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March 2012

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Transition to Democracy in the Middle East
by Haviland Smith

Anthony Shadid, the New York Times’ correspondent, died in Syria on February 16, 2012 . An exemplary reporter and student of his subject matter, his last piece, “Islamists’ Ideas on Democracy and Faith Face Test in Tunisia”, appeared in the Times on the following day. In that piece, Mr. Shadid examined some of the issues involved in the evolution of governance after the Arab Spring Tunisian uprising. He paints a picture that considers some of the problems involved in any hoped-for transition to liberal democracy in the region.

Having listened for a decade to the premise — from some of our more conservative (and hopeful) national politicians — that our military activities in the Middle East were part of the process of bringing democracy to that region, perhaps it is time to more thoroughly examine that premise.

In its broadest sense, today’s Middle East and North African national borders were established or codified under British, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese colonial rule in the 19-20th centuries for the advantage, convenience and profit of the colonial powers. The region under discussion here includes Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Algeria and Morocco.

Those borders ignored or cynically exacerbated many sectarian, tribal and national issues, which were of major importance to the local populations. The arbitrary l948 sectarian division of colonial India into India, Bangladesh and Pakistan; the virtual ignoring of tribal issues in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere; the further ignoring of other sectarian issues in Islam; and discounting the importance of nationality issues for Kurds, Persians, Arabs, Central Asians and Turks in virtually all of the post-WWII states that emerged out of the European colonial era, all stand as examples of the indifference of the colonial powers to issues that ultimately would create major differences and difficulties in the region.

Independence from Imperialism
Regional independence from European imperialism began with Afghanistan in 1919, with the largest number of nations gaining that independence after World War II. It all ended with Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar in 1971. It is worth remembering that in no one of the 20 countries involved, with the possible exception of Turkey, was imperial rule replaced by anything resembling democracy.

Post-war US policy was dictated by our Cold War imperatives and by the existence of abundant and inexpensive regional energy resources. Seeing Soviet communism as a threat to the status quo, we actively supported kingdoms, dictators, strongmen and just about anyone else who was anti-Soviet and could maintain stability for us. We sought to replace any regional regime that looked as if it might add an element of instability as in the cases Iran and Syria, which were destabilized under the active interventionist policies of the Eisenhower administration, creating situations with which we are still dealing today.

American Regional Foreign Policy
Much of America has long believed that we have the best existing economic (market) and governmental (liberal democracy) systems. This belief has been sufficiently widespread that it has quite often been the cornerstone of our foreign policy. Coupled with an inherent American tendency to evangelize, we have often sought to spread our systems around the world and to combat those systems that were not compatible with it.

The problem with this approach is that it does not sufficiently take into account already existing, foreign, governmental, economic and belief structures. It never asks, as can most recently be seen in the neoconservative authorship and continuing support of our invasion of Iraq, whether the ground abroad is sufficiently fertile for the establishment of democracy.

This American exceptionalism, which is fine for us at home, is unfortunately coupled with a poor to nonexistent understanding of the way the rest of the world works and why it is not necessarily a reflection of America.

Unfortunately, we are not favorably viewed in the region. Over the past 65 years of our post-WWII involvement there, we have hardly endeared ourselves to local populations. We have everywhere supported despots and dictators against the wishes of their citizens. We have stationed foreign (US) troops against Muslim law on holy Muslim soil in Saudi Arabia. We are seen by regional locals to have been biased in our support of Israel. And now we are, again in contradiction of Muslim law, killing Muslims across the region.

As If that were not enough, the Bush administration hectored the Palestinian Authority to hold free elections in 2006. They did so and the result was the election of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The administration immediately refused to recognize Hamas, saying it was a “terrorist” organization. This proved beyond doubt to the citizens of the region that the United States was just another hypocrite. If elections we call for do not go our way, we don’t recognize their validity.

We are just now withdrawing from Iraq, still heavily engaged in Afghanistan and, if some would have their way, soon to be involved in Iran and maybe even Syria. And all of this without any real discussion of our own vital national interests or expectations for the region. Do we want to support monarchies across the region? Or, consistent with our Cold War policies, do we want to support any ruler or government that provides stability, irrespective of the manner in which it is provided? Do we want Democracy? How is that working out anywhere in the region? Iraq is problematical, as is Egypt where the military establishment owns a significant share of the economy and has a vested interest in the status quo.

The Middle East today
The unfortunate fact is that the region has virtually no experience with Liberal Democracy. Its history of non-governmental political organization is severely limited. The region is mired in tribalism, sectarianism, brutally imposed secularism or Islamic law, dictatorships and monarchies. None of these are steppingstones to Democratic governance. We have tribes almost everywhere, significant military power in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran and Jordan, to name but a few and Islam everywhere.

In the most evolved post-Arab Spring states, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, “free and democratic elections” which must never be mistaken for the actual existence of Liberal Democracy, have brought Islamic parties to the forefront. That is to be expected, as the Islamic parties, even in Turkey where they were once marginalized, represent the only non-governmental political organizations that exist and have existed under pre-Arab Spring governance. They have the membership, organization and funding to outcompete all the opposition, including those on Tahrir Square who believe, without quite knowing what it really means, that they are seeking something called “democracy”

What they all are seeking, whatever they may be heard to say, is self-determination and if we wish to stay on the right side of whatever is to come in this important region, that is what we must support.

The preconditions required for the successful establishment of Democracy
Democracy doesn’t simply spring up, particularly in countries with little to no history of self-rule. It has certain preconditions. To be successful, it must have the active, unfettered participation of the people as citizens in politics and civil life. It requires national and regional tolerance of pluralism, a general and equal right to vote, free and fair elections, the rule of law, unbiased courts, a guarantee of basic human rights to every individual person vis-à-vis the state and its authorities as well as to all social groups, particularly religious institutions,

In addition, it requires a Constitution providing for the separation of powers (executive, legislative and judicial), freedom of speech, press and religion and, particularly, good governance which stresses the public interest and the absence of corruption.

How do these preconditions stack up against today’s regional realities? The answers may be found in the region’s sectarian, tribal and national realities most of which can be found in all of the region’s 21 countries.

In the sectarian world, Muslims tend to believe in and be content with Islam. There may be glaring deficiencies from our point of view, but by and large that view is not shared by Muslims. The Koran and its attendant writings, the Hadith and Shariya, provide the believer with a complete blueprint for life. An essentially content group of Muslim believers cannot be viewed as ripe for conversion to democracy as many of democracy’s basic tenets are diametrically opposed to the teachings of the Koran. Besides that, conversion attempts have been going on since the 11th century crusades and continue to this day with the Bush administration’s policy of bringing democracy to Islam. Muslims are used to us. Many call us the 21st century Crusaders.

Ongoing tribalism is another factor that inhibits receptivity to democracy and Tribalism has never not been a factor in a region where tribes have always been the basic building block of society. Tribalism exists throughout the Middle East and in its extremes, Afghanistan, for example, it brings with it an ingrained distrust of central governance and a drive to keep it as weak as possible.

In its subsequent state of evolution, tribalism supports ethnic alliances, essentially macro-tribal groupings. This can be observed in the Arab, Kurdish, Persian and Central Asian groupings that exist willy-nilly in the region. And thanks to the European colonial powers, these groups, which are only edgily compatible at best, have been corralled into “nations” which over the years have owed their existence to iron-fisted rule that forbad their disintegration. Hardly the underpinnings needed for liberal democracy.

A swift transition to democracy?
Almost all of our politicians, both past and present speak glowingly of a transition in the Middle East to “democracy”. However, there is nothing in past history or contemporary reality that could logically argue that the region is ready for such a transition. Unfortunately, when American politicians speak of “democracy” this way, they are lecturing a short attention span American audience that takes them to mean that we will see a “democratic” Middle East in the near future.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations speak thusly about Iraq, yet Iraq shows every sign at this moment of falling into what has been for many students of the area, predictable, protracted internecine strife. The most recent impediment to strife after Saddam, the US military, has now left, opening the country to very old antagonisms. Afghanistan does not meet any of the criteria for the future successful growth of democracy and we will probably have to make do with some form of Taliban governance.

In Tunisia and Morocco we see moderate Islamists winning elections. In Egypt, the moderate Muslim Brotherhood is running into the Egyptian military juggernaut, which because of its large holdings in the Egyptian economy, are vested in the status quo. Further, the fundamentalist Salafi Muslims are waiting in the wings. In Libya, none of the western powers that supported the struggle against Qaddafi wants to stay around. They have all left and Libya with its 140 tribes and tribal groupings and its old jealousies and rivalries, as it is likely heading for internal trouble. Syria will stop being a problem only after the current minority sect Alawite regime or the protestors are gone. There really is nothing but bloodshed in the offing, regardless of who “wins”. Retribution will likely be the name of the game.

It is an unfortunate fact that our military presence and activities in the region have not helped at all. When we face what are truly insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, not terrorism as claimed by both the Obama and Bush administrations, we present local populations with impossible choices. They must choose between a foreign military force whose true motives are unclear to them and their own people who are fighting against the foreigners. As we are now seeing, there is little reason to support the foreigners and every reason to support their fellow citizens.

There is no magic democratic wand for the Middle East. The absolute best we can hope for are moderate Islamist regimes. The worst will be fundamentalist regimes of the type supported by the Saudi Salafis. We need to get the notion of a democratic Islam in the short term out of our heads and focus on supporting moderate Islamists. Only they have any possibility of successfully confronting Islamic extremists and ultimately evolving into liberal democracies. The timelines for that kind of change are likely to be measured in decades at best and centuries at worst.

In the interim, we might want to concentrate on proving to a skeptical Middle East and greater world that our systems work for us Americans, let alone anyone else. What has happened to that “Shining City upon a Hill”?bluestar

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Author Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. A graduate of Dartmouth, he served in the Army Security Agency, undertook Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.


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