Not so long ago, commentators were fond of noting how Samuel Huntington’s “third wave of democracy” had shattered upon the adamantine breakwater of Arab despotism. Today, with Palestinians, Iraqis and male Saudi Arabians all going to the polls in the space of a month, with Egyptians and Lebanese taking to the streets to demand a change of government, the refrain is that the tide has turned. As Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, told a forum at the right-wing Hudson Institute in early February, the shouts of “Kifaya!” (Enough!) resounding in downtown Cairo bear a cheering resemblance to the chants of “Pora!” (It Is Time!) that still reverberate in Kiev squares. If mighty Egypt succumbs to the wave that engulfed Ukraine, Gershman mused, “Pan-Arabism can be turned on its head and turned into a force for spreading democracy.” The NED head was too demure to claim that US intervention broke the dam in the Arab world, but neo-conservative eminence Richard Perle, with whom he shared the stage, was not.
There certainly has been enough kleptocracy in Egypt and enough Syrian meddling in Lebanese affairs — and the Iraqi elections on January 30 were indeed a watershed moment. Outside pressure on authoritarian states — yes, even from the Bush administration — can help to open spaces for a more participatory politics. Just because Perle stakes that claim does not make it false. But history counsels against blind acceptance of Washington’s formula that elections plus free markets equal stable democratic governance and peace. It also reminds us that Washington’s support for this formula ebbs and flows according to calculations of its own interest.
Recall that mainstream analysts spoke in such terms in the early to mid-1990s, as the third wave of elections washed over central and eastern Europe, leaking into Kuwait and the Palestinian Authority. Subsequent events in Vladimir Putin’s Russia are enough to temper the optimism, without considering Yugoslavia or Israel-Palestine. In Iraq, elections and dismantling of the state sector have not established the new political order so much as allowed the real wrangling over the distribution of power to begin.
Nor should one forget that the US winked at military coups in the 1990s that overturned the voters’ will in Algeria and Pakistan. More recently, the Bush administration called repeatedly for “regime change” to depose Yasser Arafat, but waited to back an election in Palestine until Arafat died. Only the State Department press corps could have failed to guffaw when their briefer said of what he called the “Cedar Revolution” unfolding in Lebanon: “And what does it mean to be free? It means not to have foreign forces occupying your country.”
Likewise, one should be skeptical of regional autocracies — like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia — that opt for elections but only when their interests so dictate. These governments desire to keep Washington comfortably on their side, while gradually legitimizing their rule in the eyes of the world and deflecting popular dissent at home. Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, for instance, hopes to score this trifecta with supposedly pluralistic presidential elections that bar candidates from parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood, that might have enough support to beat him. The US facilitates such regime-led faux democratization with rhetoric like that in the 2005 State of the Union address: “The great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.” Sure enough, the editor of the government-owned Rose al-Youssef magazine described Mubarak’s announcement of the “multi-party” presidential contest as “a democratic electric shock” to the presumably inert body politic.
Contemporary euphoria about Middle Eastern elections fails to draw a distinction between a serious redistribution of power, through truly unfettered competition and institutional reform, and formal elections for elections’ sake. It also can posit elections as an end in themselves — or, worse, a blessing bestowed upon benighted Arabia by American arms. This last conceit is why it is especially important to remember that in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as in Palestine, Iraq and, soon, Lebanon, elections are a response to genuine popular demand.