Edition 26 Volume 6 - July 03, 2024

Lessons from US and EU democratization programs

Partial democracy suits regimes and the West - an interview with  George Giacaman

Full-fledged democracy will not be permitted.

The enigma of democratization -   Michel Nehme

If democracy is a process, where do we start--from the political, the economic or the social?

Reviving democracy promotion -   Marina Ottaway

Arabs who want to see democratic change in their countries no longer believe that the United States is willing or able to help.

Different approaches arise from different motives -   Waleed Sadi

The EU has concluded that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. This has yet to dawn on the US leadership.

Partial democracy suits regimes and the West
an interview with George Giacaman

BI: A couple of years ago, the US launched a democratization program for the Middle East. What happened?

Giacaman: States usually pursue their interests rather than any high ideals. So the question should be; what was intended by this program? It seems to me that the issue here is that in certain countries, especially in some Gulf countries, it was thought that some degree of domestic political openness to include emerging elites in the decision-making process would ensure better stability.

This was evidenced by the fact that Saudi Arabia was pressured to hold at least municipal elections, which they did in the first elections in that country. Preceding that in Bahrain, a parliament was formed, where, even though half the members are appointed, at least the other half is elected.

I think the idea was that in these countries stability was better preserved if some degree of openness, no matter how gradual, began and this was probably done against the wishes of the traditional ruling families.

At some point, I also think the inclusion of Islamists was considered, especially in countries such as Egypt. But the problem with Islamists, as far as the US is concerned, is their position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In any case I think the process was arrested chiefly because it was thought that it was a more important priority to allow these countries to fight domestic terrorism and globalized Jihad. One should recall that in Saudi Arabia there were several such incidents that were given priority.

BI: How big a role did the election victory of Hamas play?

Giacaman: In principle, the US and European countries have no problem with elections. It is the result of such elections they may not like. [US Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice said as much, when she stated, "we don't have to accept the results."

BI: But it begs the question, why push for democracy if you are not willing to accept the results?

Giacaman: I don't think the West is pushing for democracy but rather for the partial openness of political systems and some degree of inclusion in parliament of opposition forces. One of the countries mentioned by US President George W. Bush in his 2024 speech as a model for the region was Jordan. There, there has been a long-standing tug of war between the government and Islamists, and the latter have been included to some degree in parliament and in some specific ministries. That is an example of the policy of containment rather than a policy of full-scale democracy.

BI: But is it possible to sustain such partial democracy?

Giacaman: No. I think the slogan is used for political expediency. The people in the region genuinely want democracy if by this is meant the rule of law, regular free elections and the protection of civil liberties and human rights. These issues all score high in opinion polls over the last ten years.

The problem of course is opposition first of all on the part of Arab regimes and secondly concern in the US that full-fledged democracy will bring to power not only the Islamists but all those forces opposed to US policy in the region, most importantly in Palestine and Iraq.

BI: But if increased democratization brings stability, and the overall concern of western countries is stability in the region, how do you strike a balance of getting just enough democracy?

Giacaman: The idea is to bring enough political stability so countries of the region will remain within the US and western orbit. It's not to get complete democracy. A country like Saudi Arabia with about 25 million citizens has for the past 40 years been sending hundreds of students annually to study in the US to come back and work in state bureaucracy. Many of these professionals are frustrated and want some degree of devolvement in the decision-making process. The recipe is clear: disgruntled and educated people form revolutionary material. I think it is well understood in Riyadh that some degree of devolvement in the decision-making process is important as a policy of containing radicals.

BI: In view of this sort of partial democratization policy as you call it, what now for US and EU democratization programs in the region?

Giacaman: I think these programs will always be extremely limited. Full-fledged democracy will not be permitted, first by Arab regimes and also by the US to the extent that US policy in the region remains the same, especially with regard to Iraq and Washington's blanket support for Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

BI: Will this policy of containment work?

Giacaman: So far, no radical changes have taken place. Keep in mind that security forces play a major part in the decision-making process in the countries of the region. They also use the question of terror to continue a mode of repression and to scare their populations to stay quiet. So far this has been successful.

However, it also clear that there is a lot of disgruntlement. Egypt, for example, has been under a state of emergency for 26 years. That is not a normal situation and it's hard to see that this can carry on indefinitely.- Published 3/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

George Giacaman teaches at Birzeit University and contributes political analysis to Arab and international media.

The enigma of democratization
 Michel Nehme

Democracy may be a word familiar to most, but it is a concept still misunderstood and misused. Although the number of proclaimed democratic states has risen considerably in recent years, democracy has by no means attained its ultimate objective of peaceful global coexistence. The radiance of democracy is overshadowed by the democracy-resistant Middle East.

This region has remained the least affected by the waves of democratization that have reshaped world politics since the end of World War II. The Middle East has become a bulwark of authoritarianism, conflict and instability and a breeding ground for terrorism. The recent US military adventure in Iraq, which was touted as the forerunner of democratization in the region, only made things worse. Under these adverse circumstances, the question of how the United States and the European Union intend to promote democratic reform in the region remains imperative.

The US, EU and the Middle East at large diverge not only on the meaning of this concept but also on its applicability, process and implementation. This diversity in the democratization concept has clearly manifested itself in Iraq, Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and the Arab world at large.

When Americans who are seeking to build a democratic polity in Iraq pronounce that democratic advance will require "the creation of political parties and the management of free and fair elections", the challenge of democracy-building for the US would appear to lie in promoting the political institutions of democracy while portraying other factors as less important. In this way, the concept of democratizing the "greater Middle East" witnessed a setback, as did the domino theory that holds that the fall of the first Middle Eastern dictatorship will ultimately result in the fall of all Middle Eastern dictatorships.

Thus the spirit of democracy in Washington is manifesting itself more as forceful rhetoric than a clear, calculated plan. European and Arab skeptics who have questioned the power of US Middle East policy ever since the US invasion of Iraq are now curious about the future.

In contrast, the European Union emphasizes that democratic consolidation rests essentially on economic foundations and that economic crises play a prominent and perhaps exceptional role in triggering the success or breakdown of democracy. In other words, the faster the economy grows the more likely that democracy will move forward. Thus an adviser to the EU has written, "without demonstrable progress on the economic front an innovative government cannot develop or sustain democracy." This EU agenda, therefore, places its primary focus on the requisites of economic growth, such as human capital formation and secure property rights. This mode of thinking has been drawn upon recently with respect to Iraq.

The European Union shares with the United States the obligation to promote democracy in the Middle East. Under the umbrella of the European Neighborhood Policy, democratization has become one of the primary strategic objectives of the EU. Yet despite all good intentions, what is missing are teamwork with the US and a collaborative energetic engagement with domestic political actors in the Middle East willing to support the democratic reform process.

As a reaction to Islamic fundamentalists, moderate Islamic political parties have emerged powerful in several Middle Eastern states and attracted global attention due to their reformist political agenda. The priorities of moderate Islamic parties and the formation of their reform agenda give them a stake in the political process through either parliamentary participation or government rule. The question here is whether the integration of Islamists in any US or EU plan for democracy merely contributes to the stabilization of authoritarianism or paves the way for a more pluralistic and democratic political system.

It has become evident that in contrast to Islamic fundamentalists, moderate Islamic parties affirmatively adopt conservative positions on social issues yet generally support reform of the political system in the direction of democratization. They understand democracy as battling corruption, improving political participation, establishing or consolidating the rule of law and protecting fundamental human rights. The increasing influence of liberal democratic political values on the political programs of these parties has been an encouraging political signal to the US and EU regarding the prospects of democratization.

In line with the above, the negative experiences of Middle Eastern scholars have indicated to them that democracy cannot be attained unless it is placed on its behavioral foundations. They have come to realize that the essential building block of democracy is "social capital" that is defined as "shared norms or values that promote social cooperation". Social capital is critical for successful democracy.

Yet it is a two-edged sword, and can also be part of the problem as new democracies are emerging. Specifically, social capital in the Middle East is often formed on the basis of bonds of religion or ethnicity and defines itself in terms of "the other". Yet if democratic consolidation is to take place within diverse societies, it would seem that the norms of social cooperation cannot reliably be grounded primarily on ethnic or religious identification.

As a consequence, we are brought back to the fundamental question; if democracy is a process, where do we start--from the political, the economic or the social? Which is the best approach that permits cooperation to take place among persons and groups who are reluctant to positively interact for lack of trust?- Published 3/7/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Prof. Michel Nehme is director of University International Affairs, Notre Dame University, Lebanon.

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 © bitterlemons-international.org

Marina Ottaway is the director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Different approaches arise from different motives
 Waleed Sadi

Whereas all western countries, i.e., the US and the EU, are in agreement in principle on the urgent need to promote and protect democracy worldwide including of course in the Middle East, the approaches of the US and those of the EU differ significantly.

For starters, the US views the democratization process in this part of the world--and indeed elsewhere--as a process with a political agenda linked to its strategic global policy. It is obvious that Washington, especially during the term of President George W. Bush, has pursued the issue of democratization as a tool to enhance its political aims and objectives rather than to advance democracy for its own sake. For this reason, the democracy issue has been selectively applied by the Bush administration in order to advance the agenda of the US: it has been raised when it serves US interests and ignored when expedient. Hence at various times the democracy card has been played to ostracize and condemn American enemies, while at other times the Bush administration has staunchly defended its strategic allies even when they were undemocratic or outright despotic.

In other words, the cause of democracy is a political tool the US employs for its own reasons rather than a cause it champions for its own inherent merit. It is no surprise therefore that the US views Israel as the only bona fide democracy in a sea of regional darkness and backwardness. It is also no surprise that Washington absolves undemocratic regimes that toe the US line from blame and even assists them to escape condemnation as dictatorial or authoritarian regimes. And when the practice of democratic pluralism in any part of the Middle East produces what is perceived as a hostile regime--as happened in the occupied Palestinian territories when Hamas was voted into power in free and fair elections more than two years ago--the US refuses to engage the new order in any meaningful dialogue.

Hence, the US profile on democracy is very hazy when it comes to supporting regional non-governmental organizations engaged in promoting and protecting human rights except on rare occasions and with regard to selective issues. US funding for the civil society and NGO sector is negligible in comparison to the material support offered by the EU.

Most observers agree that EU countries' record in championing human rights and the rule of law in the region is on an entirely different wavelength than the US. By choosing to support and fund NGOs engaged in promoting and protecting human rights across the board, the EU has effectively opted for a more operational strategy to engage countries of the region and their societies. The EU style is muted and subtle and shuns confrontation with states that have yet to achieve progress on democratization. The EU has instead chosen to cooperate with those countries concerned to advance the cause of democracy in a gradual manner. NGOs involved in the protection and promotion of the rights of children, women, the elderly and the disabled are heavily funded by the EU, and this is where the EU's support has made the most notable difference. It is safe to conclude therefore that whereas democracy, human rights and the rule of law are highly politicized issues in both the US and EU, they are pursued in a very different manner by the EU.

This does not mean that the EU has succeeded where the US has failed to promote and ensure democracy in the area. The EU has encouraged a "human rights business" with its generous contributions but has yet to make any real dent in promoting democracy in the political sphere. This is particularly true when it comes to the nitty-gritty of the process. A classic case in point is the EU's position on Hamas. Contrary to the negative reaction to Hamas' election victory in Washington, the EU seemed more disposed to accept the results of the democratic process in the occupied Palestinian territories and appeared ready to coexist with the new regime. Nevertheless, the EU followed Washington's lead when it came down to it.

The different approaches to regional democratization are also seen in the differing strategies for dealing with Syria and Iran, Washington's regional archenemies. The US is openly opposed to the "Syrian dictatorship" and the "authoritarian regime in Tehran", while the EU has been more subtle in criticizing these countries for fear that open hostility would be counter-productive to the cause of democracy.

It seems that the EU has concluded that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside, but must arise from within through a slow evolutionary process. Democracy needs to be nurtured and cultivated by creating a culture for democracy that does not arise out of nowhere. This conclusion has yet to dawn on the US leadership.- Published 3/6/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Waleed Sadi is a former Jordanian ambassador to Turkey and the UN and other international organizations in Geneva. He is currently a columnist for the Jordan Times and Al Rai newspapers.

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