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.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs