Can democracy thrive in Arab world?

tunisia demoThe world celebrated the “Arab Spring” as evidence that the people of the Middle East, like those everywhere, yearn to be free. But time has not been kind to the optimists, writes AP analyst Dan Perry:

After some hiccups, Tunisia is the one bright light today, with a free presidential election planned later this month. But across the Middle East, bloodshed, chaos and dashed dreams were far more often the result.

Hundreds of thousands have died, most in a ferocious and seemingly unwinnable Syrian civil war that has displaced millions, spilled over into Iraq, and threatens to destabilize other neighboring countries. Libya is an ungovernable and dangerous mess. And Islamic radicals have seized the discourse to a great extent; a US-led coalition fights them now, in Syria and Iraq.

“We can expect democratic transitions to be messy, chaotic and sometimes bloody, but this is worse than even the worst expectations,” said Shadi Hamid, a Mideast expert at the Brookings Institution.

The biggest and most unfortunate lesson people learned, he said, is that peaceful protest does not necessarily lead to a peaceful way forward or toward democratic transition, Perry adds:

Increasingly, people in the region are asking whether democracy is even a good idea in the Arab world. The question seems unfit for polite society, but it was already on the table in January 2011, as a panel of Arab finance figures considered events back home from the comfort of the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, its members clearly none too pleased.

One recommended strong but “benevolent” leaders for the region. Another said democracy was alien to a region where patriarchal traditions dominate. A third said the public needs education lest it simply vote along tribal lines. Others saw radical Islamists swiftly bamboozling the masses.


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.”


Hope and despair for Arab civilization

hussein--ibishHisham Melhem’s brilliant and profoundly significant cri de coeur  about the collapse of “Arab civilization”has reverberated powerfully throughout the Middle East commentariat, says a leading analyst. Surveying the wreckage of Arab culture and civilization, Melhem conducts an unflinching, overdue and merciless autopsy of what he declares to be a social, economic and political corpse, notes Hussein Ibish (left).

But it’s not true that there are no other social, political or religious visions in the Arab world, he writes for Now Lebanon. Indeed, predictions that post-dictatorship Arab societies would inevitably produce elected Islamist governments proved wrong, because even though most Arabs are devout Muslims, they are not Islamists. They might well be willing to accept Islamists in government if they are responsible, effective and accountable. But those Islamists who got the chance in government to show what they are truly made of – particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – proved nothing of the kind….

At a certain level, there’s no question that Melhem is basically right. A real Arab “recovery” won’t happen in his lifetime, or in mine. Some of the issues are so deep-rooted and structural that they really will take “decades and generations” to completely transform. But hope need not, indeed cannot, be vested only in such a thoroughgoing transformation. …

The first thing to bear in mind is how radically different things looked, even for what amounts to a fleeting political moment, at the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring.” It was not a mirage. Millions of Arabs in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere really did take to the streets demanding reform, accountability and good governance. It was a genuine and spontaneous expression of “people power” and revealed a real appetite for greater openness and at least some version of democracy…..There is, we can say with absolute confidence, indeed a mass Arab constituency for pluralism, tolerance, good governance and accountability.

Second, let us recall that when societies transform, they frequently do so with stunning rapidity. Particularly in the modern era, change can be, and often is, sudden, dramatic and swift. If three-and-a-half years ago was a period of brief but irrational exuberance about the rise of an empowered Arab citizenry demanding its rights and asserting its responsibilities, we should be open to the possibility that the present impulse towards despair might also prove to be exaggerated.

All across the region, from courageous individuals to small groups that are doing good in their own small spheres of activity and influence, to strategic realignments at the state and regional level (such as the important new international coalition to combat ISIS), the basis for hope for a better Arab future can indeed be identified if you start looking for it…. 

As bad as things are in the Arab world today, the grounds for such hope are genuine. The task is to first identify the bases for improvement, and then to act on them.



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.”


No Arab democracy without Arab democrats

arabdemFalse optimism permeated much of the early coverage of the Arab Spring. Too many Western writers believed that finally the time had come for long-suffering Arab populations to throw off their authoritarian rulers, break up cliques that had dominated regimes and economies and bring in political diversity and electoral politics, analyst Jeffrey Simpson writes for the Globe and Mail:

It was not to be, for many reasons outlined clearly in a paper of sustained realism based on decades of experience by Michael Bell, a retired Canadian diplomat who served as ambassador to Egypt, Jordan and Israel. In his paper for the Transatlantic Academy, titled Liberal Attitudes And Middle East Realities, Mr. Bell explains why, despite the high hopes, “there is little tolerance for liberal pluralism” in Arab politics.

Instead, Mr. Bell writes, “a multitude of issues contribute to the dysfunction of Arab Middle East polities, including traditions of colonialism, authoritarianism, the rentier state, clientelism, corruption and imagined history”….

What frames political thought in Arab countries (beyond the liberal elites visiting Western columnists tend to quote) is what Mr. Bell calls ethno-nationalism and an ideological belief system. Western “reformers” of the Arab world need to temper their enthusiasm, because “overly assertive liberalism can lead to bad policy, with calamitous results when it confronts the ingrained habits of brittle societies.”

“Democracies cannot exist without democrats,” Mr. Bell observes.