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Democracy on the March in the Middle East?

In both his second inaugural speech and last month's State of the Union address, President Bush pledged to foster freedom and democracy around the world. And it may be working, especially in the Middle East.

In January, millions of Iraqis went to the polls to elect a transitional national assembly, the country's first free elections in modern memory. Soon after, the tightly ruled Saudi kingdom conducted its first municipal elections in more than four decades. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak promised a multi-candidate presidential election for later this year. And massive demonstrations in Beirut could soon force a complete withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Michael O'Hanlon says, "If you look at all of that, that's a lot in a couple of months." He is a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution.

"But in each of these cases, you also have to ask, 'What are the limits of progress so far?,' says Mr. O'Hanlon.  "And you can go through each and every one of these cases and say that we have not had a radical breakthrough anywhere yet.  The greatest potential is in the Mideast peace process, I think, where the clear cause of the potential is the death of [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat and the election of [Mahmoud] Abbas, not Mr. Bush's second inaugural speech, not the secondary effects of the invasion of Iraq."

Whether the political transformation in Iraq has been a catalyst for chance, more political freedom seems to be taking hold in the Mideast. But many observers warn that strict Islamic movements coming to the fore in a country's political process could stall reform.

Even if a country becomes more democratic, Stephen Walt of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government says that doesn't mean those in power will be receptive to American interests.

According to Professor Walt, "The United States has pressed for freedom and democracy at the rhetorical level but has only pushed the countries that it doesn't like: Iraq being the most extreme example, Syria being the next and Iran, to some degree, being next after that. We have not been putting a lot of pressure on Egypt or a lot of pressure on Saudi Arabia to democratize because I think we recognize that the potential for upheaval there is pretty great and it might not run in a pro-American direction."

Too much U.S. pressure anywhere in the Middle East could backfire. For now, most observers recommend that America continue to encourage greater openness and stand by reformers.

According to Matthew Levitt, Director of Terrorism Studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the U.S. should also be prepared to work with any leadership that may emerge in a truly democratic process.

"On the one hand, we don't want to have a situation where there's 'one man, one vote, one time," says Matthew Levitt. "On the other hand, we don't want democracy to be a game whereby it's free and fair elections as long as the people who are going to win are the people we like. We don't need to like everybody. But we need to have certain common ground rules. And I think the most critical is non-violence."

While most scholars agree that virtually any democratic change is preferable to the status quo in much of the Middle East, the potential for violence, particularly terrorism, could be the main obstacle to reform.

"If the political struggles do not remain peaceful, then groups that have already organized to conduct violent campaigns are going to have something of an advantage," says Harvard University's Stephen Walt.  "More participatory systems can sort of siphon off some of that political pressure. But on the other hand, more open political systems also give radicals greater opportunity to recruit and possibly greater opportunity to actually mobilize and operate."

Terrorism analyst, Matthew Levitt says, "I don't think we have to be afraid of democracy.  Democratization, actually, is a key strategic component of the war on terrorism. Tactically, we do very well at identifying [terrorist] cells, kicking down doors and freezing funds. Strategically, I think we have a long way to go to win the battle of ideals in the war on terror."

Although terrorists could pose a threat to democratization, Matthew Levitt points out that they make up only a small portion of any country's population. The more power people have over their lives through the democratic process, he says, the less likely terrorists will threaten liberalization.

But as the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon points out, democracy is more than just elections.  "What makes our country strong here in the United States is not just democracy; it's not just the vote. It's the strength of our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, our individual protection of liberties. And creating those is sometimes harder than simply going to an election booth."

What people often forget is that America's democratic experience hasn't always been easy or peaceful and that the ideals of our republic have evolved over centuries. So no matter how much support Mideast reformers may get from Washington, most analysts agree that lasting democratic change in the region may be years in coming.

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