Barry Rubin is the editor of the Middle Eastern Review of International Affairs and the Director of the Interdisciplinary Center at the Global Research in International Affairs in Israel. He is currently a visiting professor at American University, in Washington, DC. A columnist for the Jerusalem Post, his articles have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Middle East Quarterly, and numerous other publications. Mr. Rubin has appeared on Nightline, Face the Nation, Larry King Live, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
The issue of democracy in the Middle East has outsized importance for the region and for the United States; it will occupy our generation and perhaps the next.
There is a paradox in the Middle East. Incompetent, corrupt governments have failed to develop their own societies, to provide the context for a higher standard of living, and to defeat Israel. Their countries trail the entire world (save sub-Saharan Africa) in most statistics. But these same bad governments have remained in power for more than fifty years and remain entrenched. How do they do this? By systematically redesigning their societies so as to remain in power.
Nearly all institutions exist to insure regime protection. For example, military officers are promoted on the basis of loyalty not competence, they are moved around frequently, policed by paramilitaries, and kept away from weapons systems that could be turned against their political masters. Likewise, the economy is dominated by government industries and by select families loyal to the regime.
Even elements of civil society that elsewhere in the world counterbalance governments have been co-opted in the Middle East. The press is rigidly controlled. Genuine human rights organizations are outlawed and replaced by fraudulent entities loyal to the regime. Labor unions are small and weak. Businessmen have little choice but to keep silent to preserve government contracts and to work with government industries and the oligarchic families. The dominant ideologies (Arab nationalism, populism, Islamism), co-opt intellectuals and students for by promoting these ideologies they too become part of the problem.
Passionate issues overwhelm normal thinking. Perceived threats from Israel, the United States, and the West as a whole to Arab values and Islam take priority over all other issues. Waging an eternal battle against these threats means indefinitely postponing development. The Arab-Israeli conflict in particular is too valuable for regimes; deprived of it they might not stand.
Islamist movements, with their threat to unleash chaos and bloodshed, offer regimes a great benefit,. In Algeria, to stave off an Islamist electoral win, the military staged a coup that kept it in power. Fearful of an Islamist future, roughly 60% of Arab populations supporting their regime, perhaps 20-30% backing the Islamists, and only 5% supporting liberal democrats. The tiny proportion of liberal reformers and democrats means that it will be a long time they emerge on top.
Although all democratic traditions take a long time to develop, decades or even centuries, with reversals to be expected, the Middle East is falling further behind. Without the institutions of civil society, such as liberal universities, news outlets, and political parties, the number of democratic reformers builds very slowly. Even the easiest ideas, such as women's rights, face opposition from the Islamic leadership and much of the general population. On harder questions such as terrorism, liberals are reduced to distinguishing between "good" and "bad" terrorism (good if directed at Israel, bad if directed at Muslims).
Liberals are also have few allies. In Kuwait the regime itself has been open to reform, but elsewhere, most notably Egypt, their only potential allies versus the power holders are Islamists.
Regimes, for their part, seem to operate on the premise that Westerners are stupid. They expect the West to accept talk as sufficient change. One result is that the Middle East is changing the West's thinking in certain contexts, rather than the reverse. For a prime example, note how Middle East studies in the United States has become not unlike what is taught at the University of Damascus.
American policy toward the Middle East is basically correct: maintain pressure on regimes and help reformers where possible. The West should broadly encourage hopeful developments. In the Persian Gulf region, countries such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are becoming pragmatic thanks to the influence of their business communities. Monarchies in Morocco and Jordan show progressive tendencies, and in Lebanon a popular revolution has largely expelled Syria's occupation. Communal blocks negotiating over power could be successful in Iraq. In Iran, a majority wants liberal democracy and free elections, though the reformers accomplished next to nothing during their years in power. Only fear of savage repression and mass murder keeps the populace in line with the regime.