Chapter 12 - Can the Middle East Democratize?
After America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 democracy seemed to march in the Middle East. Iraq’s
authoritarian neighbours were nervous and the region appeared to enter a pol ferment. Ending the 35 yrs of
Baath party dictatorship in Iraq, Syria’s Baathist regime became fearful of being the next and Iran’s clerical
rulers sent a letter to the White House proposing broad negotiations.
President Bush and members of his administration issued a notice of a bold change in U.S foreign policy
toward the Middle East .It was declared as “forward strategy for freedom in the Middle East”. He also said
that it was time for Egypt to “show the way toward democracy in Middle East”. The Egyptian President who
held power for more than a cent faced pressure from West along with a struggle over succession between the
military establishment and supporters of his son, President Mubarak’s govt launched “a high profile effort to
cast itself as a champion of reform”.
During 2004, diverse opposition groups as leftist, Islamist, and liberal gathered demanding systemic pol
reforms permitting a freer and more open society with more neutrally administered elections. Their demands
included a competitive presidential election, which had heretofore been a simple yes-or-no plebiscite to
“reelect” the autocrat. By December 2004 , forces came together under the brash name Kifaya (Enough)
calling for an end to President Mubarak’s indefinite reelection. In Sept, Mubarak for the first time
allowed(albeit with restrictions) a multicandidate presidential election. Open and competitive parliamentary
elections followed, and the Muslim Brotherhood contested as independents for the first time in 20 yrs, the
organization entered the parliamentary campaign with none of its members in govt custody.
At the same time Syrian domination of Lebanon began to unravel. As Bush administration criticized Syria’s
40yr old regime resorted to strong arm tactics, pressuring the Lebanon parliament to extend the presidential
term of its faithful ally, Emile Lahoud in Sept 2004. As political violence in defiance of this took place,
protests in Lebanon occurred known as “Cedar Revolution” & continued until Lebanon’s pro-Syrian govt
resigned on Feb 28.With pol tides shifting dramatically, Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon in April
2005, and in elections at midyear, Hariri allies won control of the govt. Shortly, after Lebanon’s Cedar
Revolution, some 50,000 Bahrainis-“ 1/8th of the country’s population-rallied for constitutional reforms”.
In Jordan, a limited but hopeful pol opening was also forming. In 2000 King Abdullah suppressed all activity
by civil society response to rising public sentiment against peace treaty with Israel. After Saddam’s regime
was toppled in 2003, with increased eco aid from U.S and the Gulf oil states, liberalized. He relaxed
restrictions on freedom of expression, struck a bargain with left and Islamist opposition groups, as they
agreed to restrain their mobilization against Jordan’s pro-U.S policy in exchange for economic progress and
more pol space.
In November 2004,the death of Yasser Arafat after his decades of his corrupt, inept pol supremacy-pointed
the way to a new era of pluralism, accountability & possibly even democracy. As the open minded and
competent Mahmoud Abbas became pres in 2005, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza took place after 38 yrs of
occupation, hopes rose for both internal and regional accommodation. In 2005 in Iraq 12 million Iraqis voted
for a transitional parliament to draft a new constitution. They voted the 2nd time in October in a national
referendum and for the third time in December, for a new parliament under the permanent constitution.
Page 1 of 9 By the end of 2005, Freedom House recorded measurable improvements in pol rights or civil liberties over
the preceding 3 years in the Palestinian Authority and half of the region’s 16 Arab states. However in Saudi
Arabia the change was modest, leaving a highly authoritarian regime particularly Saudi Arabia.
Monarchy, Populism & Islam
The democratic prospects did not last long as its regimes and external allies as the U.S and Europe, struggled
to come to grips with 2 alarming implications of pol openings.
1. Severe polarization
2. Dramatic gains by Islamic forces.
In Iraq the January 30 elections became an identity referendum as its voters chose on the basis of ethnic and
sectarian loyalties. Sunnis had objections to the pol order and the American occupation magnifying their pol
marginalization. Even the interim prime minister’s Ayad Allawi’s “Iraqi List”, the principal nonsectarian
option suffered a defeat and the Shiite Islamists with the Kurdish Alliance captured a commanding plurality
of seats forming a transitional govt. The sectarian gulf thus widened. The October 15 constitutional
referendum thus became a second identity plebiscite, with the Kurds and Shia voting unanimously for the
document with the Sunni Arabs against it. The same polarization held sway in the December 15
parliamentary elections under Iraq’s new constitution. “The electorate did not separate religion from politics
or transcended ethnic fissures”.
The violence in Iraq intensified with the pol condition drifting under the hapless new prime minister, Nuri al-
Maliki. A deadlock over basic issues as federalism, the structure of executive power, and the control of oil
production and distribution of its revenue took place. Meanwhile, competing Shiite Islamist forces tightened
their grip over various parts of southern Iraq. Mounting terrorism, violence and ethnic cleansing occurred.
On every single indicator, a Feb-March 2007 public opinion poll showed dramatic deterioration in Iraqis
perceptions and hopes for the future.
Arab autocrats from countries like Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and Yemen, seized upon the swelling turmoil in
Iraq to dampen rebuff public demands for democracy. As chaos increasingly rolled over Iraq, the president
campaigned in 2006 on the chilling rejoinder that the people better vote for him or face the same
“democracy” as in Iraq. The new pol freeze in Saudi Arabia was blamed on the wars in Iraq and Lebanon.
The tentative steps towards democratization were inhibited also by Islamic Fundamentalism. The Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt, the militant Islamist movement Hamas in Palestine, the Shiite and Sunni Islamist
groups in Iraq and Bahrain, and Islamists in Kuwait clearly had a majority. The principal pol force that stood
to benefit from electoral openings was the Islamists. Many regimes were haunted by the specter of Algeria
when in 1991-92 to suppress the “flowering of civil society” and parliamentary elections, the army
intervened and canceled the second stage of voting. It then deposed the incumbent president, banned the FIS
(the Islamic Salvation Front) imprisoned its leaders, triggering a civil war claiming around 150,000 lives.
With all this happening, Arab regimes saw an opportunity to reverse the tentative moves toward democracy
and individual freedoms.
The reassertion of authoritarian hegemony was most sweeping in Egypt, the most populous and pol
influential state in the Arab world. In Nov 2005 parliamentary elections, the regime skillfully undermined the
efforts of the Egypt’s surprisingly independent judges to oversee honest elections. A variety of electoral
Page 2 of 9 malpractices were mobilized to restore the dominance of the NDP. The Judges Club grew outspoken in its
criticism of the regime and electoral misconduct, launched a public movt, to enhance the fiscal and pol
independence of judges. This vigorous activism fractured the judiciary which the regime successfully
exploited to push through a bill that substantially reconstituted executive control of the judicial branch. In
Sept 2005, the NDP brought about 34 constitutional amendments, embarking on a campaign of constitutional
“reform” to ensure against any pol “accidents” in future. The key purpose of the amendments was to limit the
prospects for the Muslim Brotherhood to repeat its electoral gains and to ban any pol party or activity that
has a religious frame of reference. It was to prevent the Brotherhood from winning seats through independent
candidacies, also impose tighter controls on party funding and activities. The direct judicial oversight of
elections was nullified and the opportunity given to a new supervisory committee controlled by presidency.
Thus in reality the president and security forces were given, unprecedented powers to combat terrorism
through searches, arrests and wiretaps without warrants and by ref suspects to military courts.
By 2007, the Egyptian regime established its hardened auth grip. The traditional liberal & leftist parties, w/
their scant few seats in parliament, remained co-opted and ineffectual depending on the regime for any pol
space it allowed and fearful of the grassroots support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood
was destroyed by arrests of its leaders and financers. The authoritarian wave also fell upon civil society in
Egypt, as labor protests were suppressed, independent organizations were deprived of licenses, activists were
arrested and e-mail accounts were forcibly shut down when individuals appealed to the international
community. Panicked by Islamist gains, the rising tide of Iranian power, and pol instability in the region, the
Bush administration-not to mention the more wary European govts-determined that they needed Mubarak
more than ever, and stood largely silent. This could be due to the shrewd move by Mubarak to engineer
alarm in an American admin that had vowed to overturn 60 yrs of foreign policy.
In the case of Jordan, the economic decline on the promise of pol reform began years before. Under both
King Hussein and his successor Kind Abdullah, the Jordanian regime has endured “by adroitly(cleverly)
wielding the twin survival strategies of liberalization and deliberalization,” expanding liberty and pol space
when necessary “to shore up its legitimacy” and then “reversing the process when the opposition threatened
to get too strong”. Young Abdullah expressed a rhetorical commitment to demo reform but priority on
regime survival and “strengthening the pol base of the monarchy”. He emphasized eco reform, including
trade liberalization rather than a specific pol agenda and civil freedom. Real power however vested with the
royal court and intelligence services. Relations between the authoritarian state and the Islamists grew more
confrontational, particularly after the victory of Hamas in the Jan 2006 Palestinian elections, which fanned
fears in Jordan of a spillover effect.
Democratic hopes in Bahrain rose in 1999 when Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa assumed the throne which
his family has occupied for more than two centuries. He quickly loosened the rigid pol order, releasing all
pol prisoners, permitting the return of exiles, eliminating emergency laws and courts, giving women the right
to vote and holding parlia elections in 2002 for the first time in 27 yrs. However the Shiite winning all seats
it campaigned for defined the limits of the country’s democratic reform. With the Shia making up at least
60% of the country’s population, and with Shiite Islamists calling in the past for an end to monarchy, the
reigning Sunni Muslim Al-Khalifa family could not countenance a genuine democratic breakthrough.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s got elected in Algeria’s 1999 election and pursued a reconciliation with the
Islamists which wound down the civil war, significantly reducing terrorism and violence. He reduced
Page 3 of 9 military control of politics and govt while promoting a more competitive presidential election in 2004. The
Islamist party FIS, remained excluded from politics and as his term came to an end after the second term,
rumours formed of a constitutional amendment to permit him to run again. It appears he constrained the
military only “in order to increase his own freedom of action, not in order to democratize Algeria”. Algeria
thus faces like other Arab states excessive power concentrated in the hands of a single ruler. Tunisia
remained only slightly less repressive than Syria’s Baathist regime, and hardly more competitive.
Bush's Impossible Straddle (Favoring both sides of an issue)
W/ democracy receding all over the Arab world while the U.S strengthened its economic and security ties to
Arab dictatorships, the Bush administration lost its remaining credibility on regional democracy. Freedom he
insisted is “the most powerful weapon in the struggle against extremism”. He also reiterated, “the policy of
tolerating tyranny is a moral and strategic failure”. Tyranny did exist in much of the Arab world, creeping
along with expanding American support in service of the war on terror.
The Egyptian society leader and former pol prisoner Saad Eddin Ibrahim implored the Bush administration
to condition U.S aid on pol reform and the release of pol prisoners, including Ayman Nour. In fact, Bush had
delivered a mixed message for Egypt and other friendly autocracies of the region, and they did not receive it
any more amicably than did the dissidents. Bush did mildly rebuke when he praised Egypt, Saudi Arabia and
Pakistan for their brave stands and strong actions to confront extremists, along with some steps to expand
liberty and transparency.
Keeping in mind the reality of American experience with Korea and Taiwan during the cold war, Bush’s
confidently declared that “American can maintain a friendship and push a nation toward democracy at the
same time”. But Korea and Taiwan democratized only as the Cold War was ending-after nearly 4 decades of
American friendship with their militaries and one-party dictatorships. His straddle was painfully evident
during his Prague speech when, reaching for a sign of demo progress in the Arab world, he “congratulated
the people of Yemen on their landmark presidential election”. Especially when the elections did have
important shortcomings, such as voter intimidation, underage voting, and violations of ballot secrecy”. The
opposition rejected the outcome of the election as illegal alleging that the reelected president had ordered the
brazen theft of 2 million votes from his principal opponent. What could the Yemeni people, cheated of the
encouragement of a much closer election result, make of Bush’s remarks when he insisted to dissidents
everywhere, “We will always stand for your freedom”?
For the time being the moment of democratic reform in the Arab world has passed. Publics are sullen, as
elections have become again little more than a superficial legitimating ritual, Arab publics are staying at
home. In Egypt the pol opposition is in disarray and demoralized, not only by the speed and ruthlessness with
which the regime has shut it down but by what it regards bitterly and justifiably as a betrayal by the United
States. The Muslim Brotherhood, has become the only broadly viable pol opposition in the country. While
the Brotherhood reiterates its commitment to non violence and to democratic norms, in the face of severe
repression, dissident members might return to violent methods “as they did in the 1980’s and 199s follo
similar blows”. The assassination of Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar al-Sadat, is a stark reminder of the tragic
repercussions of domestic unrest. Alongside a succession struggle between the army and security apparatus
and the party controlled by Mubarak’s son Gamal. Egyptian analysts and activists fear that Gamal would
stand as a weak president, dependent on the security services and unable to contain their repression, much
less liberalize anew”.
Page 4 of 9 In Jordan, the succession of King Abdullah to the throne went smoothly enough to preserve the stability of
the monarchy-but not to encourage democratic change. Jordan’s history shows that threatening regional
scenarios undermine the reform agenda. It feels threatened and besieged wedged between the two most
troubled and violent territories in the Middle East-Iraq and Palestine. Since 2004, roughly a million Iraqis
have fled to Jordan, a small country with only 6 million people, adding to the refugee strains of the Israel-
Palestinian conflict. In this context, the Jordanian regime’s instinct is to clench its fist with Europe and
United States deferring embarrassing pol questions and pouring in more aid to the one remaining stable pillar
between Israel and Iran. While United States has poured enormous amounts of economic aid to Jordan since
1994 when it signed its historic peace treaty with Israel, Europe too sees Jordan’s authoritarian monarchy as
a bulwark against regional instability and Islamic radicalism making Jordan its second largest recipient of
EU assistance per capita after Palestine. As long as Jordan’s nei