CAMBRIDGE, England — The lack of democracy in the Arab world results from an unholy alliance between Western interests and local autocrats, justified by what both sides claim to be the region’s “cultural specificity.”
In a nutshell, it has been much easier for the West to do business in the postcolonial Middle East with undemocratic regimes, which have found Western support and recognition useful in marginalizing local liberal and democratic forces, even as it paved the way for the rise of Islamist radicalization.
Sticks as well as carrots have been used — by both sides — to maintain this alliance. For example, the Western emphasis on reform and democracy in recent years has been used more often than not as a threat, a typical message being: “Help us in Iraq or we will press for democracy and human rights in your own country.” And the Arab reply is equally threatening: “Stop pressing us on the reform issue or we won’t cooperate in the ‘war on terror’!”
Two other major issues have sustained the tradeoff: Israel and the rise of the Islamist movements. The Arab public overwhelmingly regards Israel as an alien and illegitimate entity imposed by force on Palestinian land with Western support. If this perception was channeled democratically and allowed to shape Arab countries’ policies toward Israel, any peace negotiations would be even more complicated than they are now.
So it is far easier for authoritarian regimes like Egypt and Jordan (and in the future perhaps Syria), where there is no need for parliamentary agreement, to launch negotiations and sign peace agreements with Israel. Likewise, in Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, where various low-level contacts and Israeli representations exist, undemocratic regimes can define whatever relationship with Israel they choose.
The rise of radical Islamism has been no less obstructive when it comes to Arab democracy. Decades of unholy alliance between Arab autocrats and the West have seen radical Islam emerge as a “salvation” force. If free and fair elections were to be held in any Arab country, Islamists would come to power. That was the case in Algeria in 1991-92, in Iraq in 2005, and in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006. Other countries, such as Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Yemen and Bahrain, have created more limited space for democracy. There, too, Islamists have immediately filled it.
The West has wasted decades, missing countless chances to establish regimes that could empower Arab liberal and democratic forces. The West’s blind support for autocratic Arab rulers has reduced all hope of peaceful change. The democratic process has lost its aura and its thrust, not least because democratization seems to lead to the rise of political movements the West finds unacceptable. The whole notion of democracy has been eroded and discredited, with the radicalization that engulfs many Muslim societies now spilling over into their emigrant communities in the West.
When U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration launched its Middle East Partnership Initiative for democratization in 2002, it turned out to be too little too late — and it died too soon. The allocated budget was just $29 million, but its rapid death can also be ascribed to its short-sighted design — and to U.S. President Barack Obama, who has shown little interest in the issue. Obama’s praise of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak as a man with whom one could do business demoralized Egyptian opposition groups, which have been struggling against the long-serving autocrat and his efforts to ensure that his son, Gamal Mubarak, succeeds him.
The United States is not the only guilty party. Europe has played a major role in retarding democratic reform in Libya and Saudi Arabia. Libya has become a Mecca for European leaders trying to win multibillion dollar oil and investment deals. The rehabilitation of the Gadhafi regime has never included any push to ease political repression in Libya.
An even more telling case is Saudi Arabia. No European leader risks antagonizing the Saudis by raising the issue of democracy and human rights. Saudi women remain prohibited from driving cars, traveling on their own, and working or studying without the permission of a male relative. Saudi society, and those of some other Gulf States, lacks minimum levels of political freedom and participation. The status quo is excused by Arab regimes in the name of cultural specificity — the same pretext used by Western governments to justify their “value-free” policies toward these regimes.
Add together all the tradeoffs between the West and the Arab regimes, along with the Israeli and Islamist factor, and the conclusion at which one arrives is as inescapable as it is alarming: The West cannot afford democracy in the region.
Khaled Hroub is director of Cambridge University’s Arab Media Project and author of “Hamas: Political Thought and Practice.” © 2010 Project Syndicate