Democracy Promotion in the Middle East and North Africa: Recent Experiences and Further Prospects

Posted in Broader Middle East | 14-May-06 | Author: Ulrich Speck| Source: American Institute For Contemporary German Studies

Since 9/11, democracy promotion in the Middle East and North Africa has become a high priority in American foreign policy, at least on a rhetorical level. The U.S. government's attempts to translate rhetoric on the operational level have, however, not been very successful so far. Building support in the U.S. foreign policy community, convincing the European partners of the virtues of the new approach, and making it work in American diplomacy and policy towards the region has turned out to be a hard task. The association of the "freedom agenda" with the Iraq war has not been helpful either.

But given the huge socio-economic problems of the region, which are mainly caused by the poor governance of the current autocratic regimes, Europeans and Americans have every interest to make democratic reform a priority in their policy towards the Middle East and North Africa, in order to achieve, at the end of a longer process, the kind of real stability that market economy and settled democratic governance do provide. Simply to maintain the status quo would sharply increase the likelihood of chaos and violence in the region in the coming years, with dramatic effects on global energy security as well as on a whole range of other American and European interests.

1. To Change the Course: The New Democracy Doctrine
Promoting democracy abroad is, to be sure, a long-standing goal of American foreign policy and is closely intertwined with the American understanding of its global role. Since 2003, however, U.S. President George W. Bush has placed a new emphasis on it, with special regard to the Middle East. In a speech at the twentieth anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy on November 6, 2003, George W. Bush declared that the Western approach to the Middle East has failed: "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe - because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."

What the autocratic regimes in the region have provided is, the President concluded, indeed a very unstable situation. It has become a threat for Western security: "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo." This analysis led to the United States adopting "a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."

In his Second Inaugural Address on January 20, 2005, Bush confirmed the notion that the "forward strategy of freedom" - democracy promotion - and American security are closely interrelated: "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." And the National Security Strategy of 2006 puts the spread of democracy abroad at the center of American security policy: "In the world today, the fundamental character of regimes matters as much as the distribution of power among them. The goal of our statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states that can meet the needs of their citizens and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system. This is the best way to provide enduring security for the American people." Promoting democracy leads, in the long run, to real stability: "Because democracies are the most responsible members of the international system, promoting democracy is the most effective long-term measure for strengthening international stability; reducing regional conflicts; countering terrorism and terror-supporting extremism; and extending peace and prosperity."

This approach comes out of a specific analysis of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which was influenced by Middle East experts such as Bernard Lewis. A core point of this analysis is that backing the authoritarian regimes in the region made the U.S. a target for those who are determined to overthrow these regimes. Instead of choosing the "near enemy" - the autocratic regimes - they directed their attack against the power who they saw as standing behind those regimes, the United States. The widespread support or sympathy that the attacks enjoyed in the region was, according to this view, another consequence of a failed U.S. foreign policy: by supporting the autocratic regimes, America made itself vulnerable to the reproach of maintaining a "double standard" - preaching democracy on the one hand, but practicing the support of anti-democratic regimes in the Middle East for self-interested reasons on the other.

Therefore, to revise American foreign policy towards the region and to start to promote democracy should serve two strategic goals. The first goal should be to win the "hearts and minds" of the "Arab street" in order to ease the widespread anti-Americanism. The second goal should be to change the political structures in the Middle Eastern countries in order to change the terms of internal political competition - from violent suppression by the autocrats and violent attacks by opposition forces towards a peaceful competition in a democratic framework. This would lead, over time, to a moderation of the political forces that would end the export of violence in the West.

2. Not That Enthusiastic: The American Debate on the Democracy Agenda
This diagnosis and the cure that George W. Bush has proposed in several speeches led to a controversial debate in the American foreign policy community. To which extent should democracy promotion play a more prominent role in American policy towards the Broader Middle East? What about the other American interests? What are the chances to succeed, and what are the risks of such an approach?

For the adherents of "classical realism," who tend to dismiss the internal situation of other countries as irrelevant to foreign policy, Bush's "freedom agenda" looked like a revival of dangerous idealism, or even a "crusade." To promote democracy in the Arab world would mean to destabilize these countries and therefore to put American interests at risk. Without the cooperation of the Arab governments, they warned, energy security, security cooperation, anti-terrorist measures and/or the solution of regional conflicts could not be achieved.

The fact that recent elections in Iraq, Egypt, and the Palestinian Territories saw the rise of Islamist parties reinforced the argument of the classical realists: yes, autocratic regimes might be bad, but the popular forces in these countries are much worse for American interests. A democratic transformation of the region bears such high risks that it is much more prudent to maintain the status quo - the lesser evil.

Meanwhile leftist critics, who have long been very critical of American foreign policy in the Middle East, charged the "freedom agenda" of being a new cover for the old policy that was still interest-driven. Behind the announced sea-change lurked the old hypocrisy of American imperialism. Instead of building credibility by pressing Israel to respond to Arab demands and grievances, the President started a campaign that was inconsistent from the beginning on. The Bush administration's reluctance to press Saudi Arabia, its close ally and third-largest oil supplier, towards democratic reform seemed to make it all too clear that the U.S. government was far from giving up its double standard.

A third strand of criticism challenged the diagnosis that was at the center of the "freedom agenda." It came up after Islamist attacks on the European soil. These attacks, especially the London bombings in July 2005, seemed to give clear evidence that the breeding ground for terrorism is not necessarily the Middle East, but Europe itself with its large Islam minorities, which it has failed to integrate.

But the biggest handicap for the "freedom agenda" became its link to the Iraq war. As no huge quantities of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were found in Iraq, making Iraq the beacon of democracy in the Middle East has become a major argument for the war.

This association with Iraq has damaged the democracy doctrine in two ways. First, it made Iraq the test case for American democracy promotion. The messier things got in Iraq, the more it reinforced the view that outside forces cannot promote democracy, that democracy promotion doesn't work, and that to put democracy on the top of U.S. foreign policy agenda is a dangerous thing.

Second, the association with Iraq made the democracy agenda highly vulnerable to the charge that democracy promotion was only a code word for regime change by military force - for war. If American democracy promotion was intended to introduce democracy "at gunpoint," than it might be better to give up democracy promotion altogether. A crusade for democracy would not only cost many lives, but it would also be a lost cause, as the resistance movements in Iraq appeared to prove.

By making these arguments, apologists and critics of the Iraq war ignored that the Iraq war was not waged as a crusade for democracy, but for security concerns. Second, they mixed the problems of occupation and state-building with the problems of democratization. As Tom O. Melia stated, the "post facto rationalization of the Iraq action as democracy promotion, in the absence of the promised weapons of mass destruction and continuing uncertainty about pre-war Iraqi links to international terrorism, should not obscure the fact that Iraq is a case of post-conflict democratization." (1)

However, the association of the Iraq war with democracy promotion has become one of the main obstacles for the "freedom agenda." It has diminished the support for American democracy initiatives at home and abroad, and it has made it easy to dismiss American democracy promotion for those who are hostile to it. To argue that the U.S. could play a positive role in the promotion of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa has become much harder, given the ongoing battle in Iraq. Critics of the Iraq war and critics of democracy promotion now tend to share the opinion that American democracy promotion is a dangerous undertaking.

3. Looking for Allies: European Reactions and Responses
In order to broaden the support for some of the new American initiatives for democratic reform in the Broader Middle East, the Bush administration made an attempt to gain support from important partners, especially from Europeans.

While the U.S. is the most important actor in security affairs in the Broader Middle East, Europe is the most important economic power and the dominant trade partner in the region. (2) Moreover, a long shared history, including the colonial past, regional proximity, a range of economic ties, and some political activities - such as the Barcelona Process - are making Europe an important or even indispensable partner for reform in Arab countries.

But the attempt to get international, especially European, support for the American democracy agenda was not very successful. At the G-8 summit in June 2004, the U.S. presented its Broader Middle East Initiative (BMEI), designed to be the flagship of the new policy. But at the summit, the initiative was watered down, especially in its political aspects: "Beyond the idea of new dialogue on reform, the BMEI is, so far, bereft of concrete democracy policy instruments. The only new projects agreed under the Initiative relate to literacy and micro-credit, with European governments resisting a new common democracy foundation for the Middle East." (3)

The European reluctance to join the American initiative had several motives. First, Washington had not consulted them during the preparation process, hence the impression that the U.S. was trying to impose its policy on the Europeans. Second, the Europeans didn't want to be associated too closely with the U.S., which suffered, especially because of the Iraq war, from an overwhelmingly negative public opinion in the Middle East. Third, even if there was a general agreement between the U.S. and the Europeans about the need for democratic reform in the Broader Middle East, both sides disagreed about the means. Europeans did put much more emphasis on the Middle East peace process and insisted on focusing on the economy and the civil society, but were less willing to press the Arab leaders politically. Fourth, the Europeans were much less inclined to see their pre-9/11 approach as a failure.

The attempt to make democracy promotion a common transatlantic project did fail. Europeans were skeptical and mistrustful towards the new American initiative. But that does not mean that Bush's "freedom agenda" had no effect on the other side of the Atlantic; on the contrary, the American challenge forced Europeans to respond.

One effect of the American policy is that European officials have become more outspoken about democracy as a foreign policy goal. Javier Solana, the EU's High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, has declared that the values of democracy and human rights are "in our collective DNA." He went so far to say that the EU "is playing a leading role in the spread of democracy, security and prosperity." (4) And the European Security Strategy, released in December 2003, seems to echo the central theme of Bush's "freedom agenda" when it makes the link between security and democracy: "The best protection for our security is a world of well-governed democratic states."

With regard to the Middle East, however, this rhetoric lacks empirical evidence. As Richard Youngs has noted, the EU gave in the year after 9/11 "over twenty times more money for the preservation of historical sites in the Middle East than for democracy building."(5)

The new American emphasis on democracy also appears to have reinforced the critical debate about European policies towards the Middle East and North Africa. Various reports and conferences have concluded that the Barcelona Process, in the years between 1995 and 2005, has been disappointing, at least on a political level. (6) The European Parliament's sub-committee on human rights has issued a critical study on EU democracy and human rights assistance. (7) All of this does not represent, to be sure, a broad political movement. But some of these activities, often linked to think tanks (8), are beginning to connect, and new initiatives on a European level which seek to raise the European profile in democracy promotion are evolving. (9)

These attempts to raise the European profile in democracy promotion in its southern neighborhood are complicated by the fact that European foreign policy is complicated itself. Without the push of powerful states, or powerful alliances of states, new initiatives on an EU level will remain weak. And on the other hand, powerful states are able to veto those initiatives, or water them down. Furthermore, as every single state is not only part of EU foreign policy making, but has, in addition to that, its own policy towards North Africa and the Middle East, the challenge remains to bring all the relevant actors on board.

4. From Policy to Politics: Challenges on the Ground
While European support for a democratic transformation of the Broader Middle East has remained weak so far, the Bush administration's efforts to translate the democracy agenda into politics on the ground have met a broad range of problems. There are at least three major challenges the Bush administration has had to deal with: first, the weakness of genuine liberal, democratic forces; second, the strength of the Islamist movement; and third, the resistance of the autocratic rulers.

The weakness of liberal-minded democratic forces in countries that have been ruled by autocrats for a long period of time should not come as a surprise. For decades, there has been no or very little public space in Arab countries to discuss politics openly, to found organizations, and to build mass support. The omnipresent secret police, a main pillar of most regimes in the region, have efficiently prevented every attempt to build competing secular political forces that might be able to challenge the autocratic rulers. (10) With a skillful combination of hard and soft repression, dissidents have been silenced or forced to go into exile.

The only opposition force that has a solid base at its disposal in the region are the Islamists. As the autocratic regimes had to find a compromise with the existing religious forces, there remained some public space for civil activities of religious actors: in and around the mosque. Even though some of the regimes crushed on the most radical Islamist elements, they were not able to exert complete control of their activities. The existing religious networks can therefore be used to build political support. Furthermore, autocratic regimes have utilized radical Islam in order to strengthen their rule, to legitimize tough state control and human rights violations, and to assure European and American support by presenting themselves as the only guarantee against an overtake by radical Islam.

Whether Islamism will split into a moderate and a radical wing remains to be seen. What seems to be crucial is the context in which they operate. When there is a strong, established, respected and secured political framework, the chances of moderation seem to be much better than in countries without stable statehood. However, the broad support that radical Islam enjoys in the region is certainly not making democratic progress any easier. It leads to the conclusion that Marina Ottaway and Tom Carothers have drawn: without the participation of the Islamists, "democracy is impossible in the Middle East." (11)

What Washington did in the last year was to press autocratic regimes to liberalize, openly as well as behind closed doors. Some of them - Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia - have responded with a reform agenda. But most of these concessions have been merely cosmetic; in some countries, there is even a backlash going on now, most visible in Egypt. The Washington Post recently noted that "Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak tried twice last year to stage a democratic election that would impress the Bush administration as credible without risking his hold on power... Now Mr. Mubarak is moving away from even the pretense of democracy." (12) At the Arab League summit in March 2006, the reform program launched in Tunis in 2004 wasn't even mentioned.

In their long experience with Western demands to liberalize and democratize, Arab leaders have developed sophisticated tactics and strategies to counter these demands. According to Bahey Eldin Hassan, Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Arab governments "have demonstrated an impressive ability to maneuver and play on contradictions within the international community." The "so-called major powers of the world have yet to realize that they are mere children playing among regimes well schooled in despotism." (13)

The autocratic regimes red line of danger becomes visible when they perceive that reforms might challenge their power base. What they see as especially dangerous are activities of NGOs that are not controlled by them. The "colored revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, where NGOs played a role in the overthrow of autocratic governments, reinforced the perception of foreign-funded NGOs as a central threat to their rule. (14)

It was precisely along that line that the Forum for the Future - the diplomatic centerpiece of Washington's Broader Middle East Initiative - collapsed in Bahrain in November 2005. Egypt decided to confront the U.S. openly by refusing to sign a declaration that would have - in return for financial incentives - permitted the funding for NGOs that were not registered with governments. (15)

According to Marina Ottaway and Tom Carothers, many Arab rulers didn't take the new American democracy agenda seriously, but it seems that there was at least some irritation, in 2003 and 2004. (16) Meanwhile, there is a sense among rulers, as Hassan M. Fathah has noted, that they simply can wait out the end of the Bush administration - and than do business as usual again. (17)

5. Start Again: The Need for a Transatlantic Strategy to Promote Democracy in the Middle East and North Africa
The efforts of the Bush administration to help along a process of democratic transformation of the Middle East and North Africa have met many obstacles: skepticism in American foreign policy circles, reluctance of Europeans to participate, and difficulties in translating the agenda into politics on the ground.

Furthermore, Washington is facing huge challenges in the region now: the looming full scale civil war in Iraq, the election of a Hamas-run government in the Palestinian territories, Tehran's nuclear program, and the unstable situation in Syria and Lebanon. All of these issues have forced the Bush administration to adopt a more "realistic" foreign policy approach. As Washington needs regional partners to deal with these issues, autocrats in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and elsewhere have regained much of their bargaining power. Every attempt to press these allies towards internal reform bears the risk of antagonizing them, damaging other American foreign policy goals.

As a consequence, the prospects for a democratic transformation in the Arab world do not look very promising at the moment. At least in the short term, other pressing issues have displaced democracy promotion on the American foreign policy agenda.

But the agenda of American foreign policy is one thing, the need for reform in the Arab world another. The 9/11 attacks were a wake-up call for the West, making it clear that the status quo is untenable and that the West has to revise its approach towards the Middle East and North Africa. It is important not to fall asleep again; the stakes are high.

The new American approach has been centered on the terrorist threat. But terrorism is not the only problem of the Arab world - far from it. The region's stability is massively at risk because of its social and economic situation - and because of the incompetence and unwillingness of autocratic rulers to respond to the challenges, to deliver the public goods that are needed. A fast growing population, a poor economic performance, and a dependency on oil and gas (which will run out during the next few decades, at least in some countries) are likely to lead to a further deterioration.

A report from the World Bank makes clear what is at stake. (18) The recent growth in GDP in the region is due chiefly to the boosted oil revenues. The lack of economic development contrasts with the urgent need to provide a young and growing population with jobs, which is the "single most important development challenge over the coming decade. Close to 100 million new jobs will be needed over the next 20 years to keep pace with new labor force entrants and absorb the current unemployment. This means that the number of jobs in the region needs to double during that period." (19)

The report identifies three main realignments: one, from closed to more open economies; two, from public sector-dominated to private sector-led economies; and three, from oil-dominated to more diversified economies. (20) The achievement of these goals "requires fundamental changes in the role of government in some key areas of policymaking and considerable enhancement of its effectiveness in others." (21) Compared with other regions, the quality of governance is poor; the quality of public accountability in the Middle East/North Africa is worse than in every other region in the world. (22)

Without dramatic economic and political changes in the coming years, the region's stability will be replaced by disorder and violence. The UN Arab Development Report 2004, written by Arab reformers, paints a bleak picture:

"If the repressive situation in Arab countries today continues, intensified societal conflict is likely to follow. In the absence of peaceful and effective mechanisms to address injustice and achieve political alternation, some might be tempted to embrace violent protest, with the risk of internal disorder. This could lead to chaotic upheavals that might force a transfer of power in Arab countries, but such a transfer could well involve armed violence and human losses that, however small, would be unacceptable. Nor would a transfer of power through violence guarantee that successor governance regimes would be any more desirable." (23)

The World Bank report as well as several UN Arab Development Reports leave no doubt that the current Arab crisis is, to a large extent, caused by bad governance. In other words, the autocratic structure of these nations has become an obstacle to the economic and political modernization of the Arab world.

Given the likely prospect of an economic and political breakdown, or at least of a massive crisis of the region, it is in the European and the American interest to use the leverage they have to support democratic reform. Both sides of the Atlantic dispose of considerable influence in the region - aid, trade, diplomacy, but only by coordinating their efforts and developing a common strategy (24) will they have a chance to influence the behavior of the autocratic rulers. If Europe and the U.S. don't try to change the political framework in the region today, they will pay a huge price tomorrow. It is time to start again - seriously.


1. Thomas O. Melia, Introduction, "The Democracy bureaucracy. The Infrastructure of American Democracy Promotion," The Princeton Project, September 2005
2. Cf. "An EU Strategic Partnership with the Mediterranean and the Middle East," 23 Mar 2004
3. Richard Youngs, "European Democracy Promotion in the Middle East," p. 111.
4. Javier Solana, "Europe's leading role in the spread of democracy," Financial Times, March 14, 2005.
5. Europe's Uncertain Pursuit of Middle East Reform, Carnegie Papers Number 45, June 2004, p. 10
6. A résumé: Irene Menéndez and Richard Youngs, "The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Turns Ten: Democracy's Halting Advance?"
7. NIMD Report
8. FRIDE in Spain, IMD in the Netherlands, and others.
9. Cf. "A European Foundation for Democracy through Partnership. A proposal to the Democracy Caucus of the European Parliament for a new initiative in EU democracy assistance world-wide." NIMD, The Hague
10. Cf. Marina Ottaway, Thomas Carothers, "Think Again: Middle East Democracy," Foreign Policy, November/December 2004.
11. Ibid pg. 3
12. Editorial, The Washington Post, February 21, 2006.
13. Bahey Eldin Hassan, "Broader Middle East Initiative: Arab Governments Strike Back," Arab Reform Bulletin, March 2006, Volume 4, Issue 2 (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace).
14. Thomas Carothers, "The Backlash Against Democracy Promotion," Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006.
15. "The deal breaker was a statement in the draft declaration committing participants to fostering "the roles of civil society, including N.G.O.s," to which Cairo wanted to add the provision that the N.G.O.s be "legally registered in accordance with the laws of the country." When Washington resisted Cairo's request, the Forum collapsed and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit left the meetings before their conclusion." Michael A. Weinstein, "Forum for the Future Ends in Discord," Power and Interest News Report, 28 November 2005.
16. "Think again: Middle East democracy," Foreign Policy, November/December 2004.
17. Hassan M. Fattah, "Democracy in the Arab World, a U.S. Goal, Falters," The New York Times, April 10, 2006.
18. "Middle East and North Africa: Economic Developments and Prospects 2005." The World Bank, Washington D.C. 2005. Cf. also "Job, Growth, and Governance in the Middle East and North Africa. Unlocking the Potential for Prosperity," The World Bank, Washington D.C. 2003.
19. Middle East and North Africa, p. 43.
20. Ibid.
21. Ibid p. 66
22. Ibid p. 67.
23. Arab Human Development Report 2005, Executive summary.
24. Cf. Ronald D. Asmus, Larry Diamond, Mark Leonard, Michael McFaul, "A Transatlantic Strategy to Promote Democracy in the Broader Middle East," The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2005, pp. 7-21.

Dr. Ulrich Speck is a political analyst and journalist, based in Frankfurt am Main. He also writes a foreign policy blog for the German weekly Die Zeit (click here). This essay is the product of a two-month DAAD/AICGS fellowship at AICGS in Spring 2006. The author wants to thank the DAAD for the grant and AICGS for all kinds of support. To leave feedback for the author, please e-mail him at