All Writings
November 7, 2005

Democracy Of Convenience?

Free elections do not constitute democracy and when they precede the building of democratic institutions, they are more likely to produce instability and upheaval, especially in countries previously governed by authoritarian regimes. This explains why the United States should first assist and encourage in Arab states the development of liberal organizations that eventually will be able to compete successfully with extremist Islamic groups that are now both organized and pervasive.

President Bush’s notions that democratizing Iraq will have a ripple effect on the rest of the Arab world–bringing prosperity and peace to the region–and that democracy is the panacea for Islamic terrorism are unsubstantiated and misleading. Even a cursory review of the Arab political landscape indicates that the rise of democracy in the Arab states will not translate automatically into the establishment of liberal democracies. In fact, given the opportunity to compete freely and fairly in an election, Islamists will most likely emerge as the winners. And if current sentiments in the Arab states offer a guide, any government formed by elected Islamist political parties will be more antagonistic to the United States than are current authoritarian regimes. In addition, there are no indications that democracy is a prerequisite to defeating terrorism or any empirical data to support the claim of necessarily links existing between authoritarian regimes and terrorism.

The data actually say something quite different. An annual study conducted by the State Department, “Pattern of Global Terrorism,” shows that between the years 2000 and 2003, 269 major terrorist incidents occurred in free nations, 119 incidents in countries considered partly free, and 138 incidents in countries with authoritarian regimes. The study also reveals that during the same period there were 203 international terrorist attacks in India, which is a democratic state, and none in China, which is hardly a free nation. These findings of course do not imply that democracies attract more terrorist incidents than do dictatorial regimes. Rather, they suggest that whereas mature democracies are more stable and generally avoid fighting one another, political freedoms in themselves do not automatically provide a shield against violence and terrorism. For example, France’s centuries long tradition of democracy did not prevent the current fast-spreading urban unrest. Unless democratic elections are preceded by the building of democratic institutions and the effective encouragement of social and economic development, they will produce illiberal democracies akin to authoritarian regimes.

Considering the dubious rationale for the war in Iraq and the enormous costs to the American and Iraqi people, the Arab public cannot see any justification for it in the name of democracy. The subsequent election and the passage of a new constitution in Iraq neither diminished the insurgency nor the intense ill feelings and hatred that Iraqis and Arabs in general harbor against the United States. Not only do they feel cynical about America and contemptuous of it, they reject the notion that democracy “American style” should be shoved down their throats with a gun. Still, regardless of their specific national identity, Arabs do not reject democratic reforms in principle. On the contrary, tired of despotism, corruption, and abuse by those in power, they seek some political reforms as long as these reforms correspond to their values and are adopted at a pace consistent with the social make-up and political conditions of their respective countries. But because the Arab states have much in common–religion, language, and history–there are four core measures the Bush administration must generally pursue to effect democratic reforms that lead to progress and stability rather than violence and political turmoil.

First, pursue gradual changes: Because of their long history of authoritarianism–during which Islam was (and, to a great extent, remains) a dominant factor–and because of tribalism and sectarianism based on religious or cultural orientation, most Arab societies prefer gradual rather than radical reforms. The fact that in most Arab societies the rights of the collective generally supercede the rights of the individual adds another burden to pursuing democratic reforms since these reforms basically focus on protecting individual rights. Adding to the problem are the traditional loyalties to the family and to the tribe which naturally erode the importance of such principles of democratic government as advise and consent and majority rule. In country after country, including Saudi Arabia, most people in the region, when asked, say they want slow and incremental change to reduce resistance, eventually win over skeptics, and prevent a serious backlash that can stifle future progress. For these reasons, any American administration wishing to introduce democratic reforms must do so by fully supporting gradual reforms, however many years they might take to solidify. The Bush administration must stop encouraging the people of the Middle East to rise up against their own governments and then, when there is any indication, however small, that some may be attempting this, leave them to their own devices to clean up the political mess. Democracy will not mushroom in the Middle East according to Mr. Bush’s timetable; the United States should offer help and guidance along with other incentives, essentially allowing each country to develop its own homegrown form of democracy.

Second, provide economic incentives: The United States should offer most Arab regimes economic incentives in exchange for proceeding with democratic reform. These economic incentives should not be offered government-to-government with no strings attached, because the money may end up in private accounts in Swiss banks. Instead, the money should fund sustainable projects through various American agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The idea is to ensure that local communities are involved in the design and implementation of the development projects. Indigenous reconstruction has been remarkably successful in communities around the world, because local people have a strong incentive to maintain projects that address their particular needs in education, health, business, agriculture, and environmental conservation. In most of these instances, local associations formed by members of the community manage projects and implement new ones. New ties of cooperation form when neighboring communities join together to create projects beneficial to their entire area. And the United States needs to recognize that this type of “bottom-up” development is based on democratic procedures. Two fundamental elements in pluralist democracy are the dispersion of power toward the interior (localities) and the inclusion of all social groups in decision making. Broad participation in the reconstruction of communities is pluralist democracy in action, because it strengthens the capacities of local people to manage their own development. If the Bush administration chooses to go this route, it should have no illusions about what it would take to make a real difference in the life of these communities that are spread across the Arab world. Developing democracy cannot be accomplished on the cheap. The United States must be prepared to commit tens of billions of dollars toward sustainable development to plant the seeds of democracy. Ultimately, each Arab country, depending on its economic power and the pace of its development as it follows this broad policy, must become part of the global economy. Yes, it is a long-term proposition, but then again, neither the evolution of democracy nor the war on terrorism is a short-term project.

Third, develop democratic institutions: To address the need for the development of specific democratic institutions that sustain long-term democracy, Washington must focus on development in four areas; a free press, liberal organizations, a fair judiciary, and human rights. Although the Arab states are awash with print and electronic media, most of these are official or semi-official organs of the particular government. The Arab media have been notoriously anti-American and anti-Israeli and have not permitted free discourse or opposing views. Without freedom of expression, democracy has no legs to stand on. The administration must use all kinds of incentives to persuade Arab regimes of the importance of changing the tone of the media, not only to improve America’s dismal image on the Arab streets but primarily to permit a freer press to flourish as a staple of democracy. The Bush administration should first focus on the development of liberal organizations and political parties so they may emerge, possibly only after years of nurturing, as a new political force with a legitimate chance to compete without fear against the currently better organized and financed Islamic extremist groups. Equally critical is the development of fair and impartial judiciaries. The United States can provide substantial help and guidance in building judiciaries that, while consistent with the unique character of each community, remain free, fair, and equitable. The administration’s experience in training judges and enhancing the judiciary system in Iraq can be duplicated in other Arab countries. Finally, the rights of the individual should be enshrined constitutionally as a prerequisite for the development of true democracy. The United States can help many Arab regimes to move in this direction so no Arab leader can trample on individual rights with impunity.

Fourth, reform educational systems: Although the United States is aware that the region’s educational systems need massive change, in most Arab states not enough effort has been made to effect any real change. There are tens of thousands of schools (Madrasat), funded mostly by Saudi money and scattered throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, that mainly teach Koranic studies based on a Sunni Wahabism laced with poisonous material on the United States and the Jews. Left unchecked, these schools will provide an enormous pool for the next generation of terrorists. Pakistan, for example, has thousands of such Saudi-funded schools, because the Pakistani government does not have the resources to finance its huge educational requirements. The United States must: a) persuade the Saudi government to moderate the teaching requirements and course content in these schools, b) provide direct help to Pakistan and other Arab or Muslim countries so education in them becomes less dependent on funding from regimes that dictate course content, c) encourage other donor nations to offer special assistance for education in needy Arab countries, such as Egypt, and d) beseech Arab governments to review their history texts and then modify them to reflect more objective historical accounts. What Arab kids are learning today and how that impacts their views of America and affects tomorrow’s world are immensely important not only for the future of the war on terrorism and the promulgation of democratic reform but also regarding America’s role and influence in the Middle East. Therefore, helping Arab states to modernize existing schools or build new ones, moderate religious studies, and mitigate anti-American materials are essential, however awesome these tasks may seem.

Finally, the biggest problem the Bush administration faces in promoting democracy in the Middle East is that most Arabs do not believe that its efforts are genuine. They accuse the administration of using democracy as a ploy to target regimes it does not like such as in Iraq, Syria, or Iran, while leaving governments no less despotic as in the Gulf States to their own devices. They further accuse the United States of trying to promote a democracy of convenience, or a “democracy” that serves America’s own narrow national interests irrespective of the aspirations of the people in the region.

Thus, all the euphoria in the White House about the spread of democracy in Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan is greeted with cynicism by many in the region who see this same development as a mirage in the political desert of the Middle East. However these events and other manifestations of democratic movements in the region unfold, the development of true democracy in the Middle East will be slow, painstaking, and at times violent. The Bush administration must not make the same mistakes it did in Iraq: artificially accelerating the process or forcing democratic reforms on the people pushing the region into terrible turmoil. A far better strategy would allow for the political maturity that evolves through gradual political and economic development and reform to produce liberal movements that will become the base for sustainable democratic forms of government.