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.”


Egypt: Sisi consolidating, civil society struggling

egypt sisiAt home and abroad, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi  has capitalized on fears of the chaos that has engulfed surrounding countries, the New York Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick reports:

If not for his takeover last year, he said in a recent interview with Time magazine, Egypt would be “caught in a vicious cycle of extremism” and “the U.S. would have felt the need to destroy Egypt.”

A catchphrase has become popular here: “At least we are not Syria or Iraq.” It is earnestly encouraged by pro-government television commentators and half-jokingly repeated by average Egyptians to shrug off bad news.

“No one in recent Egyptian history has been so firmly in control,” said Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University in Cairo. “What we are witnessing now breaks all previous precedents, and I don’t think we have seen the end of it.”

Presenting himself as the bulwark against disorder, Mr. Sisi has surpassed even President Gamal Abdel Nasser in his ability to command the loyalty of the many fractious and quasi-independent institutions of the modern Egyptian state, Professor Fahmy said, including the military, the internal security forces, the intelligence agencies, the judiciary and the rest of the bureaucracy.

Washington’s new war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, has forced a reappraisal of its regional alliances that is working to the advantage of Mr Sisi and his anti-Islamist regime, the FT’s Heba Saleh reports .

“The new Egyptian regime has the advantage of being on the political scene when Isis has become far more prominent in American eyes than anything that analysts might find problematic anywhere else in the region,” said H.A Hellyer, associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“Criticisms of the Egyptian government continue, but they are far more muted than they would be otherwise.”

 Civil society struggling 

“Civil society in Egypt has been struggling for a long time with the laws governing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and, over the last few years, this struggle has become iconic in a conflict with the government,” Amira Mikhail of Washington College of Law American University writes for Open Democracy:

Egypt is a nation where historically any political expression was limited to football chants and to charitable volunteer opportunities. It is a country where a revolution was fueled by people’s desire to become involved and see positive change. It is a society that survives off civil society, a vast network of organizations that fill the voids where the government is unable or unwilling to do its duty….

With over 80 million citizens and around 40,000 registered local NGOs, despite a history of highly restrictive NGO laws, Egypt is described as having “one of the largest and most vibrant civil society sectors in the developing world”. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (“ICNL”) explains that the Egyptian government never used an outright ban on civil society; it conveniently provided “enormous discretionary powers to the Ministry of Social Solidarity.”

But Mr. Sisi’s success at starting the rollback of fuel subsidies without a public backlash may be the most striking evidence of his standing, Kirkpatrick adds:

Egyptian rulers have acknowledged for decades that the subsidies were increasingly unsustainable, but always avoided the cuts for fear of unrest.

“That is the one that surprises me,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and a former United States deputy assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, noting that the desperate economic conditions of most Egyptians have only grown worse since the ouster of Mr. Mubarak.

Why some Arabs ‘don’t want democracy’

Scholars of public opinion, including Arab Barometer researchers, offer ample evidence of support for democracy in the Arab world, notes Lindsay J. Benstead, an assistant professor of political science in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.

Yet, in a recent article published in “Democratization,” I revisited these Arab Barometer data and found that support for democracy is not as widespread as received wisdom suggests, she writes for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog:

I found that 27 percent of citizens of six countries surveyed by the Arab Barometer believed that democracy is best but unsuitable for their country. The reasons citizens saw democracy as unsuitable stem not from religion or economic modernization – the focus of many studies of Arab public opinion – but from concerns about economic problems and political instability that could accompany free elections.

My research found that 60 percent of citizens strongly support democracy, as indicated by their response to two statements (See Table 3). This group feels that democracy is the best form of government and suitable for the respondents’ own country. Only 7 percent of the region’s citizens reject democracy on both these indicators. Yet, 27 percent regard democracy as the best form of government, but deem it unsuitable at home.

What accounts for these seemingly contradictory views? The answer, it turns out, stems in large part from the respondents’ expectations of what democracy might bring. When citizens worry about economic upheaval, violence or negative cultural ramifications as a result of free elections, they are more likely to reject democracy at home.

Activists and international actors need to redouble efforts to support the development of fledgling democratic institutions in Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in order to improve stability and economic opportunities and build confidence that democracy really is best, Benstead concludes.


‘Faustian deal’ sabotaged Arab democracy

HISHAM MELHEMThose majority of Arab societies currently going through violent convulsions or wrenching “transitions” have reached their nadir because of multiplicity of reasons, leading analyst Hisham Melhem notes:

These range from repressive autocracy, alliances between predatory political elites, corrupt mercantile classes, and economic monopolies, reactionary interpretations of Islam, as reflected in the visions and practices of Islamists movements (in varying degrees) chauvinistic or hyper nationalisms and yes a cultural inheritance, rooted in religious conservatism that produces values of ignorance, fatalism, dependency and fear of authority.

Some Arab countries, even decades after their independence are still struggling with their identities, particularly heterogeneous countries like Iraq and Algeria. Even, the mostly homogenous Egypt was struggling with issues of identity and cultural and political orientation, particularly during the brief rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. These cultural factors are usually not always given their weight by political scientist and historians.

Melhem has written a devastating critique of “an Arab political culture that continues to reproduce the values of patriarchy, mythmaking, conspiracy theories, sectarianism, autocracy and a political/cultural discourse that denies human agency and tolerates the persistence of the old order.”

The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago, he wrote for Politico last week:

Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays—all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms. With the dubious exception of the antiquated monarchies and emirates of the Gulf—which for the moment are holding out against the tide of chaos—and possibly Tunisia, there is no recognizable legitimacy left in the Arab world.

 Faustian deal

During the heyday of Arab Nationalism, many Arab intellectuals entered into a Faustian deal with the custodians of power in their world, Melhem contends:

They accepted a deal in which they will not agitate for freedom and democracy, until the Nationalist fought their supposedly historic battles with the forces of Arab reaction, Israeli usurpation and Western imperialism. All the battles were lost, and with them the hopes of freedom and democracy.

Today, the world of millions of Arabs is collapsing; whole societies are consumed by the flames of sectarianism, political fragmentation and economic disenfranchisement. ….. And unless Arab intellectuals and activists engage in a no holds barred debates similar to what happened in Beirut after 1967, in which all their political, cultural and religious inheritance is put to critical inquiry, the Arabs will continue to roam endlessly in a political wilderness of their own making. But if you are looking now for a vibrant debate, about what ails the Arab world today, and if you are searching for a liberal open Arab city for Intellectuals to engage in critical introspection, you will be searching in vain.


Islamists ‘not our friends’: Brotherhood ‘a continuum, not corrective’ to ISIS

islamists nyt


“The institutions of civil society were too weak; the political culture of winner-take-all too strong; sectarian differences too powerful; and a belief in pluralism too inchoate,” notes Dennis B. Ross, a counselor and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Instead, the awakening produced political vacuums and a struggle over identity.”

A new fault line has emerged in Middle Eastern politics, one that will have profound implications for America’s foreign policy in the region, he writes for the New York Times:

On one side are the Islamists — both Sunni and Shiite. the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the Muslim Brotherhood represent the Sunni end of the spectrum, while the Islamic Republic of Iran and its militias, including Hezbollah (in Lebanon and Syria) and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (in Iraq), constitute the other. Many of these Islamists are at war with one other, but they are also engaged in a bitter struggle with non-Islamists to define the fundamental identity of the region and its states. What the Islamists all have in common is that they subordinate national identities to an Islamic identity.

The non-Islamists include the traditional monarchies, authoritarian governments in Egypt and Algeria, and secular reformers who may be small in number but have not disappeared. They do not include Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria; he is completely dependent on Iran and Hezbollah and cannot make decisions without them.

“The Obama administration worries about the consequences of excluding all Islamists. It worries, too, about appearing to give a blank check to authoritarian regimes, when it believes there need to be limits and that these regimes are likely to prove unstable over time,” Ross writes. “But as Egypt and the U.A.E. showed with the airstrikes on Islamists in Libya, some of America’s traditional partners are ready to act without us, convinced that the administration does not see all Islamists as a threat — and that America sees its interests as different from theirs. That is a problem.”

Observers who suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood represents a moderate alternative to violent Islamists like ISIS are mistaken,  says Hussein Ibish, a Senior Fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine. The Brotherhood’s Islamism “is a continuum, not a corrective” to the more extreme and violent versions embodied by ISIL:

ISIL is among the most violent groups in the world, and while many Brotherhood-aligned parties have turned away from violence as a primary strategy or publicly-acknowledged policy, it doesn’t have a doctrinal prohibition on violence…. Brotherhood groups have used it in the past, and always made an exception when it comes to the Palestinians – and this long before the advent of Hamas. Both groups also publicly espouse the virtue and necessity of “jihad”….There are just too many common origins for Brotherhood-style Islamism to serve as a plausible corrective to ISIL-style more extreme Islamism.  It’s no coincidence or surprise that it was Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb who did more to inspire the takfiri and Salafist-jihadist movements than any other modern figure. The non-Islamists are America’s natural partners in the region, argues Ross, a special assistant to President Obama for the Middle East and South Asia from 2009 to 2011. The Obama administration needs to follow three principles in these partnerships, he contends:

First, focus on security and stability. Nothing, including tolerant, pluralist societies, is possible without it.

Second, do not reach out to Islamists; their creed is not compatible with pluralism or democracy. In Tunisia, the Ennahda party surrendered power only when it realized its policies had produced such a backlash that the party’s very survival was threatened. Islamists, even apparent moderates like those of Ennahda, must be left with no choice but coexistence….

Third, America’s support for non-Islamist partners does not require surrendering our voice or supporting every domestic policy. We should press them on pluralism, minority rights and the rule of law.