Lebanon and Iraq are gearing up for elections that many fear could result in victories for the Lebanese Hezbollah, a designated terrorist organization, and the Iraqi Al-Hashd, an Iranian proxy that maintains its own paramilitary force. These elections raise, once again, long-standing questions about democracy in the Middle East and America's role in promoting it:
Is democracy in the Middle East possible? Is it in America's interests? Can it be imposed? Will it result in victories for radicals?
Recently, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution opined that America did far too little to help democracy during the Arab Spring. America's interests are in supporting democracy, he argued, regardless of outcome. Theocratic Islamists seeking power, in his view, should be treated neutrally. "We may not like blasphemy laws," he said, "but as long as they go through a good process, are passed by a parliament, we should accept them."
Blasphemy laws, however, go far beyond a niche free speech issue, right to the core of the what we mean when we say "democracy." As the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found last year, blasphemy laws "are used disproportionately against religious minorities or dissenting members of the majority community and are ripe for abuse." Quite simply, they are used to as a justification to terrorize and otherwise abuse ethnic and religious minorities and political dissidents. This sort of illiberal democracy, which allows votes but without minority rights and related elements of a democratic civil society, is worthless.
Skepticism of illiberal democracy, and a strong desire for the countervailing forces of individual rights and separation of powers, runs deep in the American psyche. Alexander Hamilton said, "Real liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments. If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of a dictatorship."
Indeed, the concerns of Hamilton are precisely those of Western analysts anxiously waiting for upcoming elections in Iraq and Lebanon. As veteran journalist Baria Alamuddin explains, "Hezbollah and Al-Hashd exploit the democratic system but are wholly hostile to the values of democracy. We can be certain that, if they succeed, their first priority will be to manipulate the ground rules of the political system to perpetuate power in their hands." This is anathema to America's values and interests.
Over the past decade, the triumph of illiberal parties in the Near East has soured Americans on the prospects for democracy in the region. For example, in Egypt in 2012, the decidedly illiberal Muslim Brotherhood, terrorizer of Coptic Christians, secularists, and other minorities, came to power. America, unfortunately, supported quick elections before a constitution could be crafted, rather than a slower process that was favored by most liberal groups, and this helped lead to the Brotherhood's victory. The Brotherhood proceeded to destroy any pretense of governing as moderates.
Sadly, this is part of a broader pattern in which America has done too little to support liberal democrats in the past. We have also been far too ready to accept illiberal actors in the name of democracy. For example, in Iraq's first election in 2005, then-Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad complained bitterly in his memoirs that the Iranian regime provided substantial resources to illiberal, sectarian Shiite groups. America's policymakers, however, were concerned with being perceived as "interfering" in internal Iraqi politics. They therefore ignored Khalilzad's pleas for help and refused to lend support to genuine democrats. Khalilzad makes a convincing case that this mistake played a significant role in the destabilization of Iraq that followed America's withdrawal.
America should be wary of blowback, imperfect knowledge of a country's internal politics, and other factors that could make any support we lend counterproductive. But we shouldn't mistake illiberal democracy for liberal democracy. And to the degree that it is prudentially possible to support liberal democracy, and oppose illiberal "democracy," and those who cynically promote it to gain power, we should.
It is difficult to get liberal democracy in the Middle East. Supporting local, less consequential elections as a stepping stone to larger, more consequential elections is one way to try to slowly build a truly liberal democracy. Whatever our methods, as we discuss what our policies should be concerning the upcoming elections in Iraq and Lebanon, we could at least understand that our interests favor liberal democracy, not totalitarian states that come into being through democratic means.
Clifford Smith is Washington project director for the Middle East Forum.