Sunday, March 06, 2005

The fourth wave?
Foreign policy wonks are understandably excited about the goings-on in the Middle East. January's elections in Iraq have now been followed by Mubarak's opening of the presidential elections to other political parties and Lebanon's popular agitation against its Syrian-dominated government. Aside from really wanting to be in Beirut right now, I've been trying to gather together some coherent thoughts about things, without taking my cues from other writers and scholars. There are three questions that should be front-and-center for political observers: first, what are the odds that these tentative steps towards democracy will be followed with genuine democratic opening and consolidation. Second, what can policymakers do to help? And third, what, if anything, did the war in Iraq have to do with all this? This last question is really the least important, but it will surely be the one that consumes those who are obsessed with assessing blame and credit and in blaming the U.S. whenever anything goes wrong or conversely, praising the administration whenever anything positive happens in the world.

The first thing to note is that while these developments are remarkable, it isn't the first time we've been down this path in the region -- and the past is not a promising prologue here. The attitude of the mainstream press is captured in today's dispatch from Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times:

The entire Middle East seems to be entering uncharted political and social territory with a similar mixture of anticipation and dread. Events in Lebanon and Egypt, following a limited vote for municipal councils in Saudi Arabia and landmark elections in Iraq, as well as the Palestinian territories, combined to give the sense, however tentative, that twilight might be descending on authoritarian Arab governments.

People really have short memories if they think no one in the Middle East has ever voted or toppled an authoritarian government before. There were elections in both Iraq and Egypt during British colonial domination, which were contested and free compared to the farce that passes for an election in certain parts of the world today. More recently, the revolutionary regime of Algeria opened itself up to competitive multi-party democracy in 1989-1992, and in fact the Algerians went considerably further than Mubarak, allowing the main Islamist opposition group, the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) to exist legally and to contest municipal and national elections. When the FIS won both the municipal and then the parliamentary elections, the military stepped in and shut the whole thing down, even though the President, Chadli Benjedid, was about to cut a deal with the FIS that would probably have favorably resembled the pacted Latin American transitions of the 1980s. Algeria's boneheaded move set off a civil war that killed 100,000 people over 13 years and which is still going on at a very low level.

Jordan also had free parliamentary elections from 1989 to 1994, and Lebanon's elections were more or less free from 1947 to 1975. Even Algeria during the civil war allowed for contested, multi-party elections. This is just the tip of the iceburg. What all previous experiments in democratization in the Middle East have shared is that the regimes in question have refused, ultimately, to relinquish power. Elections have served as an alternative method of legitimization for the regime, as they receive some limited international kudos for allowing people to vote and for letting opponents lose graciously in elections for the executive. Remember that the holding of a single election does not signify much of anything unless it is followed by several more competitive and free elections, without being rigged or gerrymandered by the regime. And the only way to see whether democracy has become entrenched is to witness a peaceful transfer of power from the ruling party or coalition to the opposition. This is what has truly never occurred in the Middle East (outside of Turkey and Israel).

I have a great deal of difficulty believing that Mubarak will really allow anyone else to win the elections, or that even if they are free from his interference, that the opposition will be able to get its act together in 75 days without splintering its vote. Palestine also cannot be considered a member of the democratic club until a) it is an independent state and b) someone other than one of Arafat's old boys club wins the presidency. I fail to see how Abbas's election was any more genuinely democratic than Arafat's in 1996, and I know that many Palestinians, including several of my students, feel precisely the same way. And now that Hezbullah has come out in favor of the Syrians, it isn't clear that Lebanon is exactly on the brink of true democracy either.

For several of these states the prospects are grim for continued democratic development. Iraq remains under a state of emergency and siege -- civil liberties are suspended, and the security situation is much the same as it was in November before the Americans destroyed Fallujah. There is no agreement about institutional arrangements, and the paralysis is so deep that the victorious Shiite list can't even form a coalition with the restive Kurds. In Palestine, normal politics will be impossible to develop until the state exists within secure, recognized, and more-or-less contiguous borders. And Egypt has already pointedly declared the illegality of the longstanding Muslim Brotherhood opposition, which is troublesome even if you, like me, find the MB platform abhorrent. In fact, the parallel between contemporary Egypt and 1989 Algeria is pretty strong, including the strong possibility that both regimes have used the "opening" to alleviate the pressure on the regime from economic failure.

Nevertheless, there are democratic openings that might be exploited for further gain in the future. I don't think a serious person can withhold all credit from the Bush Administration if genuine democracy does emerge in Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq. If Bush presides over a fair settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then he truly deserves our respect and thanks. But the causality between the Iraq War and democratization is dubious. Arabs have been talking about democracy for years, on the much-maligned Al-Jazeera, in newspapers and magazines, and elsewhere. The pressure on Mubarak to open up the system has been building up for years, in tandem with a well-organized international human rights campaign. Lebanon was chafing at Syrian interference and domination long before the presidency was a twinkle in George Bush's eyes. The only place where Bush has to be given all the blame blame is in Iraq, and like I said, things aren't looking so hot there right now.

So keep your mind open, but don't get swept up in the Bush-is-Churchill talk. Arab leaders may simply be using some moderate liberalization measures to get Bush and the international community off their backs, without actually ushering in a new democratic age. I hope to be proven wrong.


At 11:03 AM, Blogger Bill Petti said...

Dave, its Bill Petti from Penn. Just stumbled onto your blog...just wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed your commentary. I will definitely be checking in to see your updates--keep it up!


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