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.”


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.

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.


Identity deficit at root of ‘costly Arab delusions’?

arab human rights waslaWith the exception of Tunisia, not a single Arab state was able to maintain the pro-democracy momentum born during the Arab Spring. The reason: they lack a strong national identity, argues Mustapha Tlili, a research scholar at New York University, and the founder and director of the N.Y.U. Center for Dialogues: Islamic World – U.S. – the West.

To overcome this legacy, Arab governments need to develop a new social contract between authority and citizen, through which a distinct national identity and ultimately allegiance will take hold and put these countries on a democratic path, he writes for World Policy:

The task is not easy: to generate a profound sense of citizenship and national identity, a country will have to engage in promoting modern and secular education and economic and social development on behalf of the poor majority of the population. Political systems will need to be restructured through the adoption of secular constitutions guaranteeing the rule of law, checks and balances and periodic fair and free elections. Civil society will need to bolster voices of reason to combat extremists. Arab elites will need to renounce demagoguery and undertake the hard, radical task of self-examination that may lead them to a healthier and more productive approach to politics as the art of the possible. Most important, it will take time for a new class of educated and enlightened citizens to grow in strength and in the belief that liberal secular democracy, as developed over the last 300 years or so in the West, is the best road to prosperity and a peaceful coexistence.

“Consider Europe, where the notion of a nation-state was introduced at Westphalia in 1648,” he observes. “It was not until 300 years later, with the precursors to the European Union, that the peoples of Europe began to imagine themselves as part of a single entity.”


Tunisia’s ‘start-up democracy’ again at a crossroads

tunisia transition

The United States will give Tunisia $60 million worth of military aid to help it fight Islamist militants who are threatening the country’s nascent democracy, Reuters reports

Protests in Tunisia in 2010 sparked subsequent revolutions that have transformed the Arab world and in many ways it is more stable and secure than other Arab Spring countries such as Libya, Egypt and Syria. But it is facing a militant threat of its own, mostly due to attacks mounted by the al Qaeda offshoot Ansar al-Sharia and to a flow of fighters and weapons unleashed by other conflicts in the region.

Demand for Democratic Dividends

Five months after the landmark passage of Tunisia’s constitution, and with historic elections expected in October and November of this year, a new International Republican Institute poll finds Tunisia once again at a crossroads in its democratic transition:

Since February 2014, unfulfilled expectations and the slow pace of economic growth have contributed to a 19 point increase (from 48 percent to 67 percent) in the percentage of people who think Tunisia is headed in the wrong direction.  Although reason for concern, this number is still better than the levels throughout 2013 when between 77 and 79 percent of respondents believed Tunisia to be headed in the wrong direction.

When asked about their highest priorities, Tunisians are unsatisfied with their government’s pace of progress on the economy and employment.  Fifty-eight percent of respondents described the current economic situation in Tunisia as very bad, and a further 22 percent said somewhat bad.

But not all the news is bad for Tunisia’s leaders.  Despite the growing frustration, 67 percent said the security situation has improved over the last year.  Overall, when asked if they were satisfied with the current government’s performance, 60 percent expressed at least some satisfaction.  This is down from 74 percent in February, but is still a strong majority and an indicator that people remain hopeful.

“Democracy does not lead to overnight prosperity, and Tunisians are coming to terms with this reality,” said Scott Mastic, IRI’s director for Middle East and North Africa programs.  “Yet the public’s commitment to democracy is evident in the face of mounting regional challenges.  Effective democratic governance is the ultimate path to long-term stability in Tunisia and those who want to see the country succeed must provide the tools of support needed now more than ever.”

Tunisia has a tremendous opportunity to provide a sound political and economic system that not only is for the benefit of Tunisians but reflects a greater possibility for the broader region. The U.S. has a shared interest with Tunisia in making its “start-up democracy” really take off, analyst Charlotte Florance writes for The Daily Signal (HT: FPI).