Elections in the Arab World: Progress or Peril?

The symposium convened a group of experts in two panels to assess how Arab regimes, Islamist oppositions, pro-democracy activists and outside actors mobilize around elections and seek to influence the process of political change. The symposium sought to identify lessons and opportunities for the United States and other outside actors to develop better policy responses to Arab elections to advance democratization.

Women, Elections, and Democratic Growth: The Kuwaiti Experience

The symposium began with a keynote address by Dr. Rola Dashti, a pro-democracy activist and former parliamentary candidate from Kuwait. Dashti is the chairperson of the Kuwait Economic Society. In her presentation, Dashti argued that the Kuwaiti parliamentary elections of June 2006 marked the first time in the country that women were permitted both to vote and to run as candidates for office. She laid out the ways in which elections can serve as a positive force for democratic change by speaking about her own experiences as a female candidate and voter in the Kuwaiti elections of the summer of 2006. She argued that the democratic process has the ability to transform societies and governments. While elections can function to help authoritarian regimes consolidate their hold on power, she noted that they are also an opportunity for opposition parties to gain significant ground and for ordinary citizens to change the dynamics of politics in their countries.

According to Dashti, nearly as many women voted in Kuwait as men. Dashti cited voter turnout figures showing that 58% of women who were registered to vote, all of whom were newly enfranchised, cast their ballots. By comparison, of registered men, just 73% voted. A law passed before the elections ensured that 100% of all eligible Kuwaiti women were registered to vote, while only 80% of men eligible to vote actually registered, despite the several decades during which voting had been open to men. Given this disparity in registration and turnout, Dashti noted, the total number of Kuwaiti women that voted was nearly equal to the total number of males turning out to vote, indicating a strong democratic impulse among Kuwaiti women and undermining the position of those who argued that women had little interest in politics.

Dashti asserted that the presence of women, both as candidates and as constituents, compelled all the candidates for parliament to consider seriously issues of particular concern to women. She related one example of a voting district where a woman married to a non-citizen ran for office with a single-issue campaign: enabling women to pass their citizenship on to their children. The level of popular support for her policy initiative forced all of her competitors in that electoral district to agree with her stance on this issue. Dashti noted that although this woman failed to win elected office, she was able to change the policy agenda of the successful candidates merely by running.

Women’s activism and participation throughout the elections had a ripple effect in other areas of Kuwaiti political life. For example, it has opened up the diwaniyya, a traditional element of politics in Kuwait, which had previously been an exclusively male domain. A diwaniyya is an evening gathering, at which people discuss issues of political, economic, and social importance. Before the 2006 elections, Dashti noted, some Kuwaitis had questioned how women could effectively participate in politics without attending any diwaniyya. In the run-up to the elections, therefore, Dashti and other women candidates and activists began to attend diwaniyyas, and even held some of their own. By the end of 2006, Dashti related, the women were even welcomed at the Emir of Kuwait’s high-profile diwaniyya that was held at the beginning of Ramadan.

Addressing the question of how to further democratic transformation in Kuwait, Dashti said that it was important to build on the fact that there was a high voter turnout during the last elections. Bringing people to the polls is not the most significant problem, she asserted; how to influence for whom they vote and what issues motivate them should be an important focus for Kuwaiti pro-democracy activists. She acknowledged that in other countries of the region, however, generating public participation remained a challenge.

Dashti argued that grassroots mobilization is crucial to the success of a democratic movement. People in the region must call strenuously and consistently for democratic development and reform in their own countries. Barring this, she said, there is little that outside forces can do to assist in bringing about such change. Dashti stated clearly that, despite the chaos in Iraq and Lebanon, there is no “ideological crisis” when it comes to democratic development in the region. Rather, she believes, the Arab world faces a “grassroots crisis”—a failure to mobilize enough people within the region to demand political reform.

Dashti emphasized the need for the pro-democracy movement in Kuwait and elsewhere to undertake an honest internal assessment so that it can build on the gains of the past few years and ensure its long-term impact. Lasting changes, she said, will begin to take shape only when elite figures within the pro-democracy movements stop regarding democracy as an issue-franchise reserved for them and their narrow circle of supporters. Dashti suggested that this “grassroots crisis” was due in part to the need for generational change in the leadership of these pro-democracy movements. The younger generation, Dashti said, is ready to deepen and broaden the democratic credentials of the liberal movements in the Arab world. However, older leaders must give up their hegemony over these movements and make room for these younger activists and the grassroots members they bring with them.

Lastly, Dashti argued, it is important for pro-democracy movements to capitalize on the use of new technologies. Blogging and other internet-based phenomena, she said, have proven instrumental in facilitating dialogue and activism in many of Arab countries. Also, the use of mobile telephone text messages has proven particularly useful for political communication and organizing rallies and other forms of political mobilizations in the Gulf region.

What Do Elections Accomplish for Governments and Oppositions?

Ellen Lust-Okar discussed why authoritarian regimes hold elections, noting that elections can help regimes to consolidate their control. She observed that elected parliaments can help autocratic rulers by acting as a channel for distributing state resources to citizens. Parliamentarians thus become dependent on the regime for the resources their constituents need, and citizens seek out personal relationships with their members of parliament to gain access to goods and services, diverting discontent and demands away from the state apparatus. As long as a regime possesses sufficient resources to distribute, its citizens will vote for the candidates or parties with sufficiently close relations with the regime to allow them to deliver. Indeed, citizens are likely to will prefer such well-connected candidates and parties to those candidate or parties with whom they may actually agree in terms of the issues and their political beliefs. Members of parliament who cause trouble for the government, such as by discussing government excesses, pressing demands for reform, and so on, are unlikely to be re-elected, as they will be unable to provide their constituents with access to state wealth. Elections can therefore assist the regimes by serving as low-cost means of managing patronage and containing dissent.

As a result of the role that autocrats create for parliaments, Lust-Okar argued, they cannot serve as useful political platforms for opposition parties. Instead, she noted, elections can actually harm political opposition groups because the regime uses their failure to win votes to paint them as weak, ineffective, and unrepresentative of popular views. Compounding this problem, elections that take place under authoritarian regimes provide a veneer of democracy, while undermining both local and external demands for political reform and greater political freedoms.

Jarrett Blanc examined the challenges for democracy-building of holding elections either under conditions of conflict, or in societies emerging from conflict. Using the examples of Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, he said that pre-eminence of the conflict as a political issue means that the elections’ success can only be measured by how far they facilitate a termination of the conflict. Under the best circumstances, elections can force warring parties to reassess the effectiveness of military force as a tool for political domination. If connected to a peace accord, elections can also accelerate the shift to non-violent conflict resolution.

Blanc emphasized that U.S. policymakers often have little discretion regarding the timing of elections in conflict-ridden areas, making debates over sequencing moot. Much more important, he argued, is determining whether or not free and fair elections can be held. For example, although Hamas participated in, and ultimately won, the most recent Palestinian Legislative Council elections, there was little evidence to suggest that it used its weaponry to affect the electoral outcome. In such a case, a fair political contest was possible despite the environment of conflict and the participation of armed groups in the political process.

Nathan Brown spoke about the role Islamist movements in many Arab states play in the electoral process. Many Islamist groups participate in elections because the process provides a relatively open area within which they can publicize their platforms. Also, those Islamists that win election to the legislature find themselves in a relatively protected political space, where they can raise and debate issues that might otherwise be too dangerous for them to discuss publicly without the cover of parliamentary membership.

At the same time, Brown noted, elections can be dangerous for Islamist movements because those constituents who elect Islamist candidates expect them to deliver on their promises to extract benefits and concessions from governments over which they in practice have very little influence. Islamists who serve in parliament thus tend to focus on pragmatic, achievable goals. At the same time, Islamist leaders outside of formal politics continue to focus on broader issues and can take a more oppositional stance. These different incentives can cause Islamist movements to fracture, thereby weakening the anti-regime opposition. A final danger for Islamists is that participating in elections and entering parliament risks legitimating the regime and its form of governance. In conclusion, Brown argued, these mixed incentives for Islamist movements mean that different Islamists groups can make end up making different choices over time, which belies the notion that their ideology dictates a consistent pattern of behavior.

Pro-Democracy Advocates and Elections: What Is To Be Done?

Sherif Mansour focused on the ways in which opposition elements in Egypt attempted, but failed, to use the elections to expand on their demands for democracy. The Mubarak regime never intended for the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2005 to empower opposition parties, Mansour noted. Instead, the electoral changes were a superficial concession to the Egyptian people in the face of growing demands for reform. Mubarak attempted to use the elections to preserve the political status quo.

Once the pro-democracy movement demonstrated its ability to attract popular support, Mansour argued, the regime fought back to close the Pandora’s box that it had opened. Not only did the regime actively interfere with the parliamentary elections, but it launched a containment plan to reverse what few gains were achieved by opposition parties. The Egyptian regime’s backlash against democratic demands was enabled by a more permissive international environment. Chastened by Islamist successes in the Palestinian territories and Iraq, the Western nations that had formerly been so aggressive in their calls for liberalization began again to embrace the stability of Mubarak’s Egypt. Mansour concluded that the outspoken support of Western states for Egyptian democracy is crucial to the resuscitation of the internal reformers’ cause.

Les Campbell spoke of the dangers inherent in Arab elections, but warned against abandoning support for elections in an effort to prevent radical change. Elections, he argued, empower moderate political opposition groups and serve to moderate Islamist parties by drawing them into the electoral process. Seen in this light, every election held in the Arab world during the last ten years has been positive for the long-term growth of democracy. Even when elections have brought Islamists to power, he argued, this step served to bring Islamist movements closer to the norms of competitive politics.

Still, Campbell argued, too much emphasis on elections can be as problematic as rejecting their importance. There must also be an emphasis on the “framework issues,” those rules that govern the political context within which elections occur. Campbell concluded by encouraging Western aid groups not to abandon liberal parties or to let up the pressure on Arab regimes to reform.

Almut Wieland-Karimi argued that, while elections are an important step on the road to democracy, they receive too much emphasis in the media and from policymakers. There are many Arab countries in which elections have been held to appease external pressure, despite the fact that internal conditions hardly favored an open, or even moderately open, political contest. In countries that do not enjoy the rule of law, and that do not have laws that regulate the political parties of the establishment let alone the opposition, she said, it is bad policy to ask people to go to the polls.

Wieland-Karimi argued that western audiences and policymakers tend to focus too much on the “free and fair,” procedural aspect of Arab elections: whether or not people are allowed to cast their ballots free from interference and intimidation. An equally important component is the degree of political pluralism in the electoral process, whether real opposition parties exist and are allowed a genuine chance to compete. She argued in conclusion that a commitment to cultivating greater pluralism in Arab politics is a useful focus for Western democracy assistance.


Although regimes have proven adept at manipulating elections to their advantage, opposition movements and pro-democracy activists can still gain from participating in the electoral process. Local pro-democracy activists must struggle to encourage wider public engagement with electoral politics and with democratic movements. The United States and other Western states can help by continuing to pressure regimes in the region to allow greater participation by the citizenry in elections as voters, candidates, and as grassroots activists. No single election will shift a state from autocracy to democracy, but elections are now a regular part of the Middle Eastern political fabric. They should not be discounted or ignored. Instead, they should be treated as opportunities for incremental change. Cooperation between internal and external democracy advocates can make each new election more meaningful than the last.

Tamara Cofman Wittes: Research Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, The Brookings Institution.
Rola Dashti: Chairperson, Kuwait Economic Society; former parliamentary candidate for the National Assembly, Kuwait.
Ellen Lust-Okar: Associate Professor of Political Science, Yale University.
Jarrett Blanc: International Affairs Fellow, the Council on Foreign Relations.
Nathan Brown: Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University.
Sherif Mansour: Fellow, Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.
Les Campbell: Senior Associate and Regional Director of the Middle East and North Africa team, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
Almut Wieland-Karimi: Executive Director, Washington, DC office of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.