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Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall

Tarek Osman
17 March 2009

A group of distinguished experts has sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to put democratic reform at the heart of the United States's engagement with Arab regimes and publics. The letter - convened by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (Pomed), and published on 10 March 2009 - is founded on the acknowledgment that the US's relationship with the Muslim world has been troubled, and elaborates the case that out of the misjudgments of the George W Bush years a new and principled American approach to support for democracy and human rights can arise. 

Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

openDemocracy, "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009) - a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (Pomed)                  
Rodrigo de Almeida, "The inspectors of democracy" (13 March 2009)

The document is sincere and timely. It echoes concerns shared by those who see the need for a rethinking of the whole project of "democracy promotion" as it has evolved since the 1990s, such as several contributors to the openDemocracy/International IDEA debate on the topic. But it also suffers from two flaws, respectively of framing and substance, which damage its credibility.

The door to difference

The first is confusion about whether the "target" of the letter is the Arab world, the Muslim world, or the middle east - which of course are far from the same thing (many Arabs are not Muslims, most Muslims are not Arabs and do not live in the middle east, many of the middle east's people are neither Arabs nor Muslims). At various points the letter's imaginative projection seems to cross from one category to another.

This matters, because any democracy project worth the name must be attentive to key distinctions and diversities - in this case, both between the "Arab world" and the "Muslim world" and within each of these realities. This is true to the extent that it is at least doubtful that anything called the "relationship between the United States and the Muslim world" can even be said to exist. After all, this "world" shares no single political condition, and defies any homogenising tendency.

Each Muslim country has a unique history and attributes that have shaped its connection with the outside world (including America) and cannot be assimilated to a single template. Turkey, for example, is formally an ally of Washington while acquiring a gradually more assertive distance (symbolised by its refusal to join the invasion of Iraq); Iran remains a bitter adversary of and a major foreign-policy challenge to the US; Iraq is recovering from the enormous destruction of US-led invasion and war, which followed earlier intense periods of entanglement with the US; Pakistan is another nominal ally, but its multiple crises put it increasingly at odds with a country many of its people view with deep suspicion; Indonesia is another ally, but also a state whose political path and public opinion seem ever less amenable to the kind of influence the US wielded in the past. Moreover, there are millions of transnational or diaspora Muslims who - through satellite channels, the internet, and remittances - are agents in developing Muslim and national identities.

The same degree of internal variety characterises the "Arab world", notwithstanding its greater geographical coherence (though, again, there are huge numbers of transnational and diaspora Arabs, making this a global reality too).  The Gulf is vastly different from the Maghreb; the Levant has its own promises and perils; Sudan occupies a unique position in its membership of yet marginality to the rest of the Arab world; and Egypt is a world to itself.

The differences and distinctions matter: for their own sake, for proper understanding by outsiders, for policy that is intended to help not harm to be got right, and for the tragedies and enmities of past years to be overcome rather than repeated. The danger of overlooking them - even if unintentional and in the interest of focusing the message - is that what is framed as a new beginning could begin to resemble a finessing of the old, where America appears interested primarily in itself rather than the ostensible subjects of its concern.

The impossible partner

The second flaw in the letter is the content of the recommendations to President Obama.

The letter advises the new president that the US should consistently promote democracy in the Arab world; and (while acknowledging that "many Islamists advocate illiberal policies") highlights the case-studies of successful mild-Islamic rule in Turkey and increasing political participation of Islamic parties in Morocco and Indonesia to assuage the US's presumed trepidations about engaging with Islamists.Tarek Osman is a writer and a merchant banker

Also by Tarek Osman in openDemocracy:

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

"Arab Christians: a lost modernity" (31 August 2007)

"Nasser's complex legacy" (15 January 2008)

"Egypt: the surreal painting" (14 May 2008)

"Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film" (29 July 2008)

China and the Olympics: a view from Egypt (7 August 2008)

The conclusion here may be politically sound, but it is intellectually flawed. It is true, as the letter states, that currents of political Islam form "the largest opposition groups" in the middle east. It is not true, however, that the US's main issues with political Islam concern the latter's presumed illiberalism. Saudi Arabia, the US's key Arab ally for the past six decades, is hardly a beacon of liberalism. The real predicament is that political Islam is on a clashing path with US foreign policy in the Arab world - for two reasons.

The first is, in a word (though one that gets only a single mention in the letter), Israel. A key pillar of the Pax Americana in the Arab world (and the wider middle east) is guaranteeing Israel's security. Political Islam sees Israel as the enemy; opposing the "Zionist project in our lands" is - and will continue to be - a foundation of the legitimacy of any political movement basing its mandate on Islam (whether it's the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Harakat al-Tahreer in Algeria, the National Front in Sudan, the mullahs in Iran, Hamas in Palestine, or Hizbollah in Lebanon).

There are two "solutions" to this dilemma: either Israel decides to end its occupation of all Palestinian land (which according to most political Islam's currents is the land occupied in the 1948, not the 1967, war); or the US abandons its guarantee of Israel's security. Since both "solutions" are inconceivable, political Islam will continue to see the US on a scale ranging from "the enemy's backer" to the "great satan".

The letter describes cases of political Islam's participation in Turkey, Indonesia and Morocco as having "moderated Islamist parties and enhanced their commitment to democratic norms". The qualification that needs to be made here is in part (again) that the US's problem with political Islam is not about enhancing its commitment to democracy; but it is also that the three examples cited are not representative of political Islam in the Arab world.

Turkey is not part of the Arab world; it has good relations with Israel (notwithstanding its strong condemnation of the assault on Gaza); its Islamists do not believe they are ideologically compelled to wage jihad against Israel; and (crucially) Turkey's military is vehemently secular - acting as a subtle but potent watchdog over the Islamists. Indonesia's Islamists too have other things than Israel on their mind. And Morocco's Islamists who joined the government were also accepting a role in a grand political game that is controlled by the palace (an American ally). Throughout the Arab world, however, all political Islamic movements without exception oppose (sometimes violently) the regimes deemed friends of America; they cannot be conscripted into this argument for engagement in the interests of a renewed policy of democracy support.

The infinite enemy

This point leads to the second reason why political Islam is on a clashing path with the US's foreign policy in the middle east. The region's Pax Americana aims - either in its softer Wilsonian guise or its brutal-realist Kissingeresque one - to "stabilise the region". Such stabilisation, pursued through armed aggression (as in the Iraq adventure) or negotiations (as in the Oslo/Camp David/roadmap/Quartet engagements) is designed to yield a "settlement" in the middle east. But political Islam has another cause: to wage the "struggle" against Israel, and in so doing to reverse the Islamic world's (and for many adherents the Arab world's) historical descent.

Many political trends in the Arab world take a long-term view with regard to the Arab-Israeli dilemma; they are against settling it at a time of what a leading Egyptian commentator calls "national thrashing". Arab nationalists too espouse this view. But political Islam's opposition is not time-bound but theological: it sees "settling" as a sin, and long-term jihad until "all our rights are regained" (as the Hamas leader Khaled Meshal says) is divinely ordained. Political Islam has higher ambitions than securing its rule or the accession of political heirs; they intend to (to cite President Bush's words in a different context) "stay the course", and will not buy into any Pax Americana for the middle east.

The liberal dilemma

What of the political Islamists' opponents in the Arab world, who are so often the principal reference-point of American democracy support: political liberals?  The letter claims that promoting democracy in the Arab world will "give liberal and secular forces in the region a chance to establish themselves..". The contrary will happen.

The Arab street is in the midst of a wave of religiosity, dominated by political Islamism. Even the liberal Arab forces led by highly respected public figures, such as the Egyptian Liberal Movement formerly headed by Aziz Siddiqi, have negligible popular support. In the parliamentary election of 2005, Egyptian liberals - led by the "father of Egyptian industry" and arguably one of the most respected politicians in Egypt in the last fifty years - failed to secure a single seat; in the same election, the Muslim Brotherhood (despite "interventions" by the government designed to avoid this outcome) secured eighty-eight seats.

The last thing Arab liberals need is to be labelled America's poodles; that would trounce them. It is interesting that despite his record of advocating human rights in Egypt, and some excellent socio-economic work, Saad Eddin Ibrahim found little support from the Egyptian street during his ordeal with the Egyptian regime throughout the 2000s. In the eyes of millions he was regarded as betaa El American (a man of the Americans). In another example of this trend, limited donations from western foundations to an Egyptian human-rights centre discredited in the eyes of many Egyptians - despite very courageous work it had done over the past few years.

The modest future

The above considerations compel the question: should the United States refrain from promoting democracy in the middle east at all? The answer has to be yes, in the sense that it would be a mistake for America to position itself as a direct player in a grand project of political transformation; America's support for Israel will continue to cast its shadow on America's relationship to any other political force in the region; the failure to understand the dynamics of political Islam will guarantee further problems and reversals.

But this is not the end of the story. For the US can in principle adopt another approach, one that utilises the benefits of what Joseph Nye calls "soft power" to achieve long-term goals of benefit to both sides which do not have to be clothed in the language of democracy promotion. The election of President Obama himself is emblematic here, for it has done more to boost Arab liberals than eight years of George W Bush. Ibrahim Eissa, perhaps Egypt's most popular journalist (especially among the Cairene and Alexandrian middle class, and young people) wrote of why such a "giant step" can happen in America and not in Egypt; it was his first article in years that acclaimed American values.

If this historic event were followed by genuine efforts to change the emphasis of American intervention in the region, there would at least be the possibility of repairing some of the damage of the 2000s. The measures that could make a difference include ending all torture and rendition programmes that saw America act as a thuggish power; increasing foreign direct investment in the Arab world, and creating jobs where talent gets rewarded, promoted, and enriched; investing greatly in education via academic scholarships to young and bright Arab students, but also supporting projects in the struggling concentrations of poverty and deprivation. All this and more would remind the Arabs that America stands for much more than its backing for Israel.

There are reasons both of principle and practicality why the United States cannot avoid entanglement in the Arab world (see Patrick Tyler, A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East [Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2008]). The letter to President Obama is admirable in calling for a policy grounded on the principle of consistent support for democracy and human rights; but the signatories of the letter might reflect on the difficulty (if not the impossibility) of the United States ever operating to such a high standard. 

If the logic of this case is that the project of democracy support as such has reached its limit, it is also that other possibilities for progressive external agency remain. There are, after all, other players in the region apart from the United States; most evidently the European Union, which is less compromised by the polarisation of the 2000s and has its own "soft power" way of doing things that could win results. At the same time, America's very definition in Arab eyes can act for good as well as ill: even if the real popular forces on the Arabic street are no friends of the US, an intellectually curious and internationally oriented new president in the White House - and one with familial links to the Muslim (if not Arab) world - might yet help shift this load.

The experience of United States involvement in the Arab world, and its often ill-fated, one-sided and half-hearted efforts at democracy support, should provoke more caution than confidence about the future. The reward of bad ideas is failed policies. Any project that now puts democracy in the Arab or Muslim world at its heart will need to be mindful of what has gone before; based on sound ideas; knowledgeable about the ideologies, motives, and incentives of the people it is designed to aid; and humble in realising the limitations of what its power can do. In a word, don't give us democracy; just respect and seduce us, please.

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