All Writings
March 20, 2005

Democratic Reform Without Upheaval

Although democratic reforms in the Arab and Muslim worlds are a critical element, among several others, in combating terrorism, the question is: How can the United States promote democracy in these countries without precipitating political and social upheaval?

It appears that 9/11 was the catalyst that awakened the United States to the sad reality that relying on authoritarian regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia to serve America’s interests, as shown by the experiences in Iran and Iraq, was a fatally flawed policy. The Bush administration finally concluded that embracing democracy must be the strategic choice, except that the policies, through war or coercive diplomacy to effect this goal provoked a serious backlash in many Arab capitals. Considering the dubious rationale for the war in Iraq and the enormous costs to the Iraqi people, the Arab public could not see any justification for it. The subsequent election in Iraq did not mitigate the intense ill feeling and hatred that Arabs harbor against the United States. They feel not only cynical and contemptuous of America, but they also reject the notion that democracy “American style” should be shoved down their throats with a gun. Regardless of their national identity, however, the Arabs do not reject democratic reforms; on the contrary, they seek them and wish to adopt them. They have had enough of despotism, corruption, and abuse, and they want change and reform that offer civil liberties and ensure human rights but without causing massive social dislocation.

Democracy is not like an article of clothing that fits all sizes. The principles of democracy are the same, but their application must be tailored to fit the unique national characteristics of each state. Because the Arab states have much in common–religion, language, and history–there are four core measures the Bush administration must pursue to effect democratic reforms that would lead to progress and stability rather than violence and political turmoil.

First, pursue gradual changes: Because of a 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 the rights of the collective generally supersede the rights of the individual in most Arab societies adds another burden to pursuing democratic reforms which emphasis on the rights of the individual. Adding to this mix is the traditional loyalty to the family and to the tribe which naturally erodes the importance of advice and consent and majority rule that are the basic tenants of democratic government. In country after country, including Saudi Arabia, most people when asked say they prefer slow and incremental change to reduce resistance, eventually win over skeptics, and prevent a serious backlash that can stifle future progress. For these reasons, the Bush administration must fully support gradual reforms, however many years they might take and stop encouraging the people to rise up against their own governments. Democracy will not mushroom in the Middle East according to Washington’s timetable; the United States should offer help and guidance along with other incentives and let each country develop its own homegrown democracy.

Second, provide economic incentives: The United States should offer most Arab regimes economic incentives in exchange for democratic reform. These economic incentives should never be offered government-to-government with no strings attached, for they 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 here 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 needs, such as in education, health, business, agriculture, and environmental conservation. In most cases, 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. This form 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 mange their own development. The Bush administration should have no illusions about what it would take to make a real difference in the life of these communities that spawn the length and breadth of the Arab world. Developing democracy cannot be done 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 economic development, must become part and parcel 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 three different areas: a free press, a fair judiciary, and human rights. Although the Arab states are awash with print and electronic media, most are official or semi-official organs of the particular government. The Arab press has been notoriously anti-American and anti-Israeli and has not permitted free discourse or opposing views. Without freedom of expression, democracy has no legs to stand on. The Bush 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 for its own sake. Fair judiciaries and adherence to the laws are other critical principles of democracy that could enhance rather than undermine the standing of various Arab regimes in the eyes of their people. The United States could provide substantial help and guidance in building judiciaries that, while consistent with the unique character of the communities involved, remain free, fair, and equitable. The Bush administration’s experience in training judges and enhancing the judiciary system in Iraq should be duplicated in other Arab countries. Finally, human rights should be enshrined constitutionally because those basic rights remain a prerequisite for the development of true democracy. The United States can help many Arab regimes to move in that direction so that no Arab leader tramples on the rights of the individual with impunity.

Fourth, reform educational systems: Although the Bush administration is cognizant of the fact that the 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), mostly funded by Saudi money and scattered all over the Arab and Islamic worlds, that teach primarily Koranic studies based on Sunni Wahabism flavored with poisonous teachings against the United States and the Jews, and these schools, if left unchecked, will provide an enormous pool for next generation of terrorists. Pakistan, for example, has thousands of such Saudi-funded schools because the Pakistani government simply does not have the resources to finance its huge educational requirements. The United States, in this and in similar cases must, a) persuade the Saudi government to make its funding of these schools conditional on their moderating their teaching requirements and course content, b) provide direct help to Pakistan and other Arab or Muslim countries so that education in these nations becomes less dependent on funding that comes from countries that dictate course content, and c) encourage other donor nations to provide special assistance for education in needy Arab countries, such as Egypt. What Arab kids are learning today and how that might impact their views of America tomorrow is of extreme importance for the future prospects for the war on terrorism and the promulgation of democratic reforms. Therefore, helping Arab states to build new schools and improve existing ones, moderating religious studies, eliminating anti-American and anti-Israeli materials, and modernizing school systems to meet current and future needs is critical, however awesome a task it might be.

With the euphoria in the White House about the spread of democracy in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan comes the cynicism of many in the region who see that as a mirage in the political desert of the Middle East. However these events and other manifestations of democratic movements in the region unfold, democracy in the Middle East will be slow, painstaking, and at times violent. The Bush administration will squander any opportunity for real democracy in Arab countries if it tries to artificially accelerate the process or shove democratic reforms down their throat with a gun. In either case, Washington will push the region into terrible turmoil instead of allowing for the political maturity, that comes through gradual political and economic development to produce democratic forms of government that endure.