One of the Bush Administration's stated priorities in the Middle East has been to promote the creation of stable, functioning democracies. President Bush has said he believes that the spread of democracy will lead to a more peaceful and prosperous world.
It was nearly four years ago that President Bush announced in a speech to the non-partisan National Endowment for Democracy, that the U.S. would no longer support undemocratic regimes as the price for stability in the oil-rich Middle East. His message sent political shock waves across the region. It fueled the hopes of many that the Middle East might at last witness a democratic transformation.
But at a recent forum convened by the same National Endowment for Democracy, a panel of experts warned that the U.S. drive for democracy in the Middle East is losing, not gaining ground.
Amr Hamzawy, blamed this backsliding on the difficult situation in Iraq and the strengthening of Islamist parties there, as well as the surprising victories of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections, and the Muslim Brotherhood's win in the Egyptian elections that followed.
But Hamzawy said continued U.S. support of autocratic Arab regimes is also working against America's interests in the region. "It represents a threat to stability. Assuming that autocratic regimes will remain forever stable is wrong," he says. "In fact that was the very logic, which the administration developed after September 11th -- that you need greater freedoms to avoid terrorism and to insure stability in a constructive way. "
Hamzawy believes the U.S must use more of its political leverage to promote democratic change in the Middle East, even if that change leads to the election of regimes less friendly to the West. "Democracy promotion has always been one priority among a set of different priorities, sometimes contradictory priorities," he said. "What was missing and remains missing is a hierarchy of priorities and tradeoffs."
For example, Hamzawy said there is a trade off between promoting democracy and maintaining stability. "If you open up, you end up having at least a phase of instability." Another tradeoff, he said, "is what to do with regard to U.S strategic interests if you end up having regimes which are not as friendly to U.S interests in the region as the current regimes."
Some experts contend that the U.S push for democracy in the Middle East has been hurt by the fact that a militarily-occupied and strife-torn Iraq presents a very discouraging image of Arab democratization. But Radwan Masmoudi, the founder and President of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, told the policy forum that Iraq merely demonstrates that the U.S. needs to apply a different kind of external pressure on the region's regimes to move democratization forward.
"External pressure does work, it is an essential component for democracy and the proof is that in 2004 and 2005 it did work," Masmoudi said. "It worked across the Arab world, across the Muslim world; there was progress."
He admitted that progress was not uniform, and that each country is different but said, "even in Tunisia, which had a drought of democracy and liberty for 15 years, for the first time in 2004 and 2005 people were released from jail. There was talk about democracy; there was a lot of political opening."
Masmoudi noted that autocratic regimes in the Middle East frequently warn that if democracy calls, Islamists will answer. He emphasized that in this part of the world, any democracy would have an Islamic flavor, and that the U.S should be prepared to engage with moderate Islamists to encourage them to honor the rules of democratic governance.
Shadi Hamid, a founding board member of the Project on Middle East Democracy, described some basic guidelines for how the U.S. can best promote democracy in the region. "The first thing is to state very clearly that we support the right of all groups -- whether Islamists or secular -- to participate in a free situation, and we accept the outcome even if Islamists come to power as long as it is through a democratic process," Hamid said. He also told the policy forum that the U.S. should "engage with Islamist groups in a low-level dialogue, and we can increase that after there is a development of trust between the two parties. There are moderates within these Islamist parties who I think we have to empower and strengthen."
Hamid stressed, however, that Islamists must also do more to reach out to western policy makers. They must clarify their positions on contentious issues of deep concern to U.S policy makers, such as whether they would support the Middle East peace process if they were to come to power.
Hamid acknowledged that the U.S. would rather encourage liberal groups than try to convert hard-line Islamists in the Middle East. So it is essential, he said, that the U.S. continue pressing Arab regimes to liberalize their political systems to allow freer news media and more room for civil society activism. Shadi Hamid said this liberalization would enable the idea of a pluralistic democracy to take hold at the grassroots level, where it can more easily win a sympathetic audience and, eventually, spread throughout the Arab world.