The future of Arab reform: beyond autocrats and Islamists


Credit: WINEP

The argument for democratic reform in the Middle East seems harder to make today, despite the evidence for it being clearer, than it was when the Arab Spring sprung, argues Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

The violent turmoil in the region may have disabused any idealistic expectations or aspirations of Arab democratization, he told a forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“But if you need to be convinced by the argument of cold, hard national interest, just look at what has come to us from the places where reform was resisted,” Malinowski said.

“Would we be seeing such a sudden rise of nationalism and populism in Western democracies if not for the sudden emergence of ISIL and the sudden flight of millions of refugees from Syria?,” he asked, adding that “these two calamities, in turn, are the product of a breakdown in governance in two Middle Eastern countries.”

malinowskiOf course, the United States can’t bring democracy to Egypt, stop the war in Syria or heal a religious rift in the Muslim world that goes back a thousand years, observed Malinowski (right), formerly Washington director for Human Rights Watch.

“But all this proves is that if you make impossible dreams your goal you are going to wake up disillusioned; you will lurch from fervor to fatalism and never achieve the modest but worthwhile gains that are at least within your grasp,” he told the meeting, convened by the institute’s Fikra Forum.

His conclusion concurred with the consensus among participants at the forum – ‘Beyond Autocrats and Islamists: The Future of Arab Reform’ – which was cautiously realistic in stressing the need for long-term perspectives and investments in the basic building blocks of democracy and civil society.

Arab civil society activists and Washington-based analysts highlighted the potentially “creative tensions” between interests and values in U.S. policy-making, between incremental and idealistic approaches to political change, between primal identity politics and citizenship, and between democratization and economic development.

Democracy may be better advanced in the region through bodies or mechanisms like the National Endowment for Democracy or the Millennium Challenge Corporation that are “one –step removed” from government agencies like DRL or the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a participant suggested. But others felt that such a development would give some in the government an apparatus an excuse to downgrade political reform as a foreign policy objective. Furthermore, there will be certain conjunctures when it is necessary to invoke USG leverage and power in order to advance democratic objectives.

On a more pessimistic note……

arab-barometer-picWith some minor exceptions (notably Tunisia) there are not even buds of sustainable change in the region towards pluralism and democracy, argues Dan Schueftan, the Director of at the University of Haifa’s National Security Studies Center. If and when they emerge, assuming they will survive, it will take decades to bear meaningful fruits and generations for new structures to become institutionalized, he writes in The West in the Middle East, a paper for the German Federal Academy for Security Policy

The West’s blunders in the region have this in common: a profound inability and/or unwillingness to fully recognize three regional realities that are unpalatable to Westerns, he contends:

The first is that the real choice in the Middle East is not between dysfunctional, often repulsive, authoritarian regimes on the one hand, and a sustainable process of democratization on the other. It is rather between some version of the former and a host of much worse catastrophic outcomes.

The second is that radicalism is real. Radicals usually are not just wronged people who turned to violence having been frustrated from getting their rights by legitimate means. When they say they want to kill their enemies and obliterate their peoples and states, they mean it. …They may seek for their people what they call “a good life,” but this does not even remotely resemble the Western concept. It involves domination and revenge. It addresses their psychological, often psychopathological needs, rather than just economic, political or security interests.

The third is that conflicts in the Middle East are tribal, with very deep historical and psychological roots, firmly embedded in fundamental issues of identity….

“The West can help a great deal provided it learns from past mistakes, sets modest and realistic objectives and abandons romantic illusions of saving the world,” he concludes. “The best is the worst enemy of the good.”


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