Edition 3 Volume 2 - January 15, 2024


Democracy in Arab countries: problems and prospects - by  Robert Satloff

The silver lining in Bin Ladinism is that it has concentrated the attention of disparate elements on the need for political change.

Iraq's democratic discontent - by  Hassan Fattah

The main stumbling block for Iraq's major political changes was the prospect of democratic elections.

Seeking a third vision - by  Mudar Kassis

The question is not whether Islam is a democratic or non-democratic system.

Not in the near future - by  Jalil Roshandel

Democracy constitutes a big change in a region that is by no means prepared to change.

Democracy in Arab countries: problems and prospects
by Robert Satloff

After pan-Arabism and Islamism, it is heartening to consider the prospect that democracy may be the next great wave to wash over Arab countries. Whether it actually takes root or is merely a passing fancy depends on three sets of actors: local leaders, local populations, and what is euphemistically referred to as “the international community.”

The most difficult hurdle is that democracy needs democrats, as United States President George Bush noted recently in London, and Arab democrats are weak and fragmented. Though they can agree on what they are against--e.g., their opposition to radical Islamism--they are divided on what they are for. That does not even address the complicating factor of Islamists who mouth the democratic line and want entry into the big democratic tent but who are the most fundamentally anti-democratic element in the region.

This problem is exacerbated by the harsh political realities facing many Arab democrats. In many countries, those who have openly opposed the regime have earned the wrath of the state and have suffered accordingly. At the same time there are many who, for nationalistic or ideological reasons, refuse to truck with the United States, the leading outside power advocating democracy in the Middle East today, thereby depriving themselves of a major source of support. The number of democrats who have found a way to be effective locally while taking advantage of the benefits that association with Washington has to offer is exceedingly small.

A second major problem is that even the most forward-looking leaders in the Middle East are, at best, liberals, not democrats. (Ironically, these are virtually all monarchs--such as the kings of Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain--who have generally shown fewer monarchical pretensions than leaders of the region’s republics.) The reforms enacted by these innovative kings, substantive and revolutionary as they have been, have largely been liberal reforms (such as expanding women’s rights and enhancing press freedom), implemented through top-down, authoritarian means (e.g., royal decrees, appointments of palace favorites as prime ministers). None has shown any real taste for the diffusion of power that is a key element of democracy. Perhaps this is necessary; liberalism, after all, is usually a way-station on the road to democracy. But, one should note, passing through a liberal stage does not necessarily mean that democracy is the next stop.

A third major problem is that the “international community” is deeply divided both on the merits of Arab democracy and how to achieve it. The United States, which once championed stability as the cornerstone of its Middle East policy, has now, at least in principle, discarded that policy in favor of radical, though evolutionary, change. For its part Europe, which used to enjoy castigating Washington for its insouciant approach to human rights, now finds itself the purveyor of stability as the governing principle of relations with Arabs, largely because strong governments on the southern Mediterranean, regardless of their domestic political orientation, will (it is assumed) stem the influx of illegal refugees--Europe's foremost concern--more effectively than fractious democracies.

International actors differ on the means of promoting democracy, too. The United States has shown itself able to overthrow one major Arab dictator (in Baghdad) and has pressed for the isolation of a minor one, a recidivist obstacle to peace (in Ramallah); however, Washington has been less sure-footed in helping empower locals--Iraqis and Palestinians--to replace those tyrannies with representative government. At the same time, there is even less likelihood that the paths ostensibly preferred by leading members of the “international community”--enhancing the United Nations’ role, in the case of Iraq; imposing peace in the Israeli-Palestinian context--would improve the chances of democracy in either case.

Despite these obstacles, optimism is warranted. The silver lining in Bin Ladinism is that it has concentrated the attention of disparate elements of society on the need for political change. Not all of this will be democratic change, but much of it is moving in that direction. While the region’s powerhouses--like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Algeria--are either too fearful or too preoccupied to act, change is coming in smaller countries, rarely before viewed as regional trendsetters. That is good news, both for the changes underway and for the fact that it suggests the decline of the monolithic grip large states have on the region’s political culture.

A second positive trend is how various countries are beginning to grapple with issues of pluralism and religious-ethnic diversity. For example, in the west, Morocco is addressing demands for Berber cultural rights in new and mature ways; in the east, Iraq is only one of a number of Gulf countries responding to the demands of indigenous Shiites for more representation and a greater say in political affairs.

The bellwether of democratic change is, undoubtedly, Iraq; it is also where the United States will focus its effort and resources for the foreseeable future. Media-reportage notwithstanding, Iraq is largely a glass-half-full story; the main problem has been security--i.e., the insurgency--not the pace at which local Iraqis have begun to reassert themselves politically after a generation of cruelly enforced silence. In the other venue where the US has invested its prestige on the side of change, the Palestinian territories, the situation is more disappointing. But even there, the good news is that Arabs throughout the region seem much less willing to let themselves be led, ideologically speaking, by a Palestinian pied piper, as was the case in years past.

Among the many wild cards is whether the United States, having chucked the rhetoric of “stability,” will change its de facto policy toward the region’s “friendly authoritarians.” Given the stakes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Washington is unlikely to risk getting too far ahead of local leaders. But there are other countries, like Tunisia, where the United States could be more bullish without substantial risk to US interests. And toward the Palestinians, one could argue that it was, in part, Washington’s hesitancy to follow through on demands for change, after having the constructive audacity to make such demands in the first place, that gave birth to the current unhappy situation.-Published 15/1/2004©bitterlemons.org

Robert Satloff is director of policy and strategic planning at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Iraq's democratic discontent
by Hassan Fattah

For all the talk of democracy in Iraq, the institutions needed to support it simply don't exist yet.

Several weeks ago, as I sat in the opulent meeting room of the Iraqi Governing Council, an aide to one of the council members pulled me aside to discuss the country's political travails. The aide, a young woman about 28 years old, was ecstatic about the work she was doing, and firmly believed that the country had been presented with a unique opportunity. But, in a moment of realism, she also offered a major admission. "Democracy," she admitted, "won't work in this country." It was an unlikely admission from within the system meant to be breeding a democratic Iraq. But ultimately the aide had underscored the cynicism pervading much of the reconstruction process as democracy itself seems further out of reach. Nine months since the regime of Saddam Hussein collapsed, neither the Governing Council nor any other institution has risen from the ashes to support a full-fledged democracy.

Until such institutions take shape and develop legitimacy, democracy itself will remain a concept more than a goal. With security still in disarray, stability still far from established and with politics still centered on sectarian and religious differences, democracy may end up a tool for more extreme elements on the ground. So far, it is Islamists and the nation's clerics who have risen to the occasion and proven their ability to organize the masses--for rallies now, but ostensibly for elections later. Tribal leaders, too, have begun to show off their political clout. But many in the havoc of post-war Iraq are secular, liberal and moderate voices that have simply been incapable of organizing as a force. Until a wide expanse of democratic powers arises, the prospects for a true democracy on the level of a European or even Latin American nation remain distant glimmers.

The bulwark of democracy began with the US-appointed Governing Council, which was a precursor to an interim government, a constitution, and eventually, elections. But over just three months, allegations of corruption, interest peddling and general inefficiency highlighted the council's inability to build the infrastructure and legitimacy needed in a government. The council was so inefficient that a report by the constitutional steering committee advising on the formation of a constitutional convention--the most critical next step--was virtually ignored. Then in a sudden about-face, the Bush administration in November opted to hand over sovereignty to an interim government with an interim senate even before the drafting of a constitution.

Meanwhile, the coalition, with the help of contractors like RTI, has worked to breed grassroots democracy and civil society through Iraq's local town councils. So far most have been handpicked by the coalition, with pseudo-elections held for posts like mayor and governor. Yet even as the councils have worked to represent their local constituencies, they have been given little authority, limited budgets, but seemingly complete responsibility for local issues. These seeds of democracy are almost always blamed when projects go wrong, yet they have almost no authority to fix problems. Consistently, Iraqis in both northern and southern locales I have visited insist that the local councils are simply breeding grounds for nepotism and corruption.

Ironically, the main stumbling block for Iraq's major political changes, of course, was the prospect of democratic elections. The constitutional imbroglio centered on whether delegates would be elected or appointed--Shiite forces strongly backed elections while Sunni and Kurdish minorities backed the latter. Now, the controversy over choosing the leadership council is centered on whether the council is elected or handpicked. The US plan calls for representatives to be chosen partly out of the local and regional councils and partly out of the Governing Council itself. Even with the trappings of a pseudo-democracy, none of the figures would in fact be democratically elected.

More ironic is that the main critic of such plans and champion for democratic elections in Iraq isn't the US, but a Muslim cleric. Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme leader for Shiites in Iraq, has insisted repeatedly that any true handover of power, any governing body and any political structure, be democratically elected. Part of that is self-serving, of course--ostensibly with democratic elections the Shiites would achieve a significant majority of seats and therefore ensure their own power. But Sistani has also proven he can speak America's language and force them to answer his calls. L. Paul Bremer has of late begun to take Sistani more seriously. As a compromise, Sistani has begun encouraging United Nations inclusion to help bring about a more democratic government.

Yet the ultimate irony of Iraq is that democracy is precisely what the nation needs to break the cycle of vengeance and cruelty that has marked its history. Repeatedly, Iraqis say the security risks of elections are the top reason for them not to occur. But the coalition's successful changeover of the Iraq dinar beginning in mid-October has proven it can deftly manage such critical tasks when they are well-planned.

The trouble with democracy isn't necessarily security, but that it could lead to a government tyrannized by the majority. Only by building civil society can a truly representative democracy take hold. The future of democracy in the region, in fact, is riding on the results.-Published 15/1/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Hassan Fattah is editor of Iraq Today and a regular contributor to Time and The New Republic Magazine.

Seeking a third vision
by Mudar Kassis

BI: Are we closer to or farther from democracy in the region today since the events of September 11?

Kassis: In the short term, we are not closer at all. In a situation where many of the parties are building their relations on violent terms, whether in Palestine or the occupation in Iraq, people are not going to come closer to democracy.

On the other hand, one can be hopeful for the long term. Not that change is great, but that it is becoming more actual, and more persistent.

BI: Are you saying that the domino effect promoted by some in the United States could work, in fact?

Kassis: No. This is the long and painful way. The changes do not depend on American intervention, but that the mode of life will "discover" that violence is not the way.

BI: There are those who argue that democracy is not compatible with Islam and Islamist thinking, and there are others who argue that it is perfectly compatible and inherent in its systems. How does religion play into the problem at hand?

Kassis: I think both are right. Trying to figure out a certain standpoint concerning Islam is a mistake in itself. Islam is a religion; it is not exactly a political system, although many claim it to be. But there are many political systems in many different quarters that claim that they are Islamic. There is also the little notion of culture that has many other parts: language, ethnicity, region, economics, etc. What is so similar among Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia? I can't see many similarities between these countries and yet they are all Islamic.

The people in those countries relate to democracy differently. The question is not whether Islam is a democratic or non-democratic system. There might be a cultural tension between Islam and the idea of western liberalism--but that does not necessarily have to do with democracy.

BI: Can you talk more about that?

Kassis: First, one should keep in mind the great work of Edward Said. The notion of having an "image" of the East or Middle East is only a stereotype. Take Japan, for example. It is not a western culture; it is not a western democracy, but it is a democracy. One could look at Yemen, which is progressing on democratic issues--and it doesn't look like the West by any means.

With so much diversity throughout the world, I am not sure that we can create a specific archetype for democracy that corresponds to western systems, most of which emerged in relation to the industrial revolution. This was the emergence of a 150-year-old political system in a manner that is not repeatable--mainly because of the existence of the western powers today, at least economically. So if anybody is interested in building democracy, they have to at least consent to the idea that it is not going to look like western democracy.

BI: Can you talk about the specific challenges that Palestinians face?

Kassis: It is mostly a catch-22 situation. On the one hand, Palestinians are under occupation, which is the major factor. On the other hand, there is the Palestinian Authority, which is rightly responsible. Finally, there is the lack of a unified political vision among Palestinians themselves--the only things that Palestinians agree about are slogans, rather than a program that can be politically realized.

Even when Palestinians do get closer to a certain operative, relatively just political agenda, usually this is not compatible with Israeli needs, and not satisfactory for the United States, and therefore Palestinians are not free to implement it. This is a situation where you cannot please yourself or those who control your life--and that is a typical colonial situation.

BI: Were there times during the Oslo peace process when we caught glimpses of the particular problems that Palestinians will face when the occupation is over?

Kassis: Of course. Unfortunately, the kind of international interference that took place throughout the Oslo process was not healthy. The main aim of the external influence upon Palestinians for many years was to keep the peace process going, regardless of its content. The truth was, the peace process was not only an agreement or text for the Israelis, but it also was to have implications in the daily life of the Palestinians--i.e., the content of the peace process.

What happened was that Palestinians were getting fewer jobs--but it didn't matter. They were getting less freedom--but it didn't matter. There was growing corruption (everybody could see that)--but it didn't matter as long as the formal part of the peace process continued. This is one of the reasons that we ended up where we are today.

BI: What would you name as the region's most successful democratic experiment?

Kassis: To do this, there would have to be a success. But if you look at the changes that have taken place in the last 20 years--changes in Morocco, changes in Yemen, some changes in Egypt and in Tunisia--these are quite healthy for the future. The Palestinian system has emerged into one marked by a great deal of participatory politics; I don't think that people can see this right now, but it is becoming more and more participatory.

I don't think that these changes are fast enough or universal enough to make a real difference for the population--they are not affecting the national income per capita, the political alliances, or the stability of the region. Nevertheless, it would be stupid to neglect the positive changes that have taken place.

I would just reemphasize what I said at first, which is that the only way out of the mode of war and terrorism and violence is not for one violent party to succeed, but for a third vision of peaceful coexistence, including the right of nations to self-determination and a general sense of rights and freedoms, to emerge without any outside imposition--not even if it is to impose democracy.-Published 15/1/2004©bitterlemons-international.org

Mudar Kassis is professor of philosophy and director of the Institute of Law at Birzeit University in the West Bank.

Not in the near future
by Jalil Roshandel

Democratization of the Middle East is a hostage to far more factors than can be explained in one article. The question of democratization has already generated serious and interesting debates. Some believe the Middle East has adequate potential and could be “democratized” from within. Others strongly support the idea that the region should be pushed toward democracy by external forces. A third group is of the opinion that only a democracy imposed from the outside can change the existing situation and enlighten the hearts and minds of the people as well as its leaders and elites.

I have a different take on the issue. Personally I belong to the pessimist/realist camp that does not believe democratization of the Middle East is going to happen any time soon, if ever. In particular, a democracy imposed by external forces cannot prevail unless some fundamental changes are made in the ideologies, belief systems, mindsets and political culture of the region.

There are also common myths and wrong sensitivities that have to change. Modification of mutual perceptions in the Middle East will greatly help the process of democratization.
For instance, the Israeli perception of the Muslim world should be adjusted. Not all worst-case scenarios that are regularly written to frighten the people of Israel are correct; nor will they take place as preached by the hawks of Tel Aviv. Rhetoric is different from applied policy and Israel should take Palestinian frustration into consideration. As long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not sorted out, Israeli democracy cannot be a regional model.

On the other hand, an increasingly common canard in the Muslim world is that the Jews run the world! The belief is so strong that even Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammed brought it up in his remarks at the meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in October 2024 by saying: “The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.” Stories like this make the people of the Middle East more irreconcilable and radical and it is the duty of Israel to modify this picture.

Democracy constitutes a big change in a region that is by no means prepared to change. It is not a domino effect that begins in one spot and then spreads all over, nor is it a game that can be won by military might. Democracy is a process rather than a revolutionary incident. It cannot wash away the status quo, but once accomplished it can have a revolutionary impact on society.

Many leaders of the region have striven to create a revolutionary order or establish their position as the regional icon representing the Arab or Islamic nations, but have never tried to transform the society into a democratic one. Almost all of them have resisted change and attempted to create a nation loyal to their personality and ignorant about democracy--a tendency that has devastating effects on democracy per se.

During the past century none of the innovative ideas brought from the outside world have been fully implemented. An example is the Iranian constitution of 1906, written on a European model but never fully implemented. The revolution in 1979 even rolled back that imitation constitution in favor of an absolutely different phenomenon called the Islamic Republic.

There are additional factors that negatively affect the process of democratization. For one, all leaders, here like elsewhere in the world, wish to remain in office for as long as possible. This trend in the context of the Middle East has brought about lifetime presidents or monarchs dressed as the presidents of republics. As long as this tendency persists democracy will not be honored. Each leader will swear "democracy" before election and forget about it afterwards.

Then too, while support and opposition exist in all societies, in the context of the Middle East there is a forced support as well as a fake opposition phenomenon. This needs to be replaced by a culture of tolerance and civil society. The former is artificial and supports leaders where they are in need. It often gives rise to armed groups and organized terror squads that kill the opposition in the name of security.

Regarding the latter, rulers know that the opposition exploits their failure to punish them. Therefore their tendency is to oppress and coerce any potential opposition and replace it with a fake opposition that buys the regime time and credibility. Look at the “Islamic human rights” organizations appearing in some Middle Eastern countries as opposed to human rights activists who are often suppressed and banned.

Further, the greater the real opposition the more cautious the leader. This vicious circle impedes democratization of the Middle East because cautious leaders concerned about the status quo will not ease their grip on power.

Finally, leaders expect democracies to recognize them as the most legitimate system and the latter often give in because of their interests. But external powers can have positive impact pushing the process of democratization forward by not supporting corrupt leaders unless they accept dramatic changes. By recognizing corrupt leaders, the external powers sacrifice ideals like democracy for their interests. In the long term they will create new enemies within a population that is starving for democracy.-Published 15/1/2004©bitterlemons.org

Dr. Jalil Roshandel is associate professor and director of the Security Studies Program at the Political Science Department of East Carolina University. He is currently working on a book project (with Dr. Alethia Cook): US-Iran Relations: Policy Challenges and Opportunities.

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