chapter  9
18 Pages

Democratization by whom? Resistance to democracy promotion in the Middle East BASSMA KODMANI

This chapter sets out to explain the failure so far of international democracy promotion in the Middle East. It offers a number of essential conditions applying to relations with the West that must be met first, if democratic objectives are to have a chance of being realized. While locating the present and future prospects within a past history of troubled foreign involvement in the region, the account is positive about the democratic possibilities. At the same time it argues that these can only be damaged by the continuation by outsiders of an unreformed approach to promoting democracy and other foreign policy objectives there. In the Middle East, the credibility of democracy promotion, irrespective

of its timing, circumstances and of the identity of its promoters, is undermined by a number of fundamental realities and constraints that are difficult to ignore. These are, first, there is no consensus on the model of democracy to promote, beyond a few stated principles. Second, no foreign power is likely to promote change that runs against its vital interests. And third, there are vital needs and concerns, such as physical security and integrity of the social body that supersede aspirations to democracy. Added to those, factors of a more circumstantial nature can also discredit the noble design of democracy promotion. As it was waged by the democracy bureaucracy created under the presidency of George W. Bush in the United States, democracy promotion in the region occurred at a time when the West was renewing its tutelage there and accompanying the message of soft power with the heaviest instruments of hard power (in Iraq), thus killing any chance of a fair and serene discussion of the idea altogether. Yet for all its ugly resonance and nasty consequences in the region to date,

the democracy promotion agenda has undeniably triggered a change of attitude in the Arab world by governments and societies alike. The less credit western governments claim for any achievements, however modest, the easier it will be to assess the impact with some objectivity. As a new Obama-led administration takes control of foreign policy in the US, the fact that it has made clear its intention of restarting a genuine peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and is not making democracy promotion a priority is likely to help. At no point did Arab public opinion accept the idea that the

question of Palestine should be set aside to give precedence to domestic change. More importantly, the large majority of public opinion in the Arab world continues to think that western powers do not have the interests of the Arabs at heart, largely because they have failed to promote a fair solution for the Palestinians. There are important lessons to learn from the failures of the Bush admin-

istration. Whether this will be enough to rehabilitate democracy promotion as an acceptable let alone legitimate goal, is an open question. Whatever the fate of this agenda under the Obama administration, advice to the region on what it should and should not do needs to be coupled with sober and realistic thinking about what outside powers can and cannot do, as well as greater sensitivity to the complex realities and intrinsic fragility of the region and of the states that compose it. Questions about how to promote democracy in multi-sectarian societies, and in a fundamentally unstable security environment as well, have been left without a satisfactory answer or rather they have not been posed at all. After the traumatic experience of the war on Iraq and the quagmire of Afghanistan, Arab societies are calling on western promoters of democracy to be more humble about their ability to bring change. The message is clear: You (the West) have proved that you can wreak havoc in a country, overthrow a brutal regime, dismantle the state apparatus, but nothing indicates so far that you are equipped to rebuild a country socially or politically. While Arab societies beg for greater understanding of these realities, they

also seek ways to prevent their governments from using those same realities as excuses to delay the fulfilment of their long-standing aspiration to live a dignified life as free citizens. The democracy promotion agenda as articulated by former President Bush

in 2003 has been widely loathed and rejected by Arab societies. Five or more years after it was launched, no Arab country has moved away from authoritarianism and established stable democratic rule. The fact that the agenda has alienated public opinion in the Arab world and has not succeeded so far in bringing stable democracy to any country in the region leaves little room to discuss its merits and no justification for persisting in trying to enforce it. Any serious observer could have predicted that change could not be a matter of a few years but would take a decade or probably two. However, the more fundamental question remains one of principle: can democracy be fostered from outside? Do public opinions accept the idea itself, and if they do, by whom and through which means? There are few precedents in history to suggest that democracy can be

deployed by outsiders in a country to transform an authoritarian system. With the notable exception of the years 1945-48, transition to democracy was a slow and endogenous process. The most frequently cited examples are those of the aftermath of World War II, when Germany, Austria, Italy and Japan witnessed massive foreign military intervention, defeat and regime change. The other exception is the de-colonization era when democracy was

introduced from the outside and even then, the only successful major example is that of India. Barring those historical cases, all other successful democratization has resulted from internal change, whether in Southern Europe, Asia or Latin America. For a time, the collapse of the communist countries of Central and Eastern

Europe in the 1990s revived the belief that democracy could be promoted from outside. Western democracies lauded the impact of Radio Free Europe and the role of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) as decisive factors in the establishment of democratic political systems. The reality is more complex: change in Eastern Europe resulted from a combination of the domestic upheaval of social and political forces, on the one hand, and the strategic and ideological shift from the socialist order with its military architecture, on the other. In the Middle East, the debate on the democracy promotion agenda in the

past five years has slowly shifted too. The main disagreements are no longer over whether to accept or reject a foreign role. Between the minority who embraced it and were dubbed ‘the marines’ by their opponents, and a large section of the intellectual and political elites who denounced it vociferously, there are interesting nuances to be captured.