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Middle East: How Is U.S. 'Democratization' Policy Received In The Arab World? (Part 2)

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. President George W. Bush now routinely speaks about Washington's intervention in Iraq as part of a new U.S. policy to build democracy in the Middle East. The centerpiece of that initiative is to transform Iraq into a functioning democratic state that will inspire change in neighboring societies and help quell the growth of terrorism. In this second of a two-part series on democracy in the Middle East, RFE/RL looks at the early reception of the new initiative in the Arab world.

Prague, 26 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The new U.S. initiative for the Middle East has yet to be spelled out in detail beyond creating a model democratic system of government in Iraq.

But Washington's stated intention of encouraging all Arab states to become more democratic is already being debated in the region, and the early reactions are mixed.

Ayed S. R. Manna is a political analyst and member of the Kuwait Journalists Association in Kuwait City. He says newspapers in the Persian Gulf region widely reported U.S. President George W. Bush's speech earlier this month promising to expand global democracy.

But Manna says Arab audiences remain highly uncertain about how Bush wants to achieve this goal. He says many people wonder if Washington's plans include further military interventions such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq to set up new governments.

"[People ask] what the Americans can do to promote this kind of democracy. Are they going to do the same as in Iraq and Afghanistan -- invading the countries? This is something which concerns people and they don't want it to happen," Manna said.

He continued: "[For example,] a country like Syria, for the Kuwaitis, is a friendly nation. But at the same time, it is not a democratic nation. What can the Bush administration do to democratize the Syrian government?"

Still, while some worry about Washington's plans for states with which it has tense relations, other people do want to see the U.S. apply constructive pressure on regimes it has long supported. Manna says that if Washington, joined by the EU, were to directly link political and commercial support for Arab governments to their progress in introducing democratic reforms, many regimes would respond in order to ensure their survival.

Other regional analysts agree that tough U.S. demands could stimulate changes. But they caution that democracy means very different things to different elements of Arab society, and that changes welcomed by some would be strongly resisted by others.

Nazar Hamsi, a professor of politics at the American University of Beirut, says that democracy and power sharing are foreign ideas for many people in the region, where tribal and clan relationships still define much of daily life. He says those relationships encourage groups to monopolize as much power as possible in order to satisfy their kinsmen. Giving up, or sharing, authority with other groups represents a defeat.

Hamsi says that in most Middle Eastern countries, there is no sense that groups win temporary power by popular consensus in accordance with a higher, constitutional order. "Democracy requires a very essential condition of a liberal mentality," he said. Governments in Mideast countries and societies "are more adjusted to tribal, clannish kinds of familial distribution of power, rather than the idea that the state has succeeded in ruling over them due to the concord of the law or the constitutions."

He says that several of the Arab states which were once under the tutelage of Western powers have cultivated the appearance of democratic republics, with presidents, parliaments, and periodic elections. But their carefully managed elections and parliaments serve only to provide endorsements of the regime. The many Arab monarchies usually have "consultative assemblies" serving the same function.

Beyond the difficulties of changing fundamental social attitudes -- and the need to radically overhaul existing constitutions and election procedures to give them legitimacy -- efforts to encourage democracy in the Middle East face an additional challenge. And that is determining just what form democracy in the Arab world would take.

Many liberal Arabs schooled in Western ideas of democracy want to duplicate the secular-based system of Europe and America. But many Islamists, on the other hand, favor a more homegrown vision of an egalitarian society under religious leadership -- what is now widely termed "Islamic democracy."

Kuwaiti journalist Manna calls the two alternatives incompatible. He says that any U.S. pressure on Middle Eastern governments must be solely to encourage secular democracy. "[The Islamists] want to set up their own form of democracy within their own ideology. This is the danger and that is what should not be accepted by the democratic world," he said. "Democracy is the will of a nation; there is a constitution, there are laws, and this constitution might not completely agree with the religion, especially in freedom of expression. If there is a democracy, democracy must be in a form similar to the European and American form."

But other analysts like Hamsi say that Arab societies may be unable to produce a democratic system that is not substantially adapted to Islam in order to give it legitimacy. He says many Arabs view secular democracy not just as a political system but as a way of life, and that way of life -- seen as contentious and permissive -- clashes with many religious values.

"The crisis is that you are trying to implement something alien to the culture," Hamsi said. "Alien in the sense that you have a cultural value system in this part of the world that is not receptive, basically, to democracy as democracy is seen practiced in the West. Democracy carries a system of values and the values of these cultures [in the Mideast] are different."

Hamsi notes that Islam does not envision the separation of religion from state affairs and provides a single, religious-based legal system. The separation of the secular and religious domains is one of the most fundamental organizing principles of Western democracy.

For the United States, this may mean that one of the first challenges in encouraging democracy in the Middle East will be to reassure Arabs that it is not trying to remake their societies in its own image. Bush sought to address that concern in his speech this month by saying that Washington does not expect representative governments in the Middle East to "look like us."

"As we watch and encourage reforms in the region we are mindful that modernization is not the same as Westernization. Representative governments in the Middle East will reflect their own cultures. They will not, and should not, look like us," Bush said.

But just what more representative government in the Middle East might one day look like, and whether Washington would be content with the results, remains to be seen.

Vickie Langohr, an expert on Islamic movements at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, has noted that "in almost every Arab country where there have been tentative moves toward freer elections, Islamist parties have done well." For years, U.S. officials have distanced themselves from those parties. Now, they may have to rethink that aspect of America's former Middle East strategy as well.
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