Arab Countries: Chances for Democracy Could Decrease

There is no shortage of ironies in U.S. relations with the Arab world. Arab governments in key states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have been quietly cooperating with the United States in its preparations for war with Iraq—even as non-Arab countries in Europe and elsewhere have opposed America’s plans. At the same time, public resentment of the United States among Arabs may have reached an all-time high.

Consider the results of a survey I conducted with Zogby International in six Arab countries—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon—in late February and early March. Only 4 percent of Saudis, 6 percent of Jordanians and Moroccans, and 13 percent of Egyptians said they had a favorable view of the United States. Majorities in most countries said their attitudes were shaped by American policies, rather than Arab values.

You can read much of the poll as an expression of defiance toward U.S. policy. French President Jacques Chirac—who has done so much to thwart U.S. attempts to win U.N. approval for war—was cited most frequently as the most admired world leader by Egyptians, Moroccans and Lebanese.

And when those who were polled were asked to rank a group of world leaders, past and present, the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a symbol of nationalism and anti-imperialism in the Middle East, was the most admired. Nelson Mandela, who has recently been especially critical of U.S. foreign policy, ranked second in most countries.


What is striking is that the leaders who ranked highest were almost all non-Islamist in ideology; their common link was that they were perceived to be nationalist and defiant, including the late Syrian President Hafez Assad and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Another key finding was that seven out of 10 respondents identified the Palestinian issue as either the single most important issue to them or in the top three, and majorities perceived this issue to be very important in forming their attitude toward the United States.

At the heart of Arab attitudes is profound mistrust of America’s intentions in the region. A good case in point is public attitudes toward America’s policy in Iraq.

The vast majority in all six countries said they did not believe America was motivated by a desire to pursue democracy in the Middle East or to promote peace or economic development in the region. More than 80 percent of the respondents said oil was an extremely important motivating factor for the United States, and more than 70 percent said support for Israel was extremely important in shaping U.S. policy toward Iraq.

Nor do Arabs believe the American arguments that, after a war with Iraq, the Middle East will be more peaceful and more democratic, or that terrorism will decrease. Just 2 percent of Moroccans, 3 percent of Saudis and 6 percent of Egyptians believe that the Middle East would be more democratic. In contrast, more than two-thirds of respondents in all six countries in the survey believe that the Middle East would be less democratic.

Even more people in the region believe that the Middle East would be less peaceful after an Iraq war, and more than 80 percent believe a war would generate more terrorism than before. Given those feelings, it is not hard to understand why most Arabs oppose America’s policy toward Iraq.

Remarkably, the poll suggested that most Arabs oppose war with Iraq even if Baghdad does not comply with the U.N. inspectors or if the United Nations finds that Iraq has been hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Opposition remains strong even if military action is carried out by the United Nations. Opposition to a war is even greater—nine out of 10 people—if military action is undertaken by the United States unilaterally.

In other words, giving war a U.N. cover does make a little difference in winning supporters, but it does not change the thrust of public opposition.

In the region, the role of the United Nations is less important in legitimizing a war, in large part because most people have grown to view the United Nations in recent years as an instrument of American power. So while Americans increasingly view the United Nations as a challenge to the pursuit of American interests globally, most in the Middle East still see America as dominating the international organization.

The irony here is that if America fails to gain support at the United Nations for a war in Iraq, many Americans will see the organization as being increasingly irrelevant; in the Middle East, most Arabs would see U.N. defiance as an emergence of its relevance.

Clearly, some of these attitudes toward the United States, war with Iraq and the role of the United Nations are not limited to Arab or Muslim countries. And in some countries, like Britain, the opinions of the majority are vastly different from their leaders’—as they are in some Arab countries.

Increased repression

But in the Middle East, the gap between the leaders and their people is especially consequential—and spells trouble not just for the region, but for the United States as well.

Here’s why: When the United States requests support from Arab governments for unpopular policies, the outcome is almost always increased repression as governments fear their public’s anger, and unleash their security services to pre-empt opposition. This is a story that has repeated itself across the region, especially in times of crisis. But the consequences survive long after these crises, because governments put in place larger security services that acquire a life of their own.

The tendency to crack down on dissent when feeling threatened is reinforced by the financial and military incentives that are offered by the United States to gain support for its policies, much of which go to enhance the security bureaucracies of governments in the region. And American acquiescence to crackdowns is enhanced by the fear that opening up politically could lead to elected governments that are likely to be less friendly to American foreign policy, including Islamist groups.

There’s little reason to believe that Arab governments will act differently now against those who oppose their policies. In fact, the governments may have more reason to be nervous this time around. One striking result of the recent survey is that majorities of the respondents in most of the countries studied indicated that they would like to see the clergy play a bigger role in Arab politics than they do now.

And although governments in the past have been effective in containing public discontent, in part by controlling information about the opposition they faced, there are indications that an increasing number of their citizens are getting their news from sources outside their borders.

In Egypt, for instance, in a survey I conducted two years ago, only about 8 percent of the public indicated that they had satellite television; today 46 percent say they have access to such outlets.

The net outcome of this phenomenon is that government spin will probably be less effective because the Arab public is getting its information from many outside sources that many of those polled said they find “more objective” and “more trustworthy.”

Those sources include satellite TV stations, such as Al-Jazeera in Qatar, which have a degree of independence and freedom that have not been characteristic of state-run stations. This trend means that the governments are less certain today about their ability to manipulate public opinion and thus to limit the degree of public anger.

Crackdown on dissent

A likely reason why such a large majority of Arabs today believe that the Middle East will be less democratic after war is that many governments there have begun cracking down on dissent to prevent popular eruptions or organized opposition that might threaten them during and after a war.

Such actions won’t dispel the pervasive sense in the region that one aim of a war with Iraq is to weaken Arabs and Muslims. And that sentiment is sure to increase backing for Islamists. Already, scholars at Egypt’s prominent Al-Azhar Mosque called on Muslims to respond to war with Iraq with jihad. Although undoubtedly many among them will debate whether the intent was a non-violent jihad or a military campaign, the decree is a symptom of a widespread sentiment across the region.

Governments, including our own, are betting that these passions will be contained, that the Middle East remains a world of states with powerful security institutions, and that they will, once again, prevail.

If history is a guide, the bet is probably safe, despite the information revolution. If they win the bet, the outcome will be clear: more repression and less democracy. Maybe the biggest irony of all is that pursuing a very unpopular policy in the region while demanding support from Arab governments will probably undermine one of our stated goals of going to war: spreading democracy.