; they are also enraged by their rulers' close relationships with Washington.

Right now, the most significant opposition to the regimes of Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia comes not from secular Western-oriented democrats, but from Islamists, radical and moderate. Egypt may be a pro-U.S. regime at peace with Israel; Syria has a more troubled relationship with Washington, cooperating against al-Qaeda, but less so in Iraq, while openly defying the Bush Administration on Lebanon and technically still at war with Israel, which occupies Syrian territory on the Golan Heights. But if truly democratic elections were held in both places today, the smart money would be on the Muslim Brotherhood to win in both Cairo and Damascus.

Learning from Iraq

Even in Iraq, where democratic elections became possible only because the U.S. invasion had ousted Saddam Hussein, the clear winner at the polls was the Shiite Islamist-led coalition assembled by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The overtly pro-U.S. list of interim prime minister Iyad Allawi polled only 14 percent of the vote. It is to the Bush administration’s credit that it has repeatedly insisted it will accept the choices of the Iraqi voters, even when those obviously conflict with U.S. preferences. Such flexibility will be indispensable if the Arab democracy project is to be much more than a slogan, because if Iraqi voters who arguably owe their new democracy to U.S. military intervention nonetheless voted against the U.S., there's no reason to believe the outcome would be different in the other key Arab autocracies — genuine democracy would likely produce governments less friendly towards the United States than are the current crop of autocrats.


The Palestinian experience offers an additional important pointer — and so does Lebanon. Both demonstrate how if democracy is to function as a counter to terrorism, then the process must make space for organizations that have previously chosen the terror option to compete for power in legitimate institutions. Hezbollah is currently the single largest party in Lebanon's parliament, having parlayed the widespread legitimacy enjoyed by its military campaign against the Israeli occupation, which ended in 2000, into an important share of the political pie. Today, the Lebanese opposition is all too aware that Hezbollah is effectively the political representative of Lebanon's Shiites, possibly its largest single community today, and that any post-Syria political arrangement requires Hezbollah's consent and participation.

Integrating the radicals

Similarly, the Palestinian militants of Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade are an integral part of Palestinian society, and the more democratic the politics of the Palestinian Authority become, the greater their representation in it will be. Mahmoud Abbas won January's presidential election precisely because he had the backing of the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, which persuaded his stronger rival, the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, to drop out. (The most widely respected Palestinian polling organization, which called the election result to within a percentage point, concluded that had Barghouti run, the imprisoned militant would have beaten Abbas by a four-point margin.) Hamas was the big winner in the recent municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Islamist group stayed out of the presidential election, but they look set to compete in the summer’s legislative poll — and their showing in local elections suggests the Islamists will do very well. Come the Fall, Abbas may well find himself answerable to a legislature in which representatives of the more militant grassroots of Fatah, together with those of Hamas, are a lot more influential than old-guard moderates like himself.

The country where the Palestinian example may be most relevant is Egypt. It's an open secret that the Muslim Brotherhood remains by far the most important opposition grouping in the country, despite the fact that it's formally banned from participating in politics. Even under electoral rules stacked to maintain the control of Mubarak and his National Democratic Party, the Brotherhood managed to sneak in a handful of candidates as independents. And despite some egregious strongarm tactics designed to stop their supporters even getting to the polls, they still emerged as the single largest opposition bloc in parliament. Now, Mubarak is proposing to do away with the Saddam Hussein-style single candidate elections that have "returned" him to power four times since 1981. Instead, he'll allow opposition candidates to stand, but — and here's the catch — the must be nominated by officially recognized political parties (thereby excluding you-know-who), and their candidacy must be approved by the current parliament. Mubarak's proposed change makes his presidential election system less like Saddam's and more like Iran's, where multiple candidates can stand, provided they're approved by a Council of Guardians appointed by the clerical supremo.

The Algerian option: The worst of both worlds?

It may tempting, right now, for the Bush administration to tacitly endorse Mubarak's exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood from the political process. After all, the Brotherhood has hard line views on both the U.S. and Israel. Still, in the long run, excluding them could be a disaster. Look no further than Algeria to see why: In 1991, the military regime there yielded to pressure and held elections. But when it became clear that the Islamic Salvation Front had won the first phase of the poll, democracy was abruptly canceled. The result was a savage terror backlash that has seen more than 100,000 Algerians killed over the past decade, and helped swell the ranks of al-Qaeda (the U.S. and France backed the military regime). If a new generation of young Egyptians see their calls for change dashed in a sham election, al-Qaeda may well be the big winner.

The two, related, challenges facing advocates of Arab democracy are to accept that it will involve parties that the U.S. might regard as beyond the pale, and that the results may be quite different from those Washington would prefer. It's unlikely that most of the key U.S. allies in the Middle East would fare much better than Iraq's Allawi in genuinely democratic elections. But allowing Arab electorates the right to choose their own leaders is still healthier in the long run. The burden of governing is almost always a moderating experience. (Just ask Turkey's crypto-Islamist government, or the leftist administration of President Lula in Brazil.) The alternative, to promise democracy but curtail it when we don't like the outcome, may be even more dangerous.