Debate Magazine

How Should America Advance Middle East Democracy?

Posted on the 17 March 2011 by Shahalexander
As I mentioned in the last post, the rise of anti-government protests in the Middle East does not imply an erosion of American grip in this region. Rather, a long quested American Dream of Middle East democracy since the outbreak of the Afghan War and the Iraq War is coming true. In what way should the United States be involved in Middle East political transformation? I would like to talk about three key countries, which are Egypt, Libya, and Iran.
Grassroots uprisings provoked by the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt are not bolts from the blue. In a joint report by Marina Ottaway and Amr Hamzawy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, authors say that the civil protest started in Tunisia was not a completely new development, but rather a more dramatic example of the unrest common across the Arab world. Civilian protests for political and economic reform in Egypt have been witnessed from the end of the last century, and the quest for democracy has been intensified since 2003, the year of the Iraq War. Things in other Arab nations, including Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, are somewhat similar. Through in depth analysis of socio-political movements in the Arab world, Ottaway and Hamzawy say that youth movements spread rapidly even without well-arranged organizational structures. Although traditional unionists and left wing activists argue that those movements depending on social media are not long-lasting, the Facebook revolution in Tunisia has inspired Arab citizens who hope to overthrow dictators repressing them with mighty security services (“Protest Movements and Political Change in the Arab World”; Carnegie Endowment Policy Outlook; January 28, 2011).
Former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher argues furthermore to suggest necessary steps toward Arab reform. Since Arab citizens no longer trust the government, any reform must be beyond lip service. Muasher endorses fair election, strong parliament, checks and balances, and educational reform. Without political reform, people will not trust economic liberalization, because economic growth simply widened social inequality. Muasher insists that the above reforms must be pushed forward, and leaders must overcome harsh opposition by the establishment (“How to Achieve Real Reform in the Arab World”; Washington Post; February 2, 2011).
As to Egypt, Amr Hamzawy, Research Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, argues almost the same points as Marwan Muasher. He insists that the emergency law be eliminated, and civil freedom be protected. Furthermore, Hamzawy recommends that political prisoners be freed (“Egypt's Path Ahead: Agree to the People's Demands”; National; February 2, 2011).
Some Western commentators warn the risk of Islamists, but Former Dutch Member of the Parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali say that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt can adapt to reality, though they were violent in the past. Through her experience in election, Ali points out, “The party has to be embedded in as many communities as possible, regardless of social class, religion or even political views” (“Get Ready for the Muslim Brotherhood”; New York Times; February 3, 2011). Therefore, Western policymakers should focus on transparent and accountable governance in Egypt, rather than the rise of Islamists.
Michelle Dunne, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, argue that successful democratization of Egypt will have a considerable impact on the whole Arab world. Egypt is a birthplace of pan-Arabism and the first country to the peace treaty with Israel. Its population is by far the largest among Arab nations. Both experts recommend smart and targeted assistance to Egypt. They argue that Western aid must be focused on the economy rather than military, such as debt forgiveness and free trade agreement. Also, mentioning a report of recent trip to Egypt by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, they insist on increasing private investment which Egyptians need, and send a delegation of high-tech industry there (“Why Egypt Has To Be the U.S. Priority in the Middle East”; Washington Post; March 7, 2011). Since anti-Mubarak youth stood up to demand improvements in the economy and social inequality, their recommendation will be plausible. Quite importantly, both authors advise the US government to respect self rise movements by Egyptians, and not to impose American-styled democracy. Kagan and Dunne argue that Middle East policy needs a high powered leader to act beyond bureaucratic sectionalism, and put a unique proposal that the Obama administration appoint a Middle East Transition Czar.
Thins in Libya are completely different as Colonel Muammar Khadafi clings to power. While Western policymakers advocate that a no-fly-zone be imposed on Libya, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is skeptic to American capability for such a mission, and even hopes of leaving it to Britain, France, and Italy (“Robert Gates on Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Defense Budget”; Weekly Standard Blog; February 23, 2011). As the Obama administration is cautious of intervention to Libya, foreign policy and human rights experts, including Robert Kagan, William Kristol, and former officials of the Bush and Clinton administration, urged President Obama to take actions against Colonel Khadafi’s repression, notably establishing no-fly-zone (Open Letter; Foreign Policy Initiative; February 25, 2011). Jamie Fly, Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative points out that enforcing a no-fly-zone by the United States and key allies does not need the approval of the UN Security Council, as in previous cases of Iraq and Kosovo. He also argues that the Obama administration not dismiss America’s moral obligation to defend Libyan citizens attacked by Khadafi (“Opposing view: A moral obligation to intervene”; USA Today; March 3, 2011). Moreover, Fly criticizes the inaction, because even liberal New York Times argues “the Obama administration is throwing out so many conflicting messages on Libya that they are blunting any potential pressure on the Libyan regime and weakening American credibility” (“What Should We Do About Libya?”; National Review Online Symposium; March 10, 2011).
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met a delegation of the Benghazi government in waiting which is called the National Transitional Council in Paris. If the council is recognized by the global community, it can use Libya’s overseas assets and export oil. Though France recognized this post Khadafi regime, it does not agree with the United States on Israel-Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan (“Rebel council seeks to transform Libya”; Washington Post; March 15, 2011). But this is also the case with the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. I do not believe it a legitimate reason for the United States to abstain from supporting the anti-Khadafi rebel. Despite that, the United States did not agree to a no-fly-zone initiative by France and Britain at G8 foreign ministers meeting in Paris (“France fails to get G8 accord on Libya no-fly zone”; Reuters; March 15, 2011). The Obama administration may be traumatized by the Bush administration’s experience in the Iraq War, but an obsession with a UN resolution will simply delay necessary action. This is a critical test of current administration’s use of smart power.
While some analysts argue that Iran will fill the Middle East power vacuum in view of the fall of pro-Western Arab governments, Karim Sadjapour, Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace comments the opposite. Potential reemergence of democratized Egypt will undermine relative power of Iran. Also, he says that Iran has the same problems of repression and deteriorating economy as those in Egypt and Tunisia. Furthermore, Arab Shiites in Iraq and Bahrain do not feel themselves familiar to Iran (“Arabs Rise, Tehran Trembles”; New York Times; March 5, 2011). It is quite likely that the Arab transition will stimulate youngsters in Iran who stood up in the Green Movement.
Finally, I would like to explore the big picture of the Arab world and the guidelines to advance democracy in this region. Marwan Muasher insists that the West must give priority to political reform over economic liberalization, as the market economy without checks and balances brought wealth to the ruling class and simply widened socio-economic inequality. Also, he calls an attention to the vital fact that the protests spread nationwide by ordinary citizens who were annoyed with autocrats, not Islamists who cling to outmoded theocracy. That makes a compromise with a repressive regime useless (“Arab Myths and Realities”; Project Syndicate; March 8, 2011).
While some experts compare current Arab democratization with the fall of Berlin Wall, Thomas Carothers, Vice President at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, comments cautiously. Unlike monolithically communist Central and Eastern Europe in the Cold War era, Arab nations are more diversified, including reformist monarchs, conservative monarchs, autocratic presidents, tribal states, failing states, oil-rich states, and water-poor states. Also, Arab leaders are more independent of the West than those in Central and Eastern Europe. However, that does not mean Arab democracy is difficult to achieve, as Arab activists are keen to learn successful experiences abroad. Islamists may be well organized, but they need support from swing voters to win majority. Quite importantly, Carothers points out that Islamists in the Arab world were willing to work within multiparty systems (“Think Again: Arab Democracy”; Foreign Policy; March 10, 2011).
The path to democracy in the Middle East is not so simplistic. Gulf monarchies are key allies to the West, and slow but steady approaches are necessary. Such approaches differ from one country to another. In some cases, bold interventions are required, and the Obama administration is finally moving toward endorsing France and Britain in Libya (“Specter of Rebel Rout Helps Shift U.S. Policy on Libya”; New York Times; March 16, 2011). On the other hand, things in Bahrain grow difficult to manage. Democracy in the Middle East has become an America’s agenda since 9-11, and critical tests are posed now.

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