Pundits on the right have been quick to say the Bush administration deserves credit for sparking democratic rumblings across the Middle East. They note the popular protests against Syrian influence in Lebanon and Egyptian President Husni Mubarak ’s pledge to allow multiple candidates to run in the presidential elections, as well as local elections in Saudi Arabia. These events, they argue, show that the war in Iraq is realizing its true purpose. Should critics of the invasion of Iraq now concede that they were wrong? Voices on the left and other critics of the war tell us no. All they see is hypocrisy. They point out, correctly, that democracy in Iraq has failed to include the disgruntled Sunni Arab community, that Mubarak has taken only superficial liberalizing steps while imprisoning a likely presidential rival, that the United States looks away as U.S. allies in Jordan and Tunisia crack down on free speech and dissent and Israel expands settlements in the West Bank. Mr. Bush, they say, doesn’t care about real democracy. He prefers a weak, divided region all the easier to control from the outside.
But there’s more to it than that. Behind recent events is a range of diverse movements, from liberal to Islamist, which have sought since the early 1970s to challenge authoritarian rule.
The legitimacy of Arab regimes, which was built upon the nationalist movements of the 1950s, began to wane by the late 1960s along with funding for their extensive welfare systems. Student protests, labor organizing and Islamist movements emerged to pose challenges. As their grip on populations slipped, states began to face violent opposition from militant Islamist groups, while moderate Islamist social movements gathered popular support by providing social services and challenging corruption.
In response, authoritarian regimes have experimented with limited reforms, but have only survived by repressing both Islamist and secular oppositional movements. Those states friendly to Washington counted on U.S. military, political and economic support in these efforts to maintain power.
That is, until now. Mr. Bush’s wielding of American power has destabilized the status quo and put pressure on regimes to reform. But U.S. policy has done little to promote real accountability and political openness. The war has greatly increased regional instability and animosity towards U.S. policy and puts the potential for deep and meaningful reforms at risk.
The United States has long had many other tools available to promote good governance and public participation in politics. In particular we could make it clear to all states, allies included, that the United States is concerned for their long-term stability in the face of legitimate pressures from their own citizens. The United States should promote the system of democracy and the rule of law, rather than particular factions or players. One place to start: In Egypt the United States could apply pressure to end the state of emergency imposed after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, helping to open up the political arena for greater public participation.
In the short-term, struggles for reform within Arab societies are not likely to coincide with U.S. geopolitical interests. Just as political reforms will open up space for liberal movements, Egypt will have to legalize Islamist parties while Palestinian and Lebanese politics will need to incorporate the widely popular Islamist groups Hamas and Hizballah. The danger is not that Islamists will gain power, but that limits on democracy (by the regimes or due to U.S. pressure) will derail genuine reform efforts.
If U.S. policy does not promote the inclusion of all voices equally across the region, then those groups labeled as unsupportive of U.S. interests will find themselves marginalized from, and fighting against, reform efforts. Moreover, a selective embrace of certain reform movements may doom them to accusations of being U.S. puppets. Promoting democracy means helping to open up the political arena for greater public participation. The United States itself is better served in the long run by inclusive governments accountable to their own people.