Democracy promotion in the Middle East: Good idea, wrong place and time

Democracy is a great idea; open elections are ideally the best way to choose governments; dialogue with everyone is wonderful in theory. But in the Middle East, unfortunately, as a policy this would be a disaster.

It is not Western policy but local conditions which are going to determine whether there will be democracy in the Arabic-speaking world. In my book, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), I analyze both the debate and the existing groups. The assessment must be pessimistic.

Would we like to see liberal democracy and moderation prevail with rising living standards and more freedom? Of course, but the real question is what effect certain policies would have.

The Western debate gets stranger and stranger. Among the policymaking classes, there’s a prevailing view that the Bush administration was a disaster. The rather misleading description for those who advocated a US policy of promoting democracy and overthrowing dictators – “neo-conservative” – has become among such people a curse word implying stupid and evil.

WHATEVER BECAME of good old-fashioned realism, the breakfast of champions in diplomacy for centuries? Realism, a term that has been hijacked lately far more than Islam, means to base a policy on the actually existing situation rather than one’s wish-list, building alliances on the basis of common interests. It does not mean embracing your worst enemies while kicking those with common interests in the groin. Nor does it mean acting like the nerdy kid groveling in the hope that it will make the popular guys like him. And it also doesn’t mean ignoring adversaries’ ideologies and goals.

Is it really so hard to understand that US policy should be based on working closely with Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon (moderates, not Iranian-Syrian agents), Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf emirates? Is it really so hard to understand that US policy should also be based on combating Iran, Syria, Sudan, Hizbullah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhoods, as well as al-Qaida?

We saw what happened in Iran after experts predicted in 1978 that anything would be better than the shah and that moderates would inevitably prevail.

We saw what happened with the Palestinian elections, for while Fatah was no prize, Hamas is far worse and eager for bloodshed. We are about to see what will happen with Lebanese elections which are nominally democratic but influenced by Iranian-Syrian money and intimidation, as a government emerges likely to lead Lebanon into the Iranian bloc.

In Turkey, the several-times-elected AK regime, although still presented internationally as a model moderate Muslim government, is engaged in systematically Islamizing institutions and taking the country down a road leading closer to Teheran than to Washington.

I DO NOT LIKE saying this because I know many courageous liberal dissidents and would like them to win. US and Western policy should always press for their rights, against their imprisonment.

But why should the United States pursue a policy that we have every reason to believe will be catastrophic: namely, pushing for a situation in which radical Islamists are more likely to take over.

Examples have been given of people who might be expected to be liberal preferring to back Islamist parties. But Egypt is virtually the only place this seems to be happening. Elsewhere, people who might be expected to be liberal are supporting the existing regimes out of fear of Islamists. I think that Egypt is a misleading case for that reason. And in Egypt, the leading “liberal” group has now been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood and spouts a very radical anti-American line.

Do we really want to contribute to subverting the Egyptian regime, with all its faults, and making the Brotherhood more powerful? The reaction is arrogance on the part of the radicals and despair among the moderates. The liberals conclude, you hear this all the time in Turkey, that America wants the Islamists to win.

I don’t prefer this situation. I don’t like it. But in a world where Islamists seek to overthrow nationalists, in which an Iranian-Syrian led alliance is trying to gain hegemony in much of the region, I feel that Western policy needs to back the regimes against the revolutionaries.

There are some ethnic or religious communities which have an interest in supporting a moderate democratic approach. At present, this includes Iraqi Kurds and Shi’ites; Lebanese Sunni Arabs, Christians and Druse; and the Berbers of the Maghreb. These are, however, special cases.

There are also very systematic campaigns to fool well-intentioned, gullible Westerners. These are often carried out by having moderate statements in English directed to a foreign audience and revolutionary extremist ones in Arabic directed at one’s own society. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has created a very nicely done English-language Web site that would make it seem the organization is something between the Democratic Party and the March of Dimes.

If the West engages with Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhoods, while working to create a situation in which these groups can compete for power more effectively, the results will be disastrous both for the West and for the Arabs who become victims of the resulting Islamist regimes. No argument, no matter how sincerely heartfelt or superficially clever, alters that fact. That is a tragedy, but in policy terms it is also a necessity to deal with the reality of Middle East polities and societies.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal.

The Internal Conflict of the Muslim world in a nutshell.

(HH: Here is a bit of a transcript from Memritv. IN it we have an extremist debating a liberal Muslim. Note the profoundly different worldviews exposed by this short exchange.)

Yasser Qechlaq: … I welcome any dictatorship that allows me to wage resistance, in order to restore my rights and my honor. I welcome any dictatorship in the world.

‘Uqab Saqr: It is ridiculous that we call America a dictatorship because of Abu Ghuraib. In the Arab world, there are 100,000 Abu Ghuraibs, which the rulers use against their own peoples.


I hope that all Arab regimes, starting with our Syrian neighbor, will treat their peoples like Israel and America treat their own peoples. If you establish a “dictatorship” like Israel or America here, I will kiss your hands.

Yasser Qechlaq: We don’t want it.

‘Uqab Saqr: Maybe you don’t want it, but I do.


Yasser Qechlaq: If you go to America and defend Al-Qaeda, even though it is a Jewish organization with Jewish roots and culture… If you defend it, you will go to jail.

‘Uqab Saqr: You will be treated according to the law. You might go to jail, but at least your family will know where you are.

(HH: Bang and you have it, the supremacist and the civilised. Who will win?)

Next Step After Middle East Talks: A Major War?

By CLAUDE SALHANI (Editor, Middle East Times)Published: March 02, 2009

A senior high-ranking foreign diplomat who is well acquainted with the Middle East said Friday in Washington that “a major regional war is not inconceivable.”

Although war in the Middle East is not imminent, the risk of a generalized regional conflagration nevertheless persists. Among the fuses that could ignite the next fire is the continued lack of progress with the all-but-dead peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis, and what many Arab leaders consider to be Iran’s interference in Arab affairs.

As one Lebanese official who asked not to be named pointed out, Iran is like an octopus with its tentacles touching every aspect of the multitude of problems plaguing the Middle East today.

Indeed, if U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is unable to revive the Middle East peace talks and to convince the parties concerned to move toward a settlement of the crisis, the ‘natural’ reaction could be another large-scale regional war. A war that could be precipitated by an attack on Iran by Israel, or an attack by Hezbollah on Israel.

Speaking off the record at a conference in Washington last week the diplomat said he feared that stagnation in the peace talks brought about by mounting extremism in the Middle East risks taking the entire region down a rather perilous road. An extremism that is equally visible on the Arab as well as on the Israeli side.

(HH here: other than the lip service above to the concept of Israel as an aggressor this article is pretty well balanced and actually seems to seek solutions instead of total victory for Arabs.)

It is clear that while the question of Palestine remains at the core of the Middle East’s problems, other sub-conflicts now command equal attention.

Far more worrisome is that the real estate dispute has turned into a conflict driven by religious fervor propelled by the Iranian Islamic revolution. For the first time since its inception 30 years ago the Iranians are finally starting to see some success in their efforts to bridge the Sunni-Shiite schism.

Close cooperation has been established between Iran and Sunni jihadist groups now settled in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, turning Lebanon into a microcosm of the many problems affecting the region today, and which have become inseparable.

That is easier said than done. Iran’s meddling in the Arab-Israeli dispute further complicates an already complex series of conflicts. There used to be one conflict in Palestine, there are now two: one involving Hamas and the other the Palestinian Authority. There used to be one conflict between the Arabs and Israel, there are now several: there is an Israeli-Syrian dispute, an Israeli-Lebanese dispute and an Israeli-Hezbollah dispute. There is now also an Israeli-Iranian dispute.

Can each of these conflicts be solved independently of the others? There are two schools of thought. A number of observers think it would be impossible to try and solve any one of these issues independently. Other observers say, all these different issues need to be addressed simultaneously.

Rendering negotiations even more tedious is that most of the groups in conflict with Israel today refuse to hold direct talks with the Jewish state. Hamas, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Hezbollah refuse to engage Israel in direct talks, insisting instead on having negotiations with Israel conducted through third parties.

The bottom line here is that the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East has changed – and it would be safe to add, not for the better.

There was quasi unanimity among a number of senior diplomats, current and former U.S. State Department officials and leading experts on Lebanese affairs attending a conference in Washington last week that the new danger posed to the region is now clearly emanating from the Islamic Republic.

What makes this situation so much more volatile today is that all these problems have become intricately interwoven and in many instances, with Lebanon caught in its middle much as a fly in a spider’s web.

What happens in Lebanon in the upcoming June 7 parliamentary elections will in fact be a good litmus test for the rest of the region. At stake in these elections is the very essence of democracy taking hold in the Middle East. Lebanon’s June 7 elections are going to be a major test of Lebanon’s stability and its ability to demonstrate that it can hold on to its democracy, tattered as it might be.