The Arabs need us to support democracy

Since the Arab Spring, authoritarian regimes are on the march. To discourage democrats is bad for the West as well as for their peoples

Elliott Abrams

All Western societies share the view that democracy is the best form of government, and have been happy to see the waves of democratisation reach Latin America, then parts of Asia, and then Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union collapsed.

But when it comes to the Arab lands, a different view prevails. There, democracy is often viewed as inappropriate and indeed dangerous — to the Arabs and to us. It is not shocking that this view is so widespread. Many experts thought after the Second World War that Japan and other parts of Asia lacked the cultural basis for democracy. Latin America, we were told in the decades when military juntas ruled everywhere, could never democratise due to the twin influences of Catholicism and Iberian colonialism. But democracy has proved more robust and more adaptable than many feared. As Ronald Reagan said at Westminster in 1982, “Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.”

Yet in the Arab case, pessimists have many powerful arguments. There is no history of democracy, of the sort that allowed a “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia or helped in many Latin cases. There is nothing like the model and magnet that the EU provided for nations in Central and Eastern Europe. There are deep internal divisions — Shia vs. Sunni vs. Kurd, or tribal rivalries — in many countries, and it is no coincidence that Tunisia, the most homogeneous Arab state and the one where tribal loyalties are perhaps weakest, is the lone success story after the “Arab Spring” uprisings. The treatment of women in many Arab societies holds back social and political development (and here again, Tunisia is far better-off than most).

Do Arabs even want democracy, in the sense in which we use the term? What do we mean by it, first of all? A system in which the citizens of a state participate in ruling themselves through regular, contested elections to select officials; a system of impartial justice, where judges are independent; respect for basic human rights such as freedom of speech, press, and assembly; protection of certain rights from majoritarian rule through constitutional provisions. If we start with these, it is very hard to argue that (with exceptions I will explain) Arabs do not want them, and would prefer living in states where the police are free to grab you from your home, beat you, and jail you — or would prefer living in states where a dictator steals a vast fortune, makes his son his successor, and silences anyone who complains about it. And indeed, repeated and respectable surveys do show that Arabs want democracy. The “Arab Barometer” series of polls and those by the Pew Research Center have given strong evidence of this for over a decade. The country-by-country series of surveys of opinion, Five Years After the Uprisings, conducted in 2016 by Arab Barometer found, for example, that respondents agreeing that “despite its problems, democracy is better than all other political systems” reached 86 per cent in Tunisia, 79 per cent in Morocco, 84 per cent in Lebanon, 86 per cent in Jordan, and 74 per cent in Algeria.

But will Arab democracies be “illiberal democracies,” where majority rule will be the means of imposing constraints on freedom? They will, in two areas: religion and sexual matters, to a degree. Neither the French style of laïcisme nor the American pattern of state neutrality will be acceptable in Arab states, where Islam will clearly have a special position. Religious tolerance is a necessary goal, but expecting absolute neutrality between Islam and other religions (or irreligion) is unrealistic. And as to sexual mores, gender roles, while changing, are doing so slowly; true equality of males and females is distant; an end to discrimination against homosexuality is not in sight. Beyond these areas, it is reasonable to expect Arab democracies to meet the standard Western definitions of what democracy means.

The Tunisia case does suggest that democracy is possible, and it has been achieved in other Muslim states around the world, from Senegal to Indonesia. The very great obstacles to achieving democracy tell us that the struggle will be long and arduous — but that does not explain why Westerners might be indifferent or even hostile to the argument for promoting democracy in the Arab Middle East. That is explained by a different matter: the so-called “security dilemma”.

The concept is not new. During the Cold War, the United States and its allies often overlooked the abuses of dictatorial regimes because they were on “our side” against the Soviets. Anti-Communism was all the argument they needed to secure Western support, and human rights abuses were greeted with silence or mild reproofs. The purported dilemma was that if the dictators were overthrown and political openings followed, the Communists might take power. This did indeed happen in Cuba in 1959 and Nicaragua in 1979, so the argument was not entirely without force.

But over time this approach was jettisoned, in part as leaders concluded that the dictators’ abuses might actually inspire support for Communism: announcing the Alliance for Progress (to promote development in Latin America) in 1962, John F. Kennedy said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Reagan, as staunch an anti-Communist as ever existed, helped push out Marcos in the Philippines, Pinochet in Chile and Chun Doo-hwan in South Korea, among other dictators, because he understood that point.

The lessons of Cuba and Nicaragua — and for that matter Iran in 1979 and Russia in 1917 — suggested that in situations of chaos, where law and order collapsed and the security forces fell apart, well-organised extremists might well seize power. In the Reagan administration (in which I served as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, and then Assistant Secretary for Latin America) the goal of our policy in such cases was not to prevent democracy, but to prevent chaos. Clearly, slow and steady reform was preferable to sudden revolution, and clearly it was important that the forces of order remained intact (as in all the cases of democratisation under Reagan they did).

The “security dilemma” was, then, by the end of the Cold War not an argument for perpetual tyranny but for reform, and careful movement toward democracy. Yet in the Arab cases, the older and cruder view prevails: we cannot risk political openings because the Islamist extremists may seize power. In a world where al-Qaeda and Islamic State threaten our cities every day, the argument goes, this is too great a risk to take. The example of Egypt is cited as proof: allow Mubarak to be overthrown, allow a free election, and you get the Muslim Brotherhood.

This is a shallow argument, for several reasons. First, the reason Islamist extremists can win at that point is not some inevitable popularity of their views but the conditions imposed by the dictators. They crush the centre,  deliberately, seeing moderate groups as a threat to their argument to the United States and other Western nations that “it’s me or the Brotherhood!” They see moderate groups as potentially dangerous rivals for public support as well. By closing the political system they leave moderates nowhere to organise, while Islamists conspire secretly in the mosques. By excluding Islamists from power and persecuting them, the regimes give them a halo — a reputation for integrity and dedication.

So when the regime collapses, the Islamists are the best- organised groups, and they often do win the first election. We saw this in Egypt and Tunisia, and have seen it in Asia as well. But they cannot sustain that support, as we also saw in Egypt and Tunisia, and countries such as Indonesia. That is because they actually cannot govern. Their plans amount to “Islam is the answer,” but it certainly is not the answer to the problem of creating jobs or new housing or higher incomes. Their halos come off fast as they are subject for the first time to the temptations that come with power, and they succumb. In other words, it is reasonable to fear that Islamists will win the initial election after the regime falls, but experience suggests that their victory will not be permanent. This is the second key point: it is wrong to think that democracy means permanent Islamist rule.

Third, and critically, the argument that dictators are the best bulwark against Islamist victories is also wrong. This is because Islamism, whether armed or unarmed, is a set of ideas about how the state should be governed, how God wants society to be ordered, and how we should conduct ourselves in public life. Every Muslim country will have to debate whether those ideas are in fact sensible and true to the Koran, or are heretical, inhuman, and unworkable. The point is, policemen and soldiers can never win that debate. They can jail or shoot Islamists, but they can never defeat them and win the debate because they themselves have no ideas. What ideas, after all, did Ben Ali or Mubarak have to offer young citizens? They stood for family rule in fake republics, for immense theft of public funds, and for repression of freedom. It is no wonder that they could not defeat Islamism.

For that to be achieved, better and more persuasive ideas must be proferred — and that requires politics, and debate, and freedom of thought and speech. The last two decades in Turkey provide an object lesson. There, Necmettin Erbakan and his pro-Islamist Welfare Party won the elections of 1996, but the military overthrew him and the party was banned in 1998. It was then reborn as the Virtue Party in 1998, and that party was banned in 2001. It was again reborn, this time as the Justice and Development Party or AKP, which won a landslide victory in 2002. The point is that the coups and the banning of Islamist parties did nothing to undermine support for the Islamist cause. Indeed, one can argue that the coups undermined support for Kemalist parties; they certainly provided no intellectual or spiritual arguments against the Islamists.

“Mere” repression, I would argue, is a poor antidote to Islamist sentiments and is likely to help the Islamists survive and win converts. Today’s Egypt is an object lesson. There are reported to be 60,000 political prisoners: people who have been jailed but never tried and convicted, or convicted of “offences” that would not be criminal in any free country, such as insulting the army or some such grotesquerie. There they rot, often in abusive conditions, and surrounded by true extremists who have also been jailed. What an excellent opportunity for the jihadis and Muslim Brothers to teach their beliefs, and to explain to the young prisoners why the injustice which has befallen them exists — and how it must be extirpated. Sisi’s prisons will be jihadi factories and his increasing repression will strengthen rather than weaken Islamist extremism over the long and even the medium run. For if the state uses violence to prevent any reform and any debate over the path of the country, who will be surprised when more Islamists turn to more violence?

None of this analysis suggests that the Arab lands are on the verge of a democratic “Great Leap Forward,” as the “Arab Spring” was initially thought to be. Each case is different — and it may well turn out that the Arab monarchies lead the way. That is, those regimes retain very substantial legitimacy in the eyes of their citizenry, and it is not an accident that no monarchy was overthrown in the “Arab Spring” revolts. In Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait, for example, parliaments exist, elections are held, and the monarchs are both arbiters of the political system and players in it. Evolution toward constitutional monarchy is neither assured nor impossible; with wise leadership, stability and further political openings are plausible. And because the monarch is always head of the armed forces, chaos can be prevented and order maintained.

The Saudi situation presents another variation. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appear intent on modernising the economy and the society, and have concluded that the risks arising from such actions require a fierce concentration of political power in their own hands. Opposition will not be permitted, as the arrests of so many princes and other notables demonstrate. At least for a long time, political liberalisation is absolutely out. But one wonders: won’t the strains of modernisation eventually require the rulers to seek some manifestation of public approval? If rich and powerful royal princes and merchant princes oppose Mohammed bin Salman, won’t he have to find support somewhere — perhaps even among the people, who want to see less corruption and more economic opportunity? Perhaps — but for now, the Saudis (and Emiratis) see themselves in a tough confrontation with Iran and plan no political opening whatsoever. Their defenestration of Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Hariri, who had previously had their support, is another example of their insistence that opposition to Iran will top any other considerations. Hariri was leading a coalition government that included Hezbollah, and the Saudis found that intolerable as their clash with Iran has escalated.

In the Arab republics, progress will be unsteady; Tunisia remains democratic, but Egypt is far more repressive than under Mubarak, and Syria, Yemen, and Libya are chaotic. But the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. The Arab uprisings were a symptom of what Arab intellectuals diagnosed in 2002 in the Arab Human Development Report issued by the UN Development Programme. As they wrote then, “There is a substantial lag between Arab countries and other regions in terms of participatory governance. The wave of democracy that transformed governance in most of Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s and Eastern Europe and much of Central Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s has barely reached the Arab States.” The problem, they wrote, was a “freedom deficit”. They argued that “Political participation in Arab countries remains weak, as manifested in the lack of genuine representative democracy and restrictions on liberties. At the same time, people’s aspirations for more freedom and greater participation in decision-making have grown, fueled by rising incomes, education, and information flows. The mismatch between aspirations and their fulfilment has in some cases led to alienation and its offspring — apathy and discontent.” They wrote a decade before the “Arab Spring” but can be said to have seen it coming.

What the Arab lands will need is what every state requires if there is to be peace and progress: a legitimate government. In the West, we view democracy as the source of legitimacy, but there are other possible sources: a legitimate monarchy, or effective government that provides a form of “performance legitimacy”. Worldwide surveys over the past few decades repeatedly showed, for example,  that the governments of the UAE and Singapore were viewed as effective by their citizens. Singapore now has a powerful combination of democratic and performance legitimacy, and the UAE of monarchic and performance legitimacy. For the Arab republics, lacking the vast mineral wealth of the Gulf states, some combination of performance legitimacy and democracy must be the goal, and if performance is lacking democratic legitimacy will be all they can rely on. If they do not have it, rulers must rule by brute force. In that situation of poor governance and great repression, we can be confident the Islamists will grow in popularity.

The idea that realpolitik counsels abandoning all efforts at democracy and protection of human rights in Arab lands is folly, and indeed is unrealistic. The dangers of Islamist extremism are great, but the defeat of the movement requires defeat of its ideas by more persuasive ideas, and requires legitimate governments to rule Arab states. Mere repression is a formula for instability and a perfect environment for Islamist extremism to grow. So for reasons of realpolitik as well as our own preferences for decent democratic rule, the struggle for democracy in the Arab Middle East should have our full support.

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