Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 6   No. 6-7 Table of Contents
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June/July 2004 

Democratization, the Peace Process, and Islamic Extremism
by Gary C. Gambill

Algeria election

Over the last several months, the Bush administration's self-declared "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East"[1] has sparked a contentious debate in the United States and abroad about the viability and wisdom of promoting political and economic reform in the region. As is often the case when American Middle East policy is discussed in the public sphere, the debate has been clouded by an abundance of easy answers to difficult questions. Two, in particular, merit close examination:

I. Arab Democratization and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The most common objection among Arab and Western critics alike is the claim that a concerted American campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East will be either ineffective or counterproductive in the absence of significant progress toward a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) asserted that unless the United States devotes itself to "pursuing a balanced Israel-Palestinian peace process," its democracy initiative "is likely to be overwhelmed by the rising tide of Middle Eastern violence and anti-Americanism."[2] "Nothing will change in the region if the Palestine question is not resolved fairly and justly," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said flatly in April.[3] Those who make such claims rarely offer explicit causal explanations, but it is possible to discern several variants.

1.a. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict causes regional insecurity, which impedes democratization

According to this argument, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or, more generally, the Arab-Israeli conflict) perpetuates a regional security climate that is inimical to political reform. There are several sub-variations of this claim, but the most well developed holds that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict allows authoritarian governments to maintain oversized security apparatuses and restrict public freedoms in the name of national security.

Although Arab governments do typically justify repressive policies on this basis, outside of Lebanon and Syria (and, to a lesser extent, Jordan), the conflict with Israel does not directly affect, or even have the potential to directly affect, the livelihoods of Arab citizens. No informed expert on the region would contend that a war between Israel and Egypt (let alone Morocco or Bahrain) is a real possibility in the next ten years. The threat of internal subversion by Palestinian militants is also very remote in most Arab states. None of the thousands of militants rotting away in Egyptian jails have anything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Were the conflict to be resolved, Arab regimes would have no trouble finding other suitable security pretexts to oppress their people.

Even in Syria and Lebanon, the claim that the external security threat posed by Israel decisively inhibits democratic transition is dubious. Comparable or greater external security threats did not block democratization in India, South Korea, or Taiwan.[4] In fact, external security threats eventually helped facilitate democratization in Taiwan - the military dictatorship introduced reforms partly in hopes of mobilizing greater Western sympathy for its struggle against China. If the Syrian government were really worried about "Zionist expansion," it would not be so complacent about committing gross human rights violations.

1.b. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict fuels anti-American sentiment among Arabs, which impedes democratization.

A second variation of this argument holds that Arab citizens are so outraged by Israeli occupation of Palestinian land that they are less willing to press forcefully for reform so long as it continues. The ICG report cited above claims that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "for most Arabs . . . a deeply personal matter, a standard by which almost all else is judged."[5] American support for Israel is said to deeply offend Arab sensibilities, another report notes, generating "solidarity between Arab leaders and their citizens" in the face of American pressure for reform.[6]

Their contention is not that Arabs don't want the United States to encourage their governments to reform, but that Arabs don't believe this is the American intention because of US support for Israel. Thomas Carothers, a prominent expert on democracy promotion, argues that restoring American credibility in the Arab world will be very difficult "without a substantial rebalancing of the US approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."[7] Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski contends that the United States must "define the substance of a peace settlement in the Middle East and then work energetically to put that agreement in place" so as to "give greater credibility" to its democracy initiative.[8]

These assertions are very dubious - Arabs doubt American commitment to democracy promotion because the United States has long supported autocratic regimes in the Middle East. These suspicions may be heightened by the Bush administration's policy toward Israel, but the only way the United States can allay them is to take real action in support of reform.

While American support for Israel contributes to negative perceptions of the United States in the Arab world, it is not necessarily the main cause of anti-Americanism. According to June 2004 public opinion poll, citizens of Jordan and Egypt are more critical of American Mideast policy than Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza.[9] If American support for Israel was the primary driving force behind negative perceptions of the United States, one would expect the Palestinians, who have suffered greatly as a result of the conflict with Israel, to have the most jaded view of American intentions, not citizens of the only two Arab states that are at peace with Israel and the two largest recipients of American aid in the Arab world. Indeed, the fact that anti-American perceptions are higher in Egypt and Jordan suggests that it is American support for autocratic Arab governments, not Israel, that most alienates Arabs.

Whatever the causes of anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, it has clearly become taboo for liberal reformers in the region to openly praise Bush's declared support for democracy. But this does not mean that they don't want American pressure for reform - indeed, a number of prominent intellectuals have defied the taboo. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent Egyptian sociologist who was released from prison in late 2002 after the White House publicly criticized the Mubarak regime's handling of his trial (which offers him a measure of protection from the threat of future arrest) openly advocates external pressure on Arab regimes to democratize.[10] "Political reform and safeguarding human rights are all positive things, regardless of the motives," said Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the main Shiite opposition group in Bahrain, last month.[11]

1.c. More representative and accountable Arab governments will be more hostile to Israel

According to this argument, promoting democracy in the Arab world in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement will be counterproductive because democratic Arab regimes are likely to adopt a more hostile position toward the Jewish state. Ray Takeyh, for example, argues that if Arab states become more democratic, "the prevailing cold peace [between Israel and the Arab world] is likely to be transformed into a cold war."[12]

There is some merit to this argument. While there is a large body of evidence showing that disputes among fully-developed democracies are nearly always resolved peacefully (it is commonly said that no two democracies have ever fought a war, but it depends on how one defines the democratic threshold), it has also been well-established that democratizing governments are more war-prone than either mature democracies or autocratic governments.[13] Because nascent democracies emerging from a long period of authoritarianism are often politically unstable, new governing elites may seek to bolster their fragile position (or overcome internal differences) by appealing to nationalist sentiments. If economic conditions are bad and can't easily be fixed, they may look abroad for easier (or more immediate) ways to prove their merit to the people. If the media is still largely state-controlled (as in Serbia after the breakup of Yugoslavia), they will find it very easy to manipulate public opinion. Given the level of popular antipathy toward Israel (and the United States) in Arab states, the risks inherent in democratic transitions are significant.

However, the United States can mitigate such risks through democracy assistance programs that target areas of deficiency, such as press freedom and rule of law, before transitional elections (i.e. elections that bring to power a new governing coalition) take place. The Bush administration has clearly prioritized reforms that increase the accountability of Arab governments over reforms that increase their representativeness. Decision-making in Arab governments will be heavily dependent on the orientations of a small number of individuals for the foreseeable future, but Western governments can help ensure that their decisions are at least subject to public scrutiny.

In light of deep popular antipathy to Israel in the Arab world, more representative and accountable Arab governments may have less flexibility in making peace, but they will certainly also have less flexibility in waging war. In any event, the question of Arab flexibility is only one side of the coin. The other side is whether Israel would act differently if it lived in a region populated by Arab democracies. Many Israelis would unquestionably have more confidence in a peace treaty signed with a government in Damascus that is perceived as legitimate by its own people.

II. Arab Democratization and Islamic Extremism

Critics of the Bush administration's campaign to promote political reform in the Arab world have also revived the long-standing argument that democratization in the region will bring radical Islamists to power. "If we open the door completely before the people, there will be chaos," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned in March.[14] Brzezinski suggests that the Saudi public might vote for Osama bin Laden over Crown Prince Abdullah in a free election.[15]

Actually, according to Saudi Arabia's first-ever independent public opinion poll, conducted by the nongovernmental Saudi National Security Assessment Project from July to November 2003, bin Laden would not fare nearly at well in an election as Brzezinski imagines. While almost half of the 15,452 respondents said they support bin Laden's avowed political aims, only 4.7% wished to have him as their political leader.[16] Nevertheless, it is true that radical Islamist movements enjoy considerable public sympathy throughout the Middle East.

However, the Arab world's authoritarian political climate has itself fueled the growth of militant Islamist movements - this is what President Bush meant when he talked last month of breaking the "cycle of dictatorship and extremism" in the Middle East.[17] Denying citizens peaceful channels of political participation naturally enhances the appeal of ideologies that radically challenge the entrenched political order, particularly among intellectuals. A quarter of a century ago, most radical opposition movements in the Arab world were leftist. Since the end of the Cold War, which diminished the credibility of socialist dogma, Islamic fundamentalism has been the dominant ideological force challenging autocratic governments (many formerly leftist intellectuals literally switched over).

In an environment where freedoms of speech, association, and assembly are heavily restricted, Islamists also enjoy a natural advantage because they can organize and express themselves through mosques and other religious institutions, where governments are typically reluctant to intervene. If relatively free and fair elections are held under such conditions, radical Islamists are likely to achieve inflated electoral success. This is precisely why Islamists won such an overwhelming victory in Algeria's 1991 parliamentary elections (prompting the military to seize power and annul the results). The more protected political rights and civil liberties are, the less likely Islamic extremists will monopolize the political opposition.

There is also reason to believe that Islamist movements become more moderate when they are allowed opportunities to participate in a democratic political system. Nondemocratic systems reward political groups that are secretive and doctrinaire; democratic systems reward those that are transparent and pragmatic. Turkey's Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP), which has introduced an unprecedented array of political and economic reforms since coming to power in November 2002, is a paradigmatic example of how the imperative of competing for votes can drive an Islamist group to moderate its agenda. This process of moderation is also evident in Kuwait, where Islamists are the largest opposition group in parliament. A number of Islamist MPs have dropped their opposition to women's suffrage in recent years - not because their views on gender have become more progressive, but because they believe they can compete effectively for votes from the less educated female electorate.

The "moderation imperative" of democratic systems can be enhanced (or diminished) by institutional design. For example, single member district electoral systems encourage voters to choose a candidate who can best deliver government funds and services (i.e. someone who gets along with others in parliament and can skillfully cut deals). Large district proportional representation or block vote systems, on the other hand, tend to encourage voting on the basis of ideology because office-holders do not represent local bodies of constituents (and hence are not expected to wheel and deal on their behalf). What is critically important about Jordan's switch from a block voting system in its 1989 parliamentary elections to a single member district system in subsequent elections is not that it reduced Islamist representation (from roughly 30% of seats in 1989 to 20% in 1993), but that it forced Islamist MPs to engage in "pork barrel" politics.

If non-Islamist political parties are weak, large district proportional representation systems can also dangerously inflate Islamist representation, particularly if there is a high vote threshold (the minimum percentage of votes required to win seats). The Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS) captured 188 of the 232 seats that were decided during the first round of Algeria's 1991 elections, despite winning only 48% of the votes cast. Not only was the number of seats captured by FIS way out of proportion to its percent of the popular vote, but its percent of the popular vote was itself inflated - many people chose FIS because they worried about wasting votes on parties that wouldn't reach the 7% threshold.

Another factor that enhances the moderating impact of democracy is economic liberalization. If there is a strong, independent private sector, political parties will compete with one another to represent it - whichever one does this most effectively is likely to score the greatest electoral success. If the state controls the economy, Islamist groups are more likely to rely on ideological appeals.

History has shown that wherever democracy empowers private sector economic interests, governments have been deeply committed to maintaining friendly relations with the United States irrespective of popular opinion. Consider the case of Brazil. Just weeks after 9/11, a public opinion poll showed that 79% of Brazilians were unequivocally opposed to a US military attack against Afghanistan - in sharp contrast to Europe, where public opinion was solidly supportive. Moreover, the wealthiest (and hence most educated and politically influential) stratum of the population was more opposed (83%) than the poor strata (78%). Celso Furtado, one of the Latin America's leading economists and social thinkers, wrote in an article three days after 9/11 that the terror attacks were likely carried out by the American far right to justify a takeover of the country. Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff told a reporter that he wished 25 planes had hit the Pentagon, instead of one. Conscious of public opinion polls, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso declared in an October 2001 speech before the French National Assembly that "barbarism is not only the cowardliness of terrorism but also the intolerance or the imposition of unilateral policies on a global scale."[18] None of this affected American-Brazilian relations one bit.

It is precisely for this reason that the Bush administration sees economic reform as a necessary companion to political reform in the Middle East. Economic activity throughout the Arab world is dominated by the state and by businessmen who benefit from government patronage. Successful businessmen in the Arab world are far more concerned about preserving their own preferential individual relationships with government officials than they are about whether their governments gain entry into the World Trade Organization or lift restrictions on capital flows. Autocratic governments refuse to allow their citizens unrestricted access to capital and are reluctant to introduce legal reforms guaranteeing entrepreneurs equal protection under the law precisely because they want the private sector to remain atomized and unable to act collectively.


Although governments in the Arab world are uniformly (if not equally) authoritarian (not one of them assumed power as a result of an election),[19] there is no question that the vast majority of people in the Arab world want more representative political institutions. Citizens of the four Arab countries covered in the most recent World Values Survey (WVS) were more likely to view democracy as the best form of government than Europeans or Americans, and were three times more likely to hold this view than East Asians.[20] Ultimately, the risks in giving democracy a chance in the Arab world are more manageable than the risks of appearing to be indifferent to this popular aspiration.

Related MEIB Reports

Explaining the Arab Democracy Deficit: Part I (February-March 2003)
Democratization of Capital in the Arab World (May 2003)
Explaining the Arab Democracy Deficit, Part II: American Policy (August-September 2003)
Jumpstarting Arab Reform: The Bush Administration's Greater Middle East Initiative (June/July 2004)


  [1] Transcript of Remarks by President George W. Bush at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, Washington DC, 6 November 2003.
  [2] The International Crisis Group, The Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative: Imperiled at Birth, 7 June 2004.
  [3] "Arab Business Leaders: Talk of Reforms 'Merely Rhetorical'" MENA Business Reports, 17 May 2004.
  [4] This point is made by John Waterbury, "Democracy without Democrats?: The Potential for Political Liberalization in the Middle East," in Ghassan Salame, ed., Democracy without Democrats: The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World (New York: I.B. Tauris, 1994), p. 27.
  [5] The International Crisis Group, The Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative: Imperiled at Birth, 7 June 2004.
  [6] Marina Ottaway, Thomas Carothers, Amy Hawthorne, Daniel Brumberg, "Democratic Mirage in the Middle East," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Policy Brief 20, October 2002, p. 3. Available online in PDF format.   [7] Thomas Carothers, "Democracy: Terrorism's Uncertain Antidote," Current History, December 2003.
  [8] Zbigniew Brzezinski, "The Wrong Way to Sell Democracy in the Arab World," The New York Times, 8 March 2004.
  [9] "U.S. faces credibility crisis across Arab countries, says poll," Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 23 June 2004.
  [10] "Rights activist welcomes G-8 push for democracy in Middle East; Arab governments cool," The Associated Press, 10 June 2004.
  [11] "Bahrain's king to attend G-8 summit, wants to be model of democracy for Mideast," The Associated Press, 6 June 2004.
  [12] Ray Takeyh, "Arab Democracy and U.S. Interests: Prolegomena to a Debate," The National Interest, No. 75, Spring 2004.
  [13] See Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, "Democratization and the Danger of War," International Security, No. 20, Summer 1995.
  [14] "The Middle East needs its democracy home-grown: Washington's latest initiative has Arab leaders worried," The Guardian, 29 March 2004.
  [15] Zbigniew Brzezinski, "The Wrong Way to Sell Democracy in the Arab World," The New York Times, 8 March 2004.
  [16] Although nearly two-thirds of the respondents were male, over 90% thought that women should be granted more rights and 63% said that women should be allowed to drive. See Nawaf Obaid, "What the Saudi public really thinks," The Daily Star (Beirut), 24 June 2004; "Saudis like Osama's words, not deeds," United Press International, 9 June 2004.
  [17] "Bush Urges All Autocrats To Yield Now To Democracy," The New York Times, 30 June 2004.
  [18] Kenneth R. Maxwell, "Anti-Americanism in Brazil," Correspondence, Spring 2002.
  [19] An exception of sorts is Lebanon, where Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri returned to office in after his allies triumphed in the 2000 parliamentary elections. However, this would not have happened if the Syrians hadn't allowed the billionaire construction tycoon to greatly outspend his rivals.
  [20] Quoted in United Nations Development Program, Arab Human Development Report 2003. For more on the WVS date, see Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, The True Clash of Civilizations, Foreign Policy, March/April 2003.

2004 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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