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Op-Ed

Can the Middle East Sustain Democracy?

Tamara Cofman Wittes

Charles Issawi (1916-2000) was a leading economic historian of the Middle East and an astute commentator on history, politics, and human nature. In 1956 he published an article on the foundations of democracy and their absence from the Middle East. Below, we reproduce a key passage from that article (in green, beneath Issawi’s photograph). In response to our invitation, MESH member Adam Garfinkle offers a half-century retrospective on Issawi’s views. In the comments to this post, MESH members Joshua Muravchik, Jon Alterman, Michele Dunne, J. Scott Carpenter, and Tamara Cofman Wittes weigh in.

Read the entire conversation >>

Issawi (and Adam) are a bit too focused on state strength, in my view. Most states of the region have, as Jon noted, done a good job of strengthening themselves over the last fifty years relative to those disparate social forces Adam fears so much. The corporatist model they developed, bolstered by oil and strategic rents, girded in the armor of Arabist ideology, and backed by force when necessary, served them very well. Greg Gause did some great work a bunch of years ago showing how the Arab states of the Gulf used these resources to bind their citizens closely to the state, protecting themselves from the potentially destabilizing impact of the Iranian revolution. The state is still viewed by most Arabs as the primary source and allocator of social goods, and the primary repository of the national patrimony.

The question today is whether these corporatist strategies are still functional in a changed environment, in which economic and cultural globalization, along with indigenous demographic and social changes, have created a different set of expectations and demands on the state while hampering the state’s ability to continue employing its old strategies of cooptation and control. A secondary question is what is to be done about those places in the region where states are not strong, indeed are failing: Iraq, Lebanon, and the (nonstate) Palestinian territories.

I argue in my forthcoming book (Freedom’s Unsteady March, coming out in April) that the Arab states’ ability to employ rents, ideology, and repressive capacity to sustain themselves as the central repository and distributor of social and economic goods is challenged today by a combination of factors. The “youth bulge” presents challenges not only in economic terms (employment, credit, and housing) but also in terms of the social expectations young people have of their government, especially when they are more aware of global trends and the gap between their status and that of their cohort elsewhere in the world. Oil prices may be high right now, but income inequality is skyrocketing as well—suggesting that this new wealth is not being invested in binding citizens closer to the state (as happened in the 1970s) but instead is going into the pockets of political and business elites.

I’ve heard anecdotal evidence of similar phenomena in Egypt, where major economic reforms by the government have resulted in overall economic growth and capital inflows—but the gains have largely been pocketed by the business community, rather than being invested in future growth or in new private sector jobs. The resulting disconnect between the macroeconomic picture and the life experiences of the average Egyptian is producing outrage in the form of a remarkable number of protests over the past year on issues such as wages, rents, and subsidies. Many people cite the UAE as evidence to the contrary, with its astonishing levels of investment in education and other forms of social capital, but I think it’s more of an exception that proves the rule.

The challenges presented to Arabist ideology by Islamist alternatives have been the subject of long discussion so I won’t go into that here. And in an era of cell-phone cameras, bloggers, and international human rights NGOs, repression is just more costly and harder to employ than in previous times as a tool for state control. Arab regimes have worked to respond to these challenges, but their piecemeal reforms fail as often as they succeed, and do not, in my view, add up to a successful new model for sustainable governance.

I agree fully with Michele and Scott’s point that economic development is not a pathway to democratization. Those who advocate a policy of promoting economic liberalization “first” should acknowledge that it is far more likely to be a substitute for, rather than a means to, democracy. They must also confront the now-well-documented fact that even less-than-perfect democracies outperform nondemocracies in basic economic and social development. If a U.S. policy of promoting Arab economic development is not an effective means to other forms of liberalization, if it may not even succeed on its own terms because of the concern Arab autocrats have with preserving the economic perquisites of their ruling coalitions (the subject of Tom Carothers’ excellent essay), and if it may not even help to improve the welfare of Arab citizens because of those autocrats’ twisted incentives, then why is this a worthy policy prescription? What does it get us, exactly? If the answer is more reliable economic trading partners, one could easily make the case that global capital markets and global trading regimes are more effective at doing that, at a lower cost, than a U.S. government push for economic liberalization. Let the global market handle economic liberalization.

Given the above, why should the U.S. still act to promote democracy in the Middle East?

Because the reigning corporatist model of Arab states is no longer functional, and social forces in those states are rising that, in the absence of democratization, could prove destabilizing and detrimental to U.S. interests. There is real pressure for change in the region—but what form that change will take is yet to be determined, and the Arab regimes have less ability to control that outcome than the strong-state-advocates like Jon might wish. The possibilities for change that are not in U.S. interests are real, growing, and very unpleasant: even if states maintain control it may be in a form we can’t easily cooperate with. In the long term, regional stability, Arab prosperity and U.S.-Arab strategic cooperation all require democratic reform in the region. I think wise-minded Arabs and Americans both know that, they just don’t know how to get from here to there and they’re paralyzed by the risks.

Yes, democratization could also produce destabilizing effects, and outcomes that are detrimental to U.S. interests. But I think that the balance of harms is on the side of democratization, for reasons I go into in my book. I also think that the risks of negative outcomes for the United States can, to some degree, be managed through a wiser strategy of democracy promotion than that followed by President Bush (sorry, Scott). Bush pushed hardest for democracy in the weakest states of the region, rather than the strongest. He also focused on political process over political rights, and did not match his democracy assistance programs with robust diplomacy. The result was an exacerbation of conflict in places like Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, gains for regional radicals, a failure to give Arab leaders sufficient incentive to reform, and a resulting hardening of Arab autocrats on questions of domestic politics overall.

I think the core focus for American democracy promotion should be advocating for the expansion of basic political rights: freedom of speech (especially in the media), assembly, and association. Our attention should be focused on the region’s strong states (who also happen to be our closest allies): Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as Jordan and Morocco. In supporting political rights, we would be helping to give voice to the existing tensions within Arab society whose democratic role, Issawi noted, is crucial; we would be supporting the aspirations of Arab youth and citizenry at large for greater choice in their lives; we would be supporting the habits of civil discourse that are developed by all mature democracies; and we would be helping to illuminate and raise the scrutiny of the catch-all claims made by the Islamist opposition movements, deflating their current role as empty vessel for the hopes and fears of frustrated and weary Arab citizens.

And then, of course, we need to help the basket cases of the region—but not with democratization, with state-building.

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