The first drops of winter rain reached the Middle East this week, perhaps another reminder of the end of what we have dubbed thus far as the “Arab Spring.” Much has happened since last December when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and triggered a wave of protest that engulfed the entire Middle East. On the one hand, the “spring” can be seen as a resounding success: Protests have brought about a change in leadership in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and significant reforms in Morocco, Jordan, Qatar, and elsewhere in the region. Moreover, Tunisia has just declared Oct 23rd as the election date for its parliament and Saudi Arabia just announced that women will be able to vote in the next municipal elections (though only for half of the seats there – but progress nevertheless). Elections are also expected in Egypt and, later, in Libya and Morocco.
But while we are surely witnessing a new era for a region thought to be immune from democracy, the Arab Spring has not been a universal success. The non-violent beginning and the slogans of democracy were quickly overtaken by more traditional, anti-democratic forces. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that promotes a conflation of religion and state, is becoming more visible in the region and appears to be gaining increased political support. More than 100 parties will contend in the elections in Tunisia where the Ennahda Islamist party leads the polls. Likewise, the liberal parties in Egypt are having difficulties forming a united front against the more organized Islamists. The “spring” in other surrounding countries has taken a much bloodier form. In Libya, where battles still persist, the number of victims is estimated at 50,000, as new mass graves continue to surface. In Syria, over 200 bodies were counted this week alone in recent crackdowns in Rastan. Moreover, in Saudi Arabia, just two days after King Abdullah allowed women to participate in elections, two Saudi women were detained for breaking the ban on female driving, with one sentenced to 10 lashes.
In his last address in May, President Barack Obama chose a path of careful endorsement: “We have embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity.” But as events keep moving on the ground, it is not clear what can and what should be endorsed.
The theory behind America’s pushing Middle Eastern democracy is that of the safety valve: If Middle Easterners have a say in their governance, the theory goes, they will be less likely to turn to violence. But even before the “Arab Spring” – considering the cases of Gaza or Iraq – this theory was called into question. Will democratization end up unwittingly empowering the enemies of the West?
Empowered Islamists will serve as obstacles on the road to greater U.S. security. It is only after the rise of liberal institutions such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion that Middle Eastern elections can provide the vibrant alternatives that we expect truly democratic systems to provide. But how can we effectively promote liberal institutions?
First, we must recognize a democratic culture cannot be built overnight – especially not in a region which has such a long history of oppressive and authoritarian government. Second, we must consider that democracy must be measured by the level of liberalism it engenders, not the number of ballots cast. As recent history shows, elections can be the continuation of autocracy by other means.
True, elections are easy to measure and can be quite dramatic: See the wave of purple-fingered citizens that marked Iraq’s first democratic vote. But elections are not the most important indicator of a state’s progress – and we may want to temper our enthusiasm for pushing them until the Middle East develops a more liberal culture.
To help promote liberalism, our policymakers need to improve their cultural literacy so they can more easily identify and effectively work with regional and local players devoted to the values of tolerance and political freedom. It took a revolution to create democracies in Europe and America, and it may take another revolution in the Middle East. But that revolution can only come from within, spearheaded by existing forces that already work toward democratization. And, as we have seen in Algeria or Gaza – and also in Tunisia and Egypt – that revolution can easily be derailed.
The U.S. needs to be careful in choosing which of these groups to support, as not all of them have the constituencies that they would like us to believe, and not all of them will be amenable to U.S. interests or the interests of the citizens of their respective countries. By now, these groups have track records that can be examined on the merits. Policymakers should support those groups that seek, and are capable of contributing to, genuine democratic change.
Finally, official U.S. rhetoric should be adjusted to take into account the broader goal of promoting a liberal democratic culture. Official pronouncements shouldn’t focus exclusively on elections. Rather, liberal institutions should be at the forefront of what representatives of the United States say on the world stage.
Ultimately, there is no magic bullet that can transform the Middle East’s political culture with a single shot. But by taking concrete steps toward a viable long-term goal, we can give ourselves and the citizens of the Middle East the greatest chance of success.
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