How to support Arab democracy


Abrams_dlU.S. support for democracy and human rights in the Arab world has varied over time, and presidential administrations have too often preferred dealing with autocrats to supporting their critics, notes Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. But that would be a mistake, he contends:

American policy should reflect the United States’ own political beliefs: the goal is not merely democracy in the narrow sense of winner-take-all elections. The U.S. Constitution instead establishes a system of institutional restrictions on government power that guarantees minority rights and the rule of law. Too often the United States has concentrated on pressing for elections without giving equal weight to the institutional and legal arrangements that protect political rights, especially for minorities and political groups that are out of power. … Given the role of law and justice in Muslim history and beliefs, for example, greater efforts to help write constitutions and legal codes, protect parties that lose elections, and maintain independent judicial systems may be more beneficial than election monitoring in many cases.

Support for political openings, liberty, and law is a far better formula than supporting repressive regimes. There will be moments, in the Middle East as elsewhere, when American interests and principles diverge, particularly due to security threats, but it is not in the interest of the United States to see political life in Arab nations crushed, writes Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.


  • Provide high-level support. Political pressure and public support for political liberalization—and criticism of crackdowns—by the president and the secretary of state are more important than programming and should be the central feature of U.S. democracy promotion. The U.S. government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year, primarily through the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development, on programs that support what are usually small nongovernmental organizations promoting causes including freedom of expression, belief, and association; free elections; and women’s rights. In countries that do not permit political parties, such programs keep hope of future progress alive, teach important skills to democratic activists, signal continuing American support, and allow some political life under repressive conditions. …
  • Emphasize political party building. The United States should recognize that political parties, not NGOs, are the essential building blocks of democratic politics. Civil society may be the only space for embryonic political life in the most repressive societies, but even if NGOs lead efforts to fight tyranny, they cannot govern. With few exceptions, they lack the organization, national outreach, and strategies needed to lead a nation…..
  • Set flexible goals. Realism demands that the United States adapt its efforts to each national situation rather than reach for utopian goals. Pressure for genuine democratization will be sensible in some cases; in others, a realistic policy will be limited to urging more just rule and respect for fundamental human rights. There is no Arab nation where American calls for just application of existing national laws should be impossible, nor can it persuasively be denounced as ignorant or hostile foreign interference.


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