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The Promise of Arab Liberalism

Editor's Note:

Reprinted by permission of PolicyReview, (June & July 2004, Number 125).

The Middle East is, according to Freedom House, the least free region on the globe. It resisted even the third wave of democratization that swept through Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe during the 1980s and 1990s. Arab “exceptionalism” has produced its own scholarly literature of explanation (and apology).1 Now, however, the era of Arab exceptionalism may be drawing to a close. Despite the Bush administration’s admirable rhetorical commitment, it remains to be seen whether the United States can help to midwife the birth of a democratic Arab future or whether, if the transformation occurs, America will be a mere spectator.

Many commentators greeted President Bush’s pledge in November 2003 to spread democracy in the Middle East as a radical restructuring of American policy toward the region. But the commitment itself was not new; the administration’s emphasis on transforming the politics of the Arab world has been evident for two years, since long prior to the war in Iraq. At West Point on June 1, 2002, the president declared, “The twentieth century ended with a single surviving model of human progress, based on non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance. . . . Mothers and fathers and children across the Islamic world, and all the world, share the same fears and aspirations.” On February 26, 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war, the president argued in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute for the necessity and importance of democratization in the Arab world, asserting that “stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder.”

As this second quotation attests, the U.S. government has embraced the necessity of democratizing the Middle East in order to, as the phrase goes, drain the swamp from which Islamist terrorism emerges. The president’s “forward strategy of freedom” is the first attempt by the Bush administration to enunciate a positive vision for American engagement in the post-Saddam Middle East. But it is also, quite consciously, a strategy for winning the war on terrorism by transforming the dysfunctional politics of the region that, in the president’s view, makes resentful and repressed citizens vulnerable to the appeals of extremist ideology. The forward strategy is thus the long-anticipated political face of America’s counterterrorism effort. Deeper and more meaningful than any attempt to “win hearts and minds” for America itself, it is an effort to win Arab hearts and minds over to the practice of American values and virtues—whether the new practitioners ultimately embrace America and its policies or not. From this perspective, democracy in the Arab (and broader Muslim) world is necessary to marginalize the Islamist extremists, delegitimize political violence, and so to make the world safe for Americans.

But this counterterrorist variant of democratic peace theory2 is not the only driver for the new policy. The necessity of promoting Arab reform is also rooted in the inevitability of change over the coming years in the fundamentals of Arab politics and U.S.-Arab relations. While American interests in the Middle East have generally favored status quo regimes that could guarantee regional stability, those status quo regimes rest on increasingly tenuous foundations.3 A massive bulge of youth entering the labor force, stagnated state-led economies, bureaucratic stasis, and rampant corruption all suggest looming instability as the gap for Arab citizens between expectations and reality widens. With the decline of pan-Arab ideology as a way to legitimate governments and insulate them from citizens’ demands, and with the growth of independent information sources through satellite television, the internet, and video and cassette tape, popular resentment against local leaderships has grown. At the same time, developments in Iraq and Israel, and sustained American support for conservative Arab autocrats, all have led over the past 10 years to an increase in popular anti-Americanism, which many regimes have tolerated as a way of diverting public attention from domestic troubles.4 In short, the political status quo in the region is unsustainable, and achievement of a new equilibrium in Arab politics and a new environment for U.S.-Arab relations will necessitate short-term disruption and change. The increasing urgency of internal Arab challenges was a driving force behind the oft-cited Arab Human Development Report, in which a group of Arab scholars blamed the region’s failure to progress on “deficits” of freedom, knowledge, and women’s empowerment. But the inevitable changes coming in Arab politics may or may not bring democracy. Given this, an American failure to try to shape these changes would be a missed opportunity that could, if the region’s governments do not meet their looming challenges successfully, threaten core U.S. strategic interests in the region for decades to come.

Consequently, idealism and realism have converged behind the same policy for the United States in the Middle East: promote a regional transformation toward democratic development, liberal values, and open markets that will improve individual opportunities and standards of living; enable the emergence of a more moderate political discourse; promote rational, efficient, and accountable governance; and integrate the region into the broader global network of Westernized, developing countries.

So far the administration’s forward strategy of freedom contains four concrete elements to back up the rhetorical escalation evident since 9-11. The Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), launched in December 2002, is meant to provide assistance to Arab civil society groups; to promote economic, educational, and political reforms; and to improve the status of women. In Fall 2003, Bush also called for a Middle East Free Trade Area by 2010: So far, the “area” includes signed free trade treaties with Jordan and Morocco and negotiations underway with Bahrain. The United States is also, through MEPI, supporting WTO membership bids by several other Arab states. More recently, in January of this year, the administration added to its pro-democracy phalanx a proposal to double funding for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a government-supported foundation that sponsors pro-democracy research and activism. Finally, the State Department is negotiating with its European counterparts a joint statement of reform principles and a series of coordinating bodies that would guide Western engagement with Arab governments in the economic, diplomatic, and defense arenas.

But what looks like an emerging policy framework is in fact a hodgepodge of programs whose very existence still hangs in the balance. Predictably, the new initiative is under assault internationally, rejected outright by the Arab governments it threatens with obsolescence and resisted by European diplomats for whom “consensus” and “partnership” are ends in themselves and for whom confronting authoritarian neighbors is therefore not a high priority. But more disturbing, it is being steadily undermined from within the administration as well: by significant (but resolvable) conflicts of interest, bureaucratic sclerosis, and wishful thinking on how to implement the strategy.

That the American effort has failed to produce a coherent or effective American strategy to promote Arab democratization reflects not simply the difficulty of overturning what President Bush acknowledged, in a November 6, 2003 speech to the ned, as “sixty years of excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East.” More troubling, the policy’s weak implementation reflects the enduring ambivalence of American attitudes toward democracy in this troubled part of the world. Until this ambivalence is confronted and resolved, America will not win the confidence of skeptical Arab reformers. And until America can build an effective alliance with the Arab world’s aspiring democrats, it cannot hope to assist in the project of Arab democratization.

Democracy dilemmas in the Arab world

America’s past attempts to promote democracy in the Arab world were beset by two problems that many observers perceived as insurmountable. The first is encapsulated in the 1991 victory of radical Islamist parties in Algeria’s first free parliamentary elections and the resulting cutoff of the democratization process by the Algerian military. The United States, like most Western governments, supported the military coup as preferable to the likely electoral outcome. The “Algeria problem”—defined most pithily by veteran diplomat Edward Djerejian as “one man, one vote, one time”—has crystallized as the nightmare vision for American policymakers of what democracy might bring to the Arab world: legitimately elected Islamist governments that are anti-American, and ultimately anti-democratic, in orientation.

American efforts to promote free politics in Arab states have also traditionally fallen prey to a problem of competing interests. Pressing for democratic transformation in rogue states like Libya or Syria is easy enough; there is little to lose by trying. But the Middle East is full of regimes with which America has worked closely for years and whose cooperation it desires on a variety of security and economic issues, notably including the war on terrorism. Because of this, the U.S. government has typically subordinated its concerns about governance and human rights to other core issues like Cold War loyalties and the Arab-Israeli peace process. While human rights violations and religious repression in Arab states are regularly noted in the State Department’s annual reports on these topics, they have generally ranked well down on the agenda for face-to-face dialogue between American and Arab officials.

To avoid the risks of Islamist victory and the costs of prioritizing democracy over other more immediate goals, the U.S. government’s past reform efforts in the Arab world have generally been small, undertaken in full consultation with the targeted governments, and have emphasized technical assistance to government institutions rather than support for non-governmental social groups. Assistance for “Democracy and Governance” was (and still is) just a small part of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s larger program for the region, which tends to emphasize programs for health care, education, and other social concerns.

MEPI was headed at its inception by then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (and vice-presidential daughter) Liz Cheney, giving it high-level political clout to back up its muscular focus on democracy. It rapidly gathered resources and personnel: Its initial allocation of $29 million in State Department funds was increased by $100 million in the emergency war-related supplemental appropriation bill passed in March 2003, and the Bush administration requested an additional $145 million for the program in the FY 2004 budget. The House Appropriations Committee, however, reduced the new funding to $45 million, citing concerns about duplication of existing aid programs and noting that MEPI was “defined only in the most general terms.”5 Nonetheless, MEPI collected staff from across the foreign service and opened field offices in Tunis and Abu Dhabi.

In all, MEPI has about $150 million to spend in FY 2004—which sounds like much but is actually only about 58 cents for each man, woman, and child in the Arab world. MEPI’s innovation, though, was not meant to be in the size of its budget but in its approach—explicitly political, designed to promote democratic change, and directed to reach out to nongovernmental actors within Arab society. Sadly, the evidence suggests that, in practice, MEPI shuns the Arab nongovernmental sector and many of mepi’s programs have only a tenuous link to democracy.

A brief examination of MEPI’s spending priorities highlights the problem. In its first 15 months of operation, the Middle East Partnership Initiative allocated, according to its public website, about $98 million in funds. The vast majority of MEPI’s funds, over 70 percent, was allocated to programs that either directly benefited Arab governments (in activities ranging from translating documents to computerizing court records to revising school curricula) or provided training programs and seminars for Arab government officials. Seventeen percent of the allocated funds benefited either American or Arab nongovernmental organizations working in the region, and 5.2 percent went to build the Arab private sector and promote U.S.-Arab business ties. Only $3.2 million, or 3.3 percent of MEPI’s money, was directed to help local NGOs expand their work in areas such as family law and anti-corruption campaigns. To a large degree, this weak focus on the Arab nonprofit sector is the result of MEPI’s working within, and not pushing, the bounds set by Arab governments: NGOs are tightly restricted in most Arab countries, and in many states they are barred from receiving foreign funding. MEPI cannot possibly expect to advance the development of Arab civil society, as it claims, by granting disproportionate support to already overbearing government bureaucracies.

MEPI Spending by Program Pillar,
FY02-FY03

Pillar FY 2002
Spending
FY 2003
Spending
No Year
Specified
Total
Spending
Economic
Reform
$6,134,425 $18,491,855 $24,626,280
Educational
Reform
4,000,000 21,900,000 25,900,000
Political
Reform
10,500,000 22,615,000 33,115,000
Women’s
Empowerment
6,036,000 5,500,000 1,500,000 13,036,000
MEPI
Small Grants
1,700,000 1,700,000
Totals by
Fiscal Year
$26,670,425 $68,506,855 $3,200,000 $98,377,280


MEPI Spending Percentages by Beneficiary Sector,
FY02-FY03

Sector FY 2002 FY 2003 Cumulative
Arab
Civil Society
25.8% 14.3% 17.5%
Arab
Government
56.8% 76.2% 70.8%
Arab
Private Sector
9.3% 3.7% 5.2%
Exchange
Programs
8.2% 5.1% 5.9%
U.S.
Government
0.0 0.6% 0.5%

In truth, MEPI’s programs are focused less on political change than on improving the performance of Arab governments, economies, and schools. Even where they do focus on politics, mepi’s programs largely represent the same cautious, consensual approach to political reform in the Arab world that the United States has followed in the past—not a departure at all.

Much of the money spent on political reform is slanted toward helping Arab governments improve their performance. Thus, MEPI’s political reform program has trained Morocco’s newly elected parliamentarians regarding “the functioning of parliament and roles and responsibilities in the legislative process” ($600,000). Among the parliament’s responsibilities, it is worth noting, is sharing legislative authority with the king. MEPI has also provided assistance “to promote effective voter registration for elections and build the capacity of the Supreme Elections Commission to perform its functions independently in future elections” ($325,000). The Supreme Elections Commission, though, cannot alter the fact that the Yemeni president has amended the constitution to extend his term and has erected a handpicked “consultative council” to work alongside his quiescent elected parliament. And MEPI has convened Arab judges, whose courts are plagued by corruption and government interference, to discuss “issues of judicial procedure, independence, ethics, appointments, and training” ($1.425 million).

Many of the programs in MEPI’s other three “pillars”—economic reform, educational reform, and women’s empowerment—are worthy development projects, and many will no doubt improve the quality of life for Arab men, women, and children. Economic reform grants include projects to translate Algeria’s documentary submissions to the World Trade Organization ($963,000), link Tunisian and American companies for investment ($100,000), train entrepreneurs ($786,575), and boost intraregional trade ($600,000). Education programs include “English In A Box” for Jordanian and Moroccan teachers ($400,000), internet connections for Yemeni high schools ($1.5 million), and a “child-centered education program” for North Africa and the Gulf ($1.1 million). But these are properly considered development projects. As catalysts for remaking Arab politics, they don’t stand a chance.

MEPI’s scattershot approach and regrettable lack of ambition in promoting political reform is a direct consequence of how it tries to avoid the Algeria problem and the problem of competing interests. MEPI has, in practice, embraced the Arab regimes’ preferred strategy of dealing with their mounting internal problems: controlled liberalization.6 Most of the 22 Arab states themselves recognize their systemic failures and seek to reform in ways that improve government and economic performance without changing the distribution of political power. While a few forward-leaning regimes have placed some power in the hands of their peoples through constitutional and electoral reforms, many others are trying to create just enough sense of forward motion to alleviate the building public pressure for change at the top.

America hopes, in supporting this cautious approach, that it can avoid the risks of Islamist triumphs and U.S.-Arab tensions by helping the existing regimes improve governance even while they continue to restrict real political participation. MEPI’s cafeteria-plan approach, valuing all kinds of reform equally, allows Arab governments to propose projects for U.S. funding that suit their own interests—such as funding translations from Arabic to English of Algeria’s wto documentary submissions. The U.S. government embraces such opportunities in the hope that they will act as Trojan horses, opening cracks of transparency in the calcified bureaucracies of the Arab state. But in practice, these programs simply improve the functioning of the regime and alleviate, at least temporarily, its fundamental legitimacy crisis.

In principle, MEPI was supposed to avoid this trap by finding nascent liberal politicians within civil society, giving them funding and training, and helping them grow their followings so as to secure velvet revolutions. In fact, very little MEPI funding is actually directed to this goal. MEPI’s emphasis on technical assistance to governments, indeed, has made some Arab activists suspicious that the entire project is yet another way for America to bolster its shaky autocratic allies, and that has made Arab liberals reluctant to take the internal political heat they would undoubtedly receive for accepting MEPI funds.

Perhaps the most disturbing fact emerging from this review of mepi’s spending is that the proportion of government-to-government funding has increased significantly in mepi’s second year. This trend further away from its intended focus on Arab civil society has two implications. First, it makes U.S. assistance even more supportive of the regimes’ preferred plan of action (or inaction). Second, it represents a strengthened emphasis on promoting economic development (via free trade) over political reform.

But even assuming that MEPI’s outlays more closely matched its intention, a gradualist strategy carries with it inherent dangers for the United States. The liberalization programs currently embraced by many Arab regimes are not intended, from their viewpoint, to lead to real political competition, but to create an impression of progress and thereby mitigate demands among the public for broader political change. America’s embrace of the gradualist strategy assumes that, over time, liberalization will take on such momentum that autocratic Arab regimes will no longer be able to avoid real devolution of power. That is an uncertain assumption: If the regimes lose control, the outcome might be chaotic, and there is no guarantee that the region’s long-suppressed liberals will win out.

But the bigger risk in a gradualist strategy is not dramatic change; it is the absence of change. By design, the regimes’ top-down liberalization does not relax state control sufficiently to enable the formation of any organized political alternative to the state itself or the Islamist opposition movements. The Islamists have the mosque as a place to organize, while other arenas of social organization are still tightly restricted. In this way, the regimes maintain control—and also maintain the Islamist opposition as the only alternative to their rule. The Islamists’ dominance of the opposition is the excuse many regimes use to Washington for why truly free politics is too dangerous and why political reform can go only so far and no farther. The more the Algeria problem looms in American policymakers’ minds as the nightmare to be avoided at all costs, the more our policy falls prey to this cynical strategy by Arab regimes to suit reform to their own ends.

Worse still is that America’s fear of another Algeria might well be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s because the longer the U.S. government rewards regimes that “liberalize” without allowing new political forces to develop, the more the Islamists benefit from such limited political openings as exist. The more entrenched the Islamists become as the political alternative to the status quo, the more the language of Islamism becomes the language of protest politics and other voices become marginalized. As one clear-eyed Arab official told me recently, “The only institution expressing freedom [to criticize the government] in the Arab world today is the mosque. That’s why they’re popular.” The net effect of controlled “liberalization,” then, may be not to drain the swamp of extremism, but to expand it.

In the end, as Arab liberals know well, political change will not come until the Arab state reforms itself. No matter how many small-bore grants the U.S. government gives to improve parliamentary effectiveness, judicial independence, or the rule of law, the legislature and judiciary in most Arab countries will remain subordinated to their executives—until those executives give up emergency laws and restrain security forces. And no matter how much training the National Endowment for Democracy sponsors for women candidates or liberal politicians, they will not be able to compete in the political marketplace until their governments allow freedom of expression and association. The gap between the small-scale technical assistance for reforming institutions that MEPI provides and the political pressure it will take to induce real devolution of power by autocratic regimes is too wide. As it is currently structured, MEPI simply cannot serve as the centerpiece of a policy adopted as a matter of long-term national security and as an effort to draw a troubled region firmly into the web of modern democratic society.

America can constrain the power of Arab autocrats and help create space for the emergence of liberal alternatives only by putting political pressure on the regimes and, at the same time, developing partnerships with indigenous reformers both in and out of government. To succeed, America must dovetail its assistance with the needs of Arab activists on the ground.

Bridging the credibility gap

On one point the Arab leaders now decrying the imperialism of the Greater Middle East Initiative are correct—democratic politics cannot be imposed or implanted from outside the region but must be embraced indigenously both by political leaders (emergent if not in power) and by average citizens. And herein lies the problem. As it stands today, many Arab reformers don’t believe the Bush administration’s fine words about reversing decades of American support for Arab dictators. Without proving the strength of our commitment to act as a force for positive change in the Middle East, we will not win the trust of those in whose hands we envision the Arab future to lie: the region’s nascent liberal activists.

At this point, one can speak of only an embryonic liberal movement in the Arab world, but that movement does exist. Some Arab liberal activists are lawyers, professors, and journalists challenging the de facto political rules by demanding enforcement of the rules as stated in their postcolonial constitutions. Others are parliamentarians demanding oversight of executive policy. Some are cabinet ministers challenging tribal leaders and other cornerstones of the ruling elite to recognize that future challenges demand significant change. In some countries, liberals control levers of government and in some they are imprisoned, but they are everywhere increasingly vocal and visible not only to a local but a regional and even global audience.7

Despite their relief at President Bush’s acknowledgement of America’s historical error of “excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East,” however, these liberals remain skeptical both of America’s true intentions and of its commitment to its stated goal of “a democratic peace—a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman,” in the words of his January 20, 2004 state of the union address.

To overcome their skepticism, and ultimately to have a real impact on the politics of Arab states, America needs a strategy that successfully confronts the Algeria problem and that tackles the competing interests problem by integrating democracy promotion fully into America’s regional diplomacy. Such a policy must combine small-scale, consensual efforts like MEPI’s current programs with diplomatic carrots and sticks to induce Arab regimes to open the public sphere for debate and competition of ideas. It must also include a concerted effort to build partnerships with Arab democrats, both inside and outside of government, and to dovetail our external assistance with their internal demands.

The United States must press Arab regimes to reform their politics, not just their political processes. The United States should press a consistent message in the region: Controlled “liberalization” that creates quasi-democratic institutions with no power is not democratization. Elections are important, of course, but as Algeria taught us, they are not the primary need. Even more basic are the protections that enable a variety of citizens and groups to speak and organize and operate effectively in politics: freedom of the press, freedom of association, the right to peaceably assemble, and the legalization of political parties and advocacy groups. Some or all of these are absent in most Arab states.

Forcing governments to withdraw their control over the public square and give power to participatory institutions is necessary if non-Islamist political forces are to organize, formulate agendas, and press their case against the state in competition with the Islamists. In Kuwait—where the emir loosened controls under American prodding after the Iraqi occupation of the country—a decade of freedom of expression, the abolition of state security courts, and the election of parliaments with meaningful oversight over executive policymaking have enabled the emergence of a liberal political movement, with representatives in parliament, as a real alternative to the Islamists and the monarchy. While the Islamists are still the principal opposition, the liberals are viable competitors in the political arena. Even more significant, liberals in Kuwait occasionally ally themselves with Islamists to argue for parliamentary prerogatives of government oversight, just as they ally themselves with liberal factions within the royal family to try to contain Islamist initiatives. This embryonic coalition politics is the first evidence that a healthy political pluralism can develop in an Arab society and may be able to prevent liberalization from leading to “one man, one vote, one time.” With these ingredients of democracy in place, it seems likely that those advocating the vote for women in Kuwait will succeed as well.

But in other states where political expression and the ability to organize are still severely restricted, non-Islamist social groups have a large gap to overcome before they can mount an effective challenge in the marketplace of ideas, much less in the political arena. In Saudi Arabia, for example, there is a group of intellectuals who are essentially liberal reformers; but since political parties and political meetings are outlawed and the press is controlled, they have no means of organizing themselves, no way of demonstrating their base of support within society, and no way to lobby the government beyond open letters to the crown prince. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia’s paternalistic structure, like all such regimes, has limited tolerance for dissent: This spring, a number of prominent liberals who had previously discussed their petitions to the crown prince were arrested by the regime for planning to form an independent human rights monitoring group.

In order to build credibility with Arab democrats, American foreign policy must communicate to Arab governments that states that protect free expression and association and change the distribution of political power will enjoy better relations with the United States than those that talk about reform but fail to implement it. America has powerful carrots to offer, but at the moment it seems happy to offer them without specific reference to a regime’s progress toward democracy. The president’s proposal for a Middle East Free Trade Area, in particular, was conceived mainly as a means of integrating Arab economies into world markets and creating wealth on the general assumption that economic liberalization over time encourages democracy. While it is true that in some other regions increased foreign trade and investment have spurred indigenous political change, China’s happy

marriage of open economy and closed politics is perhaps the favorite model among Arab rulers today — and with good reason. America’s support for Arab states’ wto bids, increased business ties, and new free trade negotiations could be made explicitly conditional on political progress, and the United States could press harder in free trade talks with Arab nations for far-reaching provisions on transparency and the rule of law that could give succor to domestic reformers.

A successful democratization strategy involves challenging autocratic regimes not only from above, through diplomatic pressure, but also from below, through the work of civil society activists. In order to minimize the problem of conflicting interests, the U.S. government must properly calibrate its support for internal dissidents. Where the U.S. government is unalterably opposed to the continuance of an existing regime, there is no compelling reason for the U.S. government not to fund local democrats directly. States such as Libya and Syria would fall into this category. It is worth noting that, although the U.S. is working toward normalizing diplomatic relations with Libya, it has not endorsed Qaddafi’s “revolutionary leadership.”

But in the rest of the Arab world, the U.S. government should not provide direct programmatic support to local civil society organizations. The role of local ngos is to challenge their governments and reclaim public space for debate and citizen participation in governance. The role of U.S. officials is to develop and maintain cooperative relations with those same governments. When American diplomats are asked to propose, fund, and manage assistance programs for Arab ngos, the conflict of interest is too great for even the most well-intentioned individuals. American diplomats put in this position inevitably end up bending the democracy-promotion programs they oversee to suit the needs and desires of their host governments, thus emphasizing comfort and accommodation over progress, subverting the basic intent of the programs, and, worst of all, deepening the suspicion of local pro-reform activists regarding the sincerity of America’s commitment to democratic change.

Moreover, the bureaucratic imperative to justify program funding to Congress has sometimes led mepi to emphasize publicity-friendly projects over low-profile but more long-term efforts to build the organizational capacity of the Arab reform movement. A sobering story of what we are currently doing wrong in this regard emerged from a mepi-sponsored “Gulf Regional Campaign School” held in Qatar this winter. Not satisfied with gathering several dozen women activists to discuss running for political office, mepi wanted to conclude the seminar with a press conference to advertise its success. But when the Arab participants drafted a final communiqué for the press conference that included mild criticisms of U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a mepi representative compelled a last-minute change in the schedule, ensuring that the women were not in attendance at the right time to present their communiqué.

Instead of designing and implementing civil society programs directly, as mepi is now doing, the U.S. government should direct additional funding to the nongovernmental institutions it created during the Cold War to promote democratic transformation in Europe. President Bush’s proposal to double the funding of the National Endowment for Democracy is perhaps the smartest element of the administration’s democratization policy thus far (it is also the farthest from realization). The ned and its constituent organizations (affiliated with the Democratic and Republican parties, the American labor movement, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) can work unimpeded by the bureaucratic imperatives that complicate mepi’s work, and they have more than a decade of experience in the Middle East already. While there are many inappropriate analogies drawn between the anti-communist struggle in Eastern Europe and the struggle for Arab democracy, the American democracy-promotion community largely understands and appreciates the differences in these operating environments and has adapted its strategies to suit them.

In the final analysis, though, the United States must trust that shared interests with its Arab interlocutors will mediate the tensions that an effective democratization effort is bound to create. Many in the diplomatic establishment argue that a more aggressive approach to democratization will necessarily cost Arab cooperation with America’s other regional goals. A broader perspective is essential.

America’s relations with key Arab states are grounded in a web of longstanding mutual interests and benefits. Such relationships can withstand tensions. Riyadh and Washington share interests in the strategic defense of the Gulf and stability in the price of oil, and they still would even if the United States were to push Saudi Arabia harder on political reform. The Egyptian government, for its part, will retain a fundamental interest in preventing conflagrations in historic Palestine and in furthering Arab-Israeli rapprochement regardless of its other arguments with Washington. Thus, America should not be afraid to condition its relations with Arab states, particularly its economic and military assistance, on human rights and political freedoms. When, in 2002, Washington threatened to withhold additional aid to Egypt over the imprisonment of democracy activist (and dual U.S. citizen) Saad Eddin Ibrahim, it sent a strong message to the Egyptian government and did no significant damage to bilateral relations.

Some critics, both here and in the Middle East, argue that such overt pressure by the United States is counterproductive and that Arab regimes respond better to quiet critiques than to public wrist-slapping. But Washington’s public threat regarding Egypt’s aid request came after two years of quiet diplomacy had failed to free Ibrahim from prison. When I recently asked another Egyptian reformist whether the United States should condition aid to Egypt on its release of political prisoners, his answer was swift: “In public, of course I would protest it,” he said, “but privately I would support it.”

Most important to the success of America’s democratization efforts will be its ability to match its external efforts with the demands being raised by reformers within Arab states and to coordinate its assistance programs for civil society with its diplomatic agenda. To give one example, funds from the Middle East Partnership Initiative are currently flowing to Internews, an international nonprofit organization, to train journalists across the region — but this program is not accompanied by consistent pressure on regimes to relax their controls on the media. President Bush commendably exhorted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during a recent White House visit to allow a free press. But in the past year, several Saudi journalists lost their jobs or their columns after they questioned the influence of extremist clerics in politics and the exclusion of women from public life. No exhortations on their behalf were issued from a Washington podium.

Liberals speaking out

Dovetailing american interventions to domestic Arab demands will insulate us (if only somewhat) from charges of imposing imperial diktats on the region. It will also improve the effectiveness of our interventions and improve as well the fortunes of those Arab liberals who, we hope, will eventually emerge as viable political candidates and leaders who can drown out the tired autocrats, the populist Islamists, and the leftist national socialists who retain some loyalty in certain countries. So we must pay heed to what Arab liberals are saying.

And Arab liberals, especially since the overthrow of Saddam, are increasingly willing to speak their minds. Most recently, in March 2004, a conference in Alexandria, Egypt, of activists from across the region produced a document of surprising ambition, which defined their goal as “a system where freedom is [the] paramount value that ensures actual sovereignty of the people and government by the people through political pluralism, leading to transfer of power.” The Alexandria document, while acknowledging the need to resolve festering regional conflicts, also called for the elimination of all emergency laws; the dissolution of all special security courts (used to punish dissenters out of the public eye and beyond the rule of law); and constitutional reforms including term limits, shifting power away from the executive branch, and affirming the sovereignty of law over even the best-intentioned political leader.

In addition to backing their indigenous calls for basic freedoms with our external muscle, the United States can help Arab reformers throughout the region by encouraging and even creating opportunities for them to gather, share information, develop a common agenda and build their skills in mass mobilization. American-funded projects (preferably run by Western ngos) can assist them in networking with one another and also with colleagues from Georgia, South Korea, Serbia, and other states that have undergone democratic transitions. These programs should provide them with training — but not in how to audit foreign grant money or run for office. Arab liberals will not triumph by repeatedly running in semi-open elections for semi-independent offices. Instead, American support should be targeted at honing their organizational skills and their ability to communicate broadly so that when the opportunity arises — a fraudulent election, a fiscal crisis, an assassination, a soccer riot — they can take advantage of it to turn the mass sentiment the event generates in the direction of democratic development. That is the type of assistance America and others provided to the students of Serbia and Georgia, and that, not controlled liberalization, is what has produced “velvet revolutions” around the world.

We should not ask or expect to be embraced as saviors by Arab liberals — even those, like Saad Eddin Ibrahim, whom we help to free from prison. In the current context of U.S.-Arab relations, many liberals still vehemently disagree with U.S. policies in Iraq, Israel, and the war on terrorism. They voice resentment of America’s overweening influence in their region and will continue to do so. But we should support them anyway. Enabling their success while not claiming it as our own is the most important thing we can do now to help liberals gain credibility in their own societies and to repair our credibility with them.

In the final analysis, the sincerity of America’s intentions can only be demonstrated over time, through a credible pro-democracy strategy that is honest about the difficult choices it requires both from us and from our erstwhile Arab allies and that invests America’s considerable resources in making those choices correctly. If America tries to hedge its bets against Islamists by acquiescing in the regimes’ attempt to forestall their peoples’ inevitable and just demands, it will produce only backsliding and the added bitterness of promises betrayed. A sustainable and successful policy is robust support of the emerging Arab liberals and the alternative future they represent.

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