News

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.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impacti
X
Michael Bowman
June 28, 2015 10:05 PM
Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impact

Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Syrian Refugees Return to Tal Abyad

Syrian refugees in Turkey confirm they left their hometown of Tal Abyad because of intense fighting and coalition airstrikes, not because Kurdish fighters were engaged in ethnic cleansing, as some Turkish officials charged. VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer, in Tal Abyad, finds that civilians coming back to the town agree, as we hear in this report narrated by Roger Wilkison.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Chemical-Sniffing Technology Fights Australia's Graffiti Vandals

Cities and towns all over the world spend huge amounts of resources battling graffiti writers who deface buildings, public transport vehicles and even monuments. Authorities in Sydney, Australia, hope a new chemical-sniffing technology finally will stop vandals from scribbling on walls in the passenger areas of commuter trains. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Cambodia Struggling to Curb Child Labor

Earlier this year a United Nations report found 10 percent of Cambodian children aged 7-14 are working – one of the highest rates in the region – and said one in four children in that age bracket are forced to quit school to help their families. Although the child labor rate has dropped over the past decade, Cambodia has a lot more to do – including keeping more children in school. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.

VOA Blogs