Is US ‘downgrading signature Mideast democracy program’?



MEPI/State Dept.

MEPI/State Dept.

The Barack Obama administration has downgraded what was once a marquee program to promote democracy in the Middle East — a sign, some critics say, that counterterrorism once again dominates the US agenda in the region, analyst Barbara Slavin writes for Al-Monitor. Established in 2002, the US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) touts on its website its work in “18 countries and territories” and contributions of more than $600 million to “support civil society groups, political activists, and business leaders in their efforts for political and economic reform, government transparency, and accountability projects.” …

However, the program —traditionally headed by a political appointee — is now run by a career foreign service officer and has been subsumed into the larger foreign aid bureaucracy that also handles security assistance. One of two offices MEPI long operated in the region — in Tunisia — is being moved from the region’s only successful new democracy to Morocco, a monarchy.

“Unfortunately, MEPI seems to be in the process of being gutted and losing its identity,” Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Al-Monitor…… “The decline [in the emphasis on democracy promotion] accelerated over the past year — the time when Anne Patterson came back and became assistant secretary,” he said. “MEPI’s demise is indicative of a broader backing off from supporting civil society and falling back into the old pattern of not antagonizing old allies.”

The State Department vigorously contested this criticism. 

A senior State Department official said that Patterson had ordered the reorganization not to downplay democracy promotion but because it made more “managerial sense” to put all foreign aid programs to Middle Eastern countries under one office. The official added that the Tunis office was being moved to Morocco for “logistical and administrative reasons.”

Arab-Uprisings-Explained1-198x300The official conceded that there had been changes in the US approach to democracy promotion — using more indirect methods and bringing more individuals to the United States for programs — but said this was more a function of new limitations placed on civil society groups by Middle Eastern governments than any reorientation of US policy…..

In its first term, the Obama administration “decided to reinvent this agenda,” Tamara Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of MEPI, told Al-Monitor. “It was not the ‘freedom agenda’ [of George Bush] but a different way of addressing the same set of issues.”

Wittes, who left the State Department in 2012 and now directs the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor “what has happened is the re-emergence of counterterrorism as the lens through which US policy is seen and formulated.”

The United States “has made a decision that it is fully prepared to go back to the business of overlooking significant problems with domestic governance, human rights and economic stability in the name of smooth bilateral cooperation” with governments fighting Islamic militants, she said.

“Partnering and protecting civil society groups around the world is now a mission across the US government,” Obama said Sept. 23, touting a presidential memorandum instructing US government departments and agencies to “consult and partner more regularly with civil society groups” and “oppose efforts by foreign governments to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and expression.”

According to Wittes, the irony is that the “Obama administration will leave office having brought Middle East policy full circle to what it was trying to get away from when it came in. The idea of supporting long-term political change has been pushed down the priority list to working with highly imperfect governments on a short-term counterterrorism agenda.”


Dancing with Dictators


poland solidarnoscTwenty-five years ago, breakthrough elections were held in Poland that led, within three months, to the downfall of that country’s communist regime, notes Eric Chenoweth, the co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and former editor in chief of the journal Uncaptive Minds.

The events helped to spark the Velvet Revolutions that spread, within the next six months, to Budapest, Prague, Bratislava, Berlin, Sofia, Timisoara, and many other major cities, as masses of people went to the streets to demand their rights, oppose Soviet occupation, and win back their freedom. Communist despotisms that had lasted more than four decades collapsed like a house of cards. The world celebrated the fall of communism and the victory of democracy.

It all seemed so clear back then. But not now, he writes for World Affairs.

The recent death of Poland’s last communist dictator, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, at the age of ninety, has cast a pall on the celebration of that election victory by Solidarity a quarter-century ago. Despite a public outcry, the country’s current and past democratically elected leaders granted Jaruzelski a state funeral and pride of place among Poland’s military and political heroes in Warsaw’s renowned Powazki Cemetery. Meanwhile, some of the country’s most significant politicians and intellectuals, led by Adam Michnik, once one of Solidarity’s key theorists, have exonerated and praised Jaruzelski, despite his imposition of martial law in December 1981 aimed at destroying Solidarity. Michnik describes Jaruzelski as a Polish patriot who chose the “lesser evil” of martial law to stave off Soviet invasion and who, when given the opportunity, later took the “wise decision” to “unshackle the chains” he had originally bound the country with.


From politics to protest: taking it to the streets

IvanKrastevThe pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are just the latest in a wave of political protests that has swept the world since late 2010. In “From Politics to Protest,” Ivan Krastev (left) examines why people have been taking to the streets, not only where they are denied the right to freely elect their leaders (as in Hong Kong), but also in countries where they fully enjoy the right to vote. Krastev suggests that elections are losing their capacity to make voters feel that their voices are being heard, and he explores what this may mean for the future of democracy.

India’s sixteenth general elections heralded a new era in the country’s politics: The Hindu-nationalist BJP won an unprecedented absolute majority in parliament, while the long-dominant Congress party suffered a stunning defeat. Four essays by leading experts explain the electoral outcome, look at the economic implications of the BJP’s victory, weigh the possibility of renewed communal violence, and give a big-picture assessment of India’s future.

jodoctIndonesia held successful parliamentary elections in April and presidential elections in July. Yet the news is not all good. The parliamentary contest was marred by pervasive “money politics,” as Edward Aspinall explains in “Politics and Patronage,” and the presidential race was nearly won by Prabowo Subianto, a populist who “promised to undertake the radical and dangerous experiment of restoring Indonesia’s pre-democratic order.” In “How Jokowi Won and Democracy Survived,” Marcus Mietzner cautions that “Indonesian democracy is still vulnerable, and will be for years to come.”

Elsewhere in the issue, Ghia Nodia writes on “The Revenge of Geopolitics,” part of a set of articles on “External Influence and Democratization” that also features pieces by Jakob Tolstrup and Steven Levitsky & Lucan Way; a pair of essays by João Carlos Espada and Liubomir Topaloff examine the rise of Euroskeptic parties in the EU and what it means; Richard Joseph explores the prospects for democracy in Africa through the lens of Nigeria; and Javier Corrales & Michael Penfold detail the growing trend in Latin America to relax or eliminate presidential term limits.

To see the complete Table of Contents, please visit


Asian NGOs ‘concerned’ for Indonesian democracy

indonesia etcOn the eve of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s final Bali Democracy Forum, an international network of pro-democracy groups issued a statement criticizing setbacks in the country’s democracy, Handoko Nikodemus writes for the Rappler:

The Seoul-based Asian Democracy Network (ADN) said the controversial passage of the Regional Elections Law – which removes the right of Indonesians to directly elect their governors, mayors and district heads – “affects negatively the Indonesian reputation as a champion of democracy in Asia recent years”.

The statement is a blow to Yudhoyono, who initiated the annual forum in 2008 to showcase Indonesia’s successful transition to a democracy and provide a platform for dialogue and cooperation.

ADN said its statement was in solidarity with the 11 Indonesian civil society organizations that declined invitations to the first Bali Civil Society Forum, which took place Wednesday and Thursday, October 8-9, ahead of the 7th inter-governmental Bali Democracy Forum on Friday and Saturday….


600 face trial as Tunisia’s ‘remnants’ return

TUNISIA UGTTThe first trials of prisoners accused of “terrorism” in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution could open later this month, with 600 defendants facing prosecution, AFP reports:

Justice minister Hafedh Ben Salah told AFP that the defendants included Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists who have been battling the Tunisian army near the Algerian border for nearly two years.

Since the uprising that ousted former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisia has seen a proliferation of jihadist militias suppressed under the former dictator. These groups have been blamed for a wave of attacks, including the assassination last year of two opposition lawmakers whose murders plunged the country into a protracted political crisis.

Three years after Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” forced the autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali out and set the North African country on path to democracy, his regime old guard – so-called “Remnants” – are not only making a comeback but are poised again to win elected posts, Reuters reports:

After approving a new constitution this year, in October Tunisia will hold its second parliamentary election since the revolt. In November, it will hold presidential elections that are seen as a test of its newly found democracy.

Prominent among candidates for the legislature and for the presidency are former officials and cabinet ministers from the Ben Ali regime, who are pitting themselves against Islamist party that governed after Tunisia’s first free election.

“My guess is that former RCD members will not gather more than 30% of the votes (for all parties concerned and there are almost 10 of them including Nidaa),” Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, told Democracy Digest. “Nahdha will also get about 30%, and the other 40% will be evenly spread and divided between 10 or more other parties and alliances.  So the balance of power will be maintained.  The problem is forming a new “National Unity” government after the elections, which will not be easy. “ 

As Tunisia’s economy struggles to get back on its feet after the revolution and the ongoing security threats in the region continue, nostalgia for the old days has grown and some Tunisians wish for a strong man to put the country back on track, Tunis-based analyst Sara Mersch writes for Carnegie’s Sada Journal:

And while these politicians do not have as strong a base among the population as they did before, they maintain the firm backing of the business community. While the most prominent figures that upheld and profited from the Ben Ali regime have been targeted by corruption cases, large parts of the underlying structures are still there and keep the system intact. The Tunisian business class has little interest in seeing this system changed, and as such are likely to seek a strong presence of old regime forces in the government.

More than 5 million voters, out of a total of 11 million Tunisians, are registered for the upcoming poll, Mona Yahiya reports for Magharebia.

“The necessary funds have been provided for the electoral process, including public funding for campaigns and additional funds for public media. In addition, more than 4,500 public schools have been placed under the disposal of the Independent High Electoral Commission (ISIE) to use them as polling centres,” Tunisian government spokesperson Nidhal Ouerfelli said last week.