Thursday, February 10, 2011

The US must think "democracy" in the Mideast

Democracy promotion has never been the United States’ strong suit in the Middle East. When the Bush administration made democratization its formal policy in 2002, pundits labeled it “naive,” and “unrealistic,” given the Middle East’s purported authoritarian political culture rooted in “Islam,” “tribalism,” and an “Arab democracy deficit.”

Events soon seemed to prove the critics right: in 2003, the Bush administration’s promised rapid transition to democracy in Iraq failed to materialize; in 2005 the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats in Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections; then Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections. Democracy promotion fell by the wayside and the US returned to its historical pattern of supporting autocratic regimes.

But as recent events have revealed, support for democracy runs deep in the Middle East, especially among the region’s youth -- 100 million strong between the ages of 14 and 29. To measure this support, all we need do is turn on our televisions.

The US is at a crossroads. Will the Obama administration actively help the region’s new activists bring about a peaceful transition to democracy or will it allow the type of thugs who attacked peaceful protesters in Cairo’s Liberation Square to trample its flowering? Will the U.S. allow a historically transformative period to pass it by?

During my 40 years of research in the region, Middle Easterners have constantly complained to me that the US practices democracy at home but supports authoritarianism in their countries. Now this long term discontent challenges many of the regimes in the region and the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost.

Support for authoritarianism has not produced long-term regional stability, but political upheaval and hostility towards the US instead. Once our main ally, the Shah of Iran was toppled in 1979 by an upheaval that created the most dangerous regime in the Middle East. Tunisian leader Zein Addine Bin Ali, whose role was to protect US interests from al-Qa’ida in North Africa, was forced to flee his country last month. Egypt’s Husni Mubarak, a guarantor of the 1979 Arab-Israeli Peace Treaty -- but who likewise suppressed dissent, imprisoned critics, and countenanced widespread torture -- will soon be gone as well. Large protests have placed other autocratic allies, notably King Abdullah of Jordan, who recently dissolved his government, and the perennial Yemeni President, Ali Abdallah Salih, who has vowed not to seek another term, on shaky political grounds as well.

Despite the current mass demonstrations, many Western analysts continue to decry democratic change. Radical Islamists will take power, scuttle the Arab-Israeli peace treaty, and promote regional instability, they warn. But the main driver behind the calls for democracy is not the older generation of Islamists, but rather youth -- often well educated -- who lack jobs, the ability to voice discontent, and any hope in the future. They are less concerned with religion than with employment, raising a family and leading a stable life. In the age of the Internet and social media, these youth can compare the freedoms they lack with those their counterparts enjoy elsewhere in the world.

As my research with Iraqi youth over the past two years makes clear, most youth abhor religious radicalism because they know it results in intolerance, violence and new forms of political and cultural repression. Those youth who do turn to religion increasingly are searching for a tolerant Islam,that promotes personal freedom and is compatible with democratic practices. Above all, youth in Iraq and elsewhere realize that they can only achieve a better life by ridding their countries of the small, rapacious ruling elites who have institutionalized corruption and nepotism, and are unconcerned with the problems of the citizenry at large.

Although the US does not control events in the Middle East, it still maintains enormous political and economic influence in the region. Strong support for democracy will enhance its moral standing as well. The US needs to curtail military and financial assistance from it and its global partners to authoritarian regimes, criticize allies that engage in political repression, mobilize large amounts of international aid for local civil society organizations, and consistently voice support for the new democracy movements. Such sustained pressure would at the very least temper the behavior of Middle East autocrats, especially those who seek closer ties with the US.

These policies could win the gratitude of the large youth demographic from which will emerge the next generation of leaders. Surely making democracy promotion the centerpiece of US policy in the Middle East is not too much to ask of a country that still claims leadership of the free world.
This post represents remarks that were originally delivered to a panel on democracy in the Middle East that was convened by the Friends Select School in Philadelphia, PA, and subsequently published as a guest column inThe Philadelphia Inquirer on February 7, 2011.

No comments: