False Dawn? How (not) to advance Middle East democracy


Supporting indigenous democrats would be a more successful approach to promoting democracy in the Middle East than external intervention, especially militarized regime change, says a leading Arab democrat.

“Foreign intervention to impose democracy is totally counterproductive,” says Mohamed Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s interim President between 2011 and 2014. “Democracy must come from within society: even if it takes more time, it is not important. Give the population the means to fight the dictatorship from the inside but never intervene from the outside,” he tells the Harvard Political Review.

The balance of power changed after the invasion of Iraq, absolutely, but not in favour of freedom. The biggest winners are the theocratic Shia state of Iran and the hyper-repressive Wahhabist state of Saudi Arabia, according to SMH analyst Peter Hartcher.

“There’s more deficit of democracy in the region today or, at least, there is no more democracy, than there was before the invasion of Iraq in 2003,” says Professor Amin Saikal, director of ANU’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.

False distinction

“The idea that Western governments have about stability is completely wrong, because they stick to the idea that supporting a dictator would lead to a kind of stability and this is not important for them,” adds Marzouki (right), founder of the Tunisian League for Human Rights. “In fact, the side effects of this policy are extremely harmful, of course for the population living under the dictatorship, but it is even harmful to the Western governments. … You cannot, on one hand, pretend to fight against terrorism and, on the other hand, feed the very reason that it happens.”

Efforts to advance democracy in the region should not be held hostage by a false distinction between security and human rights, argues Charles Dunne, a Guest Analyst at the Arab Center Washington DC:

A 2015 MIT study concluded “that democratizations increase GDP per capita by about 20% in the long run. We find similar results when we estimate the effect of democratizations on annual GDP…” The US Agency for International Development has noted that “long-term, sustainable development is closely linked to sound democratic governance and the protection of human rights.” Likewise, the Heritage Foundation writes that “economic freedom has underpinned and reinforced political liberty and market-based democracy.” Add to this the powerful influence of rules-based capitalism, in which market economies reinforce democratic governance, and vice versa. Thus, human rights, democracy, and economic progress work together in a mutually reinforcing “virtuous circle.”

“As many analysts have observed, maintenance of stability in the region will fail if it is based largely on the persistence of repression,” Dunne contends. “Pent-up demand for economic and political change, and a widely shared conviction that government is rigged for the benefit of ruling elites, brought about the Arab Spring. The demands that fueled the uprisings, by and large, have not been met.”

Indeed, the latest edition of the Arab Democracy Index [above] confirms “the shrinking or closure of the space for freedoms that opened to the Arab communities in 2011.”

The uprisings and protests in 14 Arab countries that began in December 2010 seemed to many within the policy community to be a golden opportunity for the United States to help Middle Easterners’ own efforts to build new societies, notes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Steven A. Cook, the author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East (Oxford University Press). But the policy prescriptions and recommendations that emerged from the so-called Blob of experts and former government officials—calling for the United States to persuade a host of countries across the world to invest politically and financially in democratic transitions, for instance—were overly ambitious and largely hollow, he writes for POLITICO:

Yet lack of imagination was not the main problem. Any American effort to forge more democratic and open political systems in the region was bound to fail because the sense of purpose and joy on display in the famous squares of the Middle East masked deeply divided societies. The uprisings did not produce any leader or group of leaders who provided satisfactory answers to questions about identity, the proper form of government, the relationship between the individual and the state, and the role of religion in society. In the debates over these big ideas, the national unity that seemed to hold during the protests quickly gave way to existential struggles over the heart and soul of Arab countries. Under these circumstances, it did not matter whether U.S. government officials or policy intellectuals were uniquely insightful or singularly creative. They never really had a chance.

In his forthcoming Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring, Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy] offers a personal story of the development of U.S. human rights policy in the last forty years and an argument, both “realist” and principled, for supporting the expansion of democracy in the Middle East.

The Arab Center’s Dunne concludes his paper with a number of policy recommendations, including the following options:

  • Stand up more vocally to the world’s violators of human rights.
  • Pressure key regional allies on high-profile human rights cases more often.
  • Pressure—and make use of—the United Nations. 
  • Resist the temptation to pull out of the Human Rights Council and instead, work to make it more representative of the world’s democracies.
  • Make greater use of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review process.
  • Support international civil society organizations.
  • Enhance bilateral cooperation with like-minded countries.



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