The administration of President George W. Bush claims a commitment to promoting democratization in the Arab world, whether through regime change or by pressuring authoritarian leaders through “transformational diplomacy” to open their political systems. It has been tempting for the administration’s supporters to find evidence for the success of these policies in the spate of elections in Arab countries in 2005.

Certainly, December’s elections for a four-year national assembly in Iraq would not have occurred had the United States not invaded the country, but the ongoing military occupation and the flourishing of numerous armed groups outside of government control raise doubts about whether the outcomes really reflect the preferences of Iraqis. Arguably, US pressure played a role in keeping the May-June elections in Lebanon on schedule, though the results there, which reinforced old confessional divisions, sapped the popular democratic energies that had earlier been on display. The US can also claim some credit for the January 2006 elections that gave Hamas control of the Palestinian Legislative Council, in what was clearly the most democratic balloting the region had seen in decades, notwithstanding having taken place under Israeli military occupation. The US response to the Hamas victory, however, betrays the hypocrisy underlying Washington’s exhortations to democratize. US spokespersons were caught in the contradiction between congratulating the Palestinians on holding successful elections and denouncing the victor as a terrorist organization. In Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, there are good reasons for questioning whether the fact of more or less democratic elections equates to democracy.

Most elections in the Arab world, however, are not democratic by any measure, and no one mistakes them as such. For years, elections in current and former “rogue states” such as Syria and Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule have been mocked as the fraudulent practices they are. Syria, for instance, has a decades-long history of mounting patently false elections for a domestic audience that is no more fooled than the international one. Syrians “approve” the president every seven years by referendum, and they “elect” the People’s Council every four years in an ostensibly multi-party competition.

Charade-like elections are also the norm in US-allied Arab countries — the examples of Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon notwithstanding — and the policies of the Bush administration have not changed this. Initially promising political openings in Jordan, Tunisia and Yemen have since been emptied of most substance, while the formal trappings of electoral democracy and pluralism remain. The more recent openings of Morocco and Egypt appear, upon closer inspection, to be little concerned with broadening real participation. In 2005, Egypt promised a competitive presidential election and then adopted measures to ensure that a real contest could not happen.

All this leads to a question: what do authoritarian regimes gain by holding bogus elections? [1] Some leaders who claim a commitment to democratization blame the lack of progress in their countries on, for example, the threat of radical Islam, the lack of viable political parties or instability resulting from weak economies. Yet virtually every regime embraces the language of democracy and most hold regular elections. Even states that have long resisted the trend toward increased participation, such as Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have held or called for elections of some kind, though the resulting assemblies have little actual power. If neither their citizens nor the international community are bedazzled by these great performances, why do authoritarian regimes invest scarce resources in elections? Why bother?

Do Elections Produce Legitimacy?

One frequent refrain is that authoritarian regimes hold elections in order to gain “legitimacy” — a slippery term that, in the broadest sense, means something like the consent of the ruled. [2] But the reasons for consent are many, and not all of them require the unencumbered choice between politicians vying for public support that the term “elections” implies.

One possibility is that people recognize their leader as possessing the moral authority to rule according to religious prescriptions. Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy and Morocco’s Alaoui monarchy both claim the right to the throne based in part on claims of familial descent from the Prophet Muhammad. They recurrently deploy symbols and rhetoric to that end — the Moroccan king portrays himself as the “Commander of the Faithful,” while Jordan’s King Hussein claimed a role as protector of the holy sites in Jerusalem. The ruling family in Saudi Arabia stakes a different, religiously based claim to moral authority, stemming from its role as the protector of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. All three monarchies have continuously presented themselves as legitimate, though the consent of their subjects has been far from constant, and they have held at best irregular legisla- tive elections. (Certainly, they have not put themselves up for election.)

The ruled might consent to other forms of undemocratic rule because of the popularity of a charismatic leader or a political ideology. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was popular throughout the Arab world for his pan-Arab nationalist project, and Tunisia’s President Habib Bourguiba won popular support for his early policies of rapid modernization. A regime might also become popular by bringing an end to conflict, ousting an occupying force or providing security to its citizens. Finally, an unpopular but militarily powerful regime might secure the appearance of consent of the ruled (or at least the absence of overt dissent) through the omnipresent threat of arbitrary imprisonment or worse. No independent observer would say that such a regime was legitimate, but the regime would most likely claim to be.

Not only have elections been unnecessary for gaining de facto consent of the ruled in the Arab world, but also there is no reason to think that authoritarian regimes believe they are gaining legitimacy on those occasions when citizens are summoned to the polls. Does anyone believe that the citizens of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen are freely consenting to be ruled by their respective presidents when those men win 88 percent or more than 90 percent of the vote in obviously spurious elections? Surely the presidents cannot.

Little Real Commitment

The explanation for why authoritarian regimes hold elections is more likely to be found among these five reasons: to carry out a real commitment to democratization; to distract citizens from other crises; to respond to foreign pressure; to display state power; and simply because they have held them in the past. Multiple rationales are often at play in any state, and the rationale for any one regime tends to shift over time.

The leaders of Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia all claim a genuine commitment to advance democratic processes and norms, but none has allowed an election to produce real alternatives to the incumbent regime. When Algeria’s 1991-1992 elections threatened to do just that, the military suspended the democratic process entirely, and civil war ensued.

The most democratic elections in the Arab world—though they are certainly not without their flaws — emerged as mechanisms for choosing a government from among parties to a conflict (Lebanon after the civil war), during unification (Yemen) and under occupation, when existing state structures are either weak or entirely absent (Iraq and Palestine). The elections in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine all were held in contexts where armed non-state militias control portions of each territory, raising questions about the ability of voters to choose freely among candidates. In the cases of today’s Iraq and Palestine, the commitment to long-term democratization — in the form of both regular elections and vibrant, independent institutions — remains uncertain.

Newly unified Yemen’s elections in 1993 looked promising at the time. The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and the Yemen Arab Republic unified as the Republic of Yemen in 1990, and the former regimes agreed on a democratic system as part of unification. Despite efforts to undermine the electoral process — through vote buying, intimidation and hundreds of assassination attempts (many successful) against leaders from the south’s Yemeni Socialist Party — Yemenis returned an assembly in which no party won a majority and independents won 48 of 301 seats. A brief civil war in 1994 brought an abrupt end to that process, however, when President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih’s military defeated the leaders from the south.


Authoritarian regimes may also hold elections or otherwise initiate processes of democratization to distract citizens from other crises. These might include rapid price hikes while the regime is lifting subsidies in accordance with International Monetary Fund recommendations, domestic political tensions like the arrest of a popular opposition figure, or international issues like allowing foreign troops to amass in preparation for intervention in the region. Elections are initiated for strategic reasons, as the regime hopes to channel opposition energy into state-controlled processes. This strategy has the added benefit of making opposition forces both visible and subject to state regulations, such as the legal requirements for declaring candidacy or registering as a political party.

Jordan called for full national elections in 1989, the first since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, largely as a strategy of distraction. The Jordanian economy had suffered from the drop in oil prices of the early 1980s and a decrease in labor remittances from Jordanians working in the Gulf. By 1988, the regime devalued its dinar by half and adopted an IMF-led austerity program that included a reduction in certain subsidies. In April 1989, Jordanians rioted in response to the price increases, first in the south and then throughout the country. King Hussein called a meeting of both conservative and reformist advisers to evaluate the situation, with one side advocating repression and the other urging political liberalization to deflate growing opposition to the regime. [3] Seven months later, a newly restructured parliament [4] returned a pluralist, opposition-dominated assembly, and other advances followed, for example, the adoption of the National Charter codifying political rights, a reduction of state control over the media and the legalization of political parties.

Likewise, Morocco’s King Hassan initiated a political opening in the early 1990s in response to growing unrest around poor economic conditions. In particular, the regime hoped that the strategy of liberalization would deflate the increasingly vocal urban, educated opposition calling for political reform. The monarch had previously relied on cooptation and divide-and-rule tactics to consolidate its power, so its decision to initiate a gradual political liberalization process marked a significant turn. In a short time, Morocco saw significant constitutional reforms, first in 1992 and then again in 1996 with the establishment of a bicameral legislature with a popularly elected lower chamber (replacing the indirectly elected unicameral parliament) and the creation of ad hoc commissions to investigate government affairs.

As in Jordan, Morocco’s regime initiated a political opening largely to temper opposition while inviting domestic and international private investment to bolster the economy. Though regimes might hold elections for purposes of distraction, the contests may indeed mark the initiation of a real democratic transition even if the regime never intends to cede any real power to the new assemblies. Elections held for these reasons are not necessarily fake, although in practice the regimes typically structure the electoral systems and draw districts with a view toward producing the results they want. After these initial openings, regimes may continue to hold elections for very different reasons.

Foreign Pressure

Authoritarian regimes might also hold elections in response to real or perceived foreign pressure, for example, if an international agency or foreign state made a lucrative aid package contingent on progress toward democracy or the improvement of human rights. As the world’s largest provider of foreign aid, the United States should be in a unique position to put teeth into its declared commitment to democracy promotion in the Middle East.

But while the Bush administration has indeed moved democratization to the center of debates about political reform in the Middle East, in practice it continues to provide and even increase aid to authoritarian regimes, including military aid that cannot be sold as mere succor for long-suffering populations. Military aid to Jordan went up from $76.5 million in 2001 to $207.4 million in 2005, while military aid to Morocco jumped from $3.5 million to $17 million in the same period.

Washington rightly welcomed Egypt’s announcement in February 2005 that it would hold competitive presidential elections in September and open its parliamentary elections later in the year to wider competition, all as part of a program of significant political reform. But the requirements for presidential candidacy erected significant obstacles, particularly for independents. A candidate unaffiliated with a registered party must obtain the signatures of at least 65 members of the lower house of Parliament, 25 members of the upper house and ten municipal council members from at least 14 provinces. Because both houses of Parliament and most local councils are dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party, “establishing eligibility would be nearly impossible in practice.” [5]

Washington remained largely silent on these “legal” means of electoral manipulation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did cancel a trip to Cairo in February 2005 to protest the arrest of opposition politician Ayman Nour on highly dubious charges of fraud. Nour was released on bail two weeks later, and ran against President Husni Mubarak in September, but in December he was convicted on the trumped-up charge and remains in jail. Scolding from Washington was mild in tone, and aid to Egypt has not been suspended.

Of course, the failure to put teeth into US aid to Arab regimes is not unique to the Bush administration. For years, various US agencies have included language calling for good governance, greater political accountability and the advancement of elections, while tacitly backing dictatorships. The difference is that the Bush administration explicitly claims to be reversing the decades of double-talk about Arab democracy. A 2005 democracy and governance program for Egypt, “Promote Free and Fair Elections,” stated, “For the 2005 national elections, USAID will promote a more transparent and competitive electoral process by offering assistance to the government of Egypt and civil society to improve the legal framework, administration of elections and civic participation. The result will be a more open electoral system that allows political parties to compete and an informed citizenry to participate.”

Similarly, in December 2005, the USAID and State Department program for democracy and governance in Morocco issued a report on “Improved Government Responsiveness to Citizens,” stating that “the rationale for this program was based on the urgent need for the government of Morocco to do a better job of responding to the real needs of its citizens or face their prospect of their looking elsewhere.” In practice, USAID has never withheld aid to an Arab regime for not making advances in areas of democratization and governance, [6] and in any case the dollar amount of aid from these programs is almost always dwarfed by military aid. When strong relations with allied “friendly” Arab regimes clash with democracy promotion initiatives, the alliances are always preferred.

Indeed, Washington seems almost willing to ignore serious flaws in electoral processes when they take place in “friendly” authoritarian states. In her opening remarks to the House Committee on Appropriations hearing on the fiscal 2006 Federal budget, Secretary of State Rice kept the glass half-full: “From Morocco to Jordan to Bahrain, we are seeing elections and new protections for women and minorities, and the beginnings of political pluralism. Recent weeks have seen an opening toward broader participation in the first-ever municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, and a very important decision by President Mubarak to open up competition in Egypt’s presidential elections.” A year later, selling “transformational diplomacy” at House hearings on the fiscal 2007 budget, Rice did not even mention these five US-allied countries by name, perhaps because there was no progress toward democracy in 2005 in Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. She also chose not to mention either the shenanigans preceding the Egyptian presidential race or the fraud and violence surrounding the parliamentary elections that returned 88 seats for the Muslim Brotherhood. Likewise, in his 2006 State of the Union Address, Bush celebrated Egypt’s electoral experiences, declaring, “The great people of Egypt have voted in a multi-party presidential election — and now their government should open paths of peaceful opposition that will reduce the appeal of radicalism.” The second half of the sentence might be taken as an oblique reproach of the regime, but the word “radicalism” makes it clear that, given the choice between Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood, the US stands with Mubarak.

Asserting Power

As the presidential elections in Egypt illustrate, authoritarian regimes sometimes hold elections in which the outcome is so manipulated and over-determined that it seems unlikely that the regime expects anyone to be fooled by the charade. No real competition is possible and the victory of the incumbent regime is a foregone conclusion. The regime uses not only electoral engineering and gerrymandering, but finds various ways of eliminating all viable opposition before winning in a landslide.

United Yemen’s first presidential elections illustrate this process well. [7] By 1999, President Salih was ruling Yemen auto- cratically, just as he had ruled the Yemen Arab Republic from 1978 until 1990. Two months before the election, a united opposition announced its intended candidate, the secretary-general of the Yemeni Socialist Party, ‘Ali Salih ‘Ubad “Muqbil.” Few in the opposition believed Muqbil had a chance of winning even if fair elections were held. Yemen had a requirement, borrowed from the Tunisian judicial codes, that every candidate must be approved by 10 percent of the sitting parliament; Muqbil did not meet the threshold. Salih’s party then put forth its own “alternative” candidate, Najib Qahtan al-Shaabi. Yemenis were thus offered a choice between two candidates from the same party, and Salih unsurprisingly won 96.3 percent of the vote. If Salih would dominate even a free contest with Muqbil, why did the regime stage an election whose outcome was obvious? As Lisa Wedeen argues, the election was not a contest but an occasion for the regime to both announce and assert its power. Indeed, by presenting Yemenis with a bogus alternative candidate, the regime effectively demonstrated that no alternatives to Salih were available.

The Tunisian regime has also used sham elections to demonstrate its power. Optimism marked Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster of “president-for-life” Bourguiba in a bloodless coup on November 7, 1987. Ben Ali pledged to introduce political
competition, free elections and greater freedom of the press, and he demonstrated that commitment by releasing numerous opposition leaders under house arrest, like former trade unionist Habib Achour, and in jail, like Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi. But Ben Ali also coopted personnel and rhetoric from the opposition, ensuring the presence of “alternatives” that could not seriously threaten the regime.

On October 24, 2004, Ben Ali was elected to his fourth consecutive five-year term in a shamelessly rigged exercise. Of the reported 90 percent of voters who turned out, 94.48 percent endorsed him. He had introduced a constitutional amendment eliminating the three-term limit for presidents, and the measure was “approved” in a landslide referendum in May 2002. In that contest, three government-selected opposition candidates had been allowed to run, compared to two in 1999 and none in 1994 and 1989. Of the three challengers, only Mohamed Ali Halouani, leader of the ex- communist Tajdid Party, openly criticized the election, after winning only 0.95 percent of the vote. Mohamed Bouchiha, the secretary-general of the Popular Unity Party and also a relative of Ben Ali’s wife, received 3.78 percent, and Mounir Beji of the Liberal Social Party gained 0.79 percent. [8]

Like the “alternative” candidate in Yemen, these challengers did not oppose the platforms of Ben Ali or his party, nor did they have any significant political following. The inclusion of government-approved candidates posing no real challenge to the presidency illustrated that in these “contests,” no real alternatives are available. Following the 2004 election, Moncef Marzouki, an opposition figure who was not allowed to participate, described Ben Ali’s three-pronged policy thusly: “To remain indefinitely in power, to remain indefinitely in power, to remain indefinitely in power.” [9]


A final consideration is that authoritarian regimes that have held elections in the past — for any combination of reasons — may find it difficult to discontinue holding them at regular intervals. This may be the case when an authoritarian leader like Tunisia’s Ben Ali comes to power claiming to support democratization, or when regimes like those of Jordan and Morocco tout democratic openings that were largely initiated for purposes of regime preservation. With the expanding global embrace of democratic norms and rhetoric (if not actual democratic practices), the symbolic cost of abandoning even recognizably bogus elections may be particularly high for US-allied regimes.

With the Gulf war of 1990–1991, Jordan’s King Hussein found himself politically and economically isolated, particularly with Washington’s unilateral severing of aid to the kingdom for failing to join the US-led coalition. Although political freedoms continued to expand with the drawing of the National Charter, the legalization of political parties and the liberalization of print media, the king struggled to rebuild relations with Washington until he played his one trump card: a peace treaty with Israel. As momentum toward the treaty built, the regime held to its commitment of regular elections but implemented a number of reforms to ensure that the November 1993 ballot would return an assembly willing to ratify the treaty. The 1997 elections were also held on schedule, but were marred by a boycott led by two former prime ministers and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Islamic Action Front. The scheduled 2001 elections were postponed until June 2003, due to tensions surrounding the September 11 attacks and the popularity of the second Palestinian intifada in the kingdom. Indeed, the regime seemed unsure whether even its carefully constructed elections system would return an assembly that would not suspend the peace treaty. Jordan’s regime has thus reversed virtually every substantive dimension of the 1989 opening, save (mostly) regular parliamentary elections. But as long as elections are held, the regime can continue to claim a commitment to democratization.

Similarly, in Yemen, following the 1994 civil war and the consolidation of Salih’s regime, elections no longer served a practical role in mediating among competing political forces. The ruling General Party Congress blatantly manipulated the 1997 elections through vote buying, intimidation and abandoning significant portions of an electoral agreement with the Islamist Yemeni Congregation for Reform (al-Tajammu‘ al-Yamani lil-Islah), its former partner in the 1993 coalition government with the Socialists and following the 1994 conflict. Salih continues to call Yemen an “emerging democracy” — a name he adopted from a 1997 National Democratic Institute conference of Arab states beginning democratic transitions. The 2003 elections were comparatively freer, but this was due in large part to the fact that the possibility of a genuinely competitive affair had been foreclosed. Since the demise of the Socialists following the 1994 conflict, Salih’s regime has thoroughly consolidated its power through the personalization of his rule as well as through the provision of pork. Although diverse political parties have formed a united opposition bloc to challenge the regime, Salih’s consolidation of power rendered his party the only game in town. [10]

The cases of Jordan and Yemen illustrate how regimes might use elections to produce different political outcomes, and how these dynamics can change dramatically from one contest to the next. But for US-allied regimes, one compelling reason to continue holding bogus elections is to maintain, at the very least, a façade of democratic progress that can be championed by the regimes as well as by the Bush administration. This is not legitimacy, but the appropriation thereof.


Back It Up

While decades of meaningless elections in Syria, Libya and Saddam’s Iraq deserve the ridicule they receive, many other authoritarian regimes allied with the United States hold regular elections whose results are equally suspect, though they may receive praise and encouragement from Washington. Egypt and Jordan are among Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East, primarily because they concluded peace treaties with Israel. The Bush administration strengthened its relations with Yemen in large part to pursue radicals connected, however loosely, to al-Qaeda.

Perhaps the false rhetoric of democracy will have the unintended consequence of educating liberal democratic citizens that they indeed possess rights, including the right to have representative and accountable governments. Perhaps, over time, citizens will negotiate the limited political spaces that have clearly been created by these openings until they can effectively demand reforms from the arbitrary regimes.

More likely, in the near term these regimes will remain in power as long as they have the means to do so. Moving beyond the theatrical performances of elections by authoritarian regimes will require that those means be removed and democratic alternatives made available. The citizens and subjects of US-allied authoritarian Arab regimes are not bamboozled by bogus elections, and extensive polling indicates that the preference for democratic alternatives is overwhelming. To pressure these regimes to make elections more substantive, therefore, the source of billions of dollars in annual aid must insist on substantive political openings. Bush spoke in the 2006 State of the Union address of a commitment to supporting democratic reform across the broader Middle East: “Elections are vital, but they are only the beginning. Raising up a democracy requires the rule of law, and protection of minorities, and strong, accountable institutions that last longer than a single vote.” These are the right words, but the US needs to back them up. Only then might the many democratic reformers in the Arab world find their way into power — through free and fair elections.


[1] We are indebted to Lisa Wedeen for inspiring our broader examination of this question, which she explores in “Seeing Like a Citizen, Acting Like a State: Exemplary Events in Unified Yemen,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 45/4 (October 2003). See also her earlier account of phony electoral rituals in Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
[2] See, for example, Dankwart Rustow, “Elections and Legitimacy in the Middle East,” Annals of the American Academy of Political Science 482 (November 1985).
[3] See Malik Mufti, “Elite Bargains and the Onset of Political Liberalization in Jordan,” Comparative Political Studies 32/1 (February 1999).
[4] The previous system provided half of the parliamentary seats for the West Bank, over which the kingdom had relinquished its claim in 1988.
[5] Mariz Tadros, “Egypt’s Election All About Image, Almost,” Middle East Report Online, September 6, 2005.
[6] A partial exception is the November 2005 withdrawal of a $20 million Millennium Challenge Account grant to Yemen, on the grounds of Yemen’s insufficient progress in fighting corruption. Millennium Challenge Accounts — a form of US democracy promotion assistance — are administered by the quasi-governmental Millennium Challenge Corporation, which is overseen by a board of directors including the secretary of state and the USAID director.
[7] This analysis draws heavily on Wedeen, “Seeing Like a Citizen, Acting Like a State.”
[8] This section draws on John Entelis, “The Democratic Imperative vs. the Authoritarian Impulse: The Maghrib State between Transition and Terrorism,” Middle East Journal 59/4 (Autumn 2005).
[9] Ibid., p. 551.
[10] Sheila Carapico, “How Yemen’s Ruling Party Secured an Electoral Landslide,” Middle East Report Online, May 16, 2003.

How to cite this article:

Laryssa Chomiak, Jillian Schwedler "And the Winner Is…," Middle East Report 238 (Spring 2006).

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