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.


Why there is no Arab democracy


Why Arab countries have so miserably failed to create democracy, happiness or (aside from the windfall of oil) wealth for their 350m people is one of the great questions of our time, The Economist notes.

What makes Arab society susceptible to vile regimes and fanatics bent on destroying them (and their perceived allies in the West)? the paper asks:

Islam, or at least modern reinterpretations of it, is at the core of some of the Arabs’ deep troubles. The faith’s claim, promoted by many of its leading lights, to combine spiritual and earthly authority, with no separation of mosque and state, has stunted the development of independent political institutions.

But religious extremism is a conduit for misery, not its fundamental cause (see article). While Islamic democracies elsewhere (such as Indonesia—see article) are doing fine, in the Arab world the very fabric of the state is weak. Few Arab countries have been nations for long. The dead hand of the Turks’ declining Ottoman empire was followed after the first world war by the humiliation of British and French rule. In much of the Arab world the colonial powers continued to control or influence events until the 1960s. Arab countries have not yet succeeded in fostering the institutional prerequisites of democracy—the give-and-take of parliamentary discourse, protection for minorities, the emancipation of women, a free press, independent courts and universities and trade unions.

“Only the Arabs can reverse their civilizational decline, and right now there is little hope of that happening,” it adds. “But ultimately fanatics devour themselves. Meanwhile, wherever possible, the moderate, secular Sunnis who comprise the majority of Arab Muslims need to make their voices heard.”

U.S. power and the future of Arab democracy


In two short years after coming to power in Egypt and Tunisia, Islamists lost more support than in 50 years of exclusion. Pic: NYTimes

In two short years after coming to power in Egypt and Tunisia, Islamists lost more support than in 50 years of exclusion. Pic: NYTimes

If you were to imagine the different justifications for the U.S. war in Iraq along a spectrum of idealism to realism, there would be two at the idealistic end, and their credibility ended up the most damaged: humanitarian intervention and the advancement of democracy, writes J.J. Gould, the editor of

But according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, humanitarian intervention, particularly in Syria, remains at least as tough-minded a proposition as it is a high-minded one.

“If you look at Syria,” Slaughter said, speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, “more than half the population has been displaced. … The number of Syrian refugees in Jordan, as a percentage of the population, is the equivalent of all of Canada moving to the United States. Let’s just think what that would mean for our school system, our health system, our infrastructure. … In a situation where up to a third of the population, or half the population, is destabilized—that is a security concern, as it was in Europe [at the time of the Thirty Years War].”

How can we ever get to a political solution without a credible use of force?

Advancing democracy the ultimate security agenda

Marwan Muasher, on the stage with Slaughter, …. believes that despite all the chaos we see now, the Middle East isn’t condemned to a terrible future. Of course, it isn’t guaranteed any good futures, either. But just as there’s always been an unsustainable logic to the artificial stability of Arab strongmen, there’s also an unsustainable logic to the alternative promise of political Islam.

“We have seen very clearly with 50 or 60 years of exclusion of Islamist forces by Arab regimes that it has resulted in strengthening them beyond reason,” Muasher said. “And in them promising people everything under the sun without putting their promises to the test. In two short years after they came to power in Egypt and Tunisia, Islamists lost more support than 50 years of exclusion by Arab governments have been able to do to them. So today ‘Islam is the solution’ means far less as a slogan than it meant three years ago.”……

So much for that hypothetical idealism-realism policy spectrum, Gould adds.

For Slaughter, humanitarian intervention can be a vital security agenda, but for Muasher, the advancement of democracy is the ultimate security agenda. His objection to the “narrow security lens” he fears the U.S. government is now using in the Middle East isn’t, after all, that it’s a security lens; it’s that it’s a bad one for seeing any real distance into the future.


JJ Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University.

Should the U.S. Give Up on Arab Democracy?

libya-free_1835951cThe unhappy results of what was once known optimistically as the “Arab Spring” have led many analysts to suggest that the United States should stop supporting democracy in the Arab world. It doesn’t work, the argument goes, and things end up worse rather than better. In this view, President Obama was right to dump the Bush “Freedom Agenda” because the end of the regimes in Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia has resulted only in violence and instability. Moreover, it is argued, US policies have offended many allies in the region.

But are these arguments correct? Can the United States be indifferent to the effort to build democracy in the Arab world? Are there ways for the United States to help those struggling for democracy, more effectively and at lower cost? the topic of the lecture is the current condition and future prospects of democracy in the Arab world, and the challenge this presents to American foreign policy.

Elliott Abrams is Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, an adjunct in the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

12 noon – Lecture: Should the United States Give Up on Arab Democracy?”

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and adjunct in the Program for Jewish Civilization

March 18, 2014 Georgetown University, Copley Hall, 37th and O Streets NW, Copley Formal Lounge, Washington, D.C.

CONTACT: 202-687-4328

Part of the Program for Jewish Civilization’s Spring 2014 Lecture Series.