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Democratization Vs. Liberalization in the Arab World: Dilemmas and Challenges for U.S. Foreign Policy

Authored by Dr. Daniel Brumberg. | July 2005

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This monograph looks at the political origins and dynamics of ?liberalized autocracy? in the Arab world. Liberalized autocracy is a system of rule that allows for a measure of political openess and competition in the electoral, party, and press arenas, while ultimately ensuring that power rests in the hands of ruling regimes. This mix of control and openness has not only benefitted ruling elites, but oppositons as well. It gives them room to ?let off steam,? to criticize regimes, and occasionally to affect public policy. Moreover, given the absence of consensus in many Arab states over national identity, liberalized autocracy has provided an umbrella by which competing groups?Islamists, secularists, Kurds, and Berbers?can achieve a measure of peaceful coexistence precisely because no group actually wields power. The United States largely has supported such hybrid systems, a fact of political life that has not changed dramatically under the Bush administration despite its rhetorical commitment to democracy. Whether the gap between words and deeds should or can be closed or narrowed is a complex question, since a sudden move from state managed liberalization to democracy could open the door to Islamist power.


In his November 6, 2003, speech before the National Endowment for Democracy, President Bush laid out an ambitious vision for a ?forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.? While some observers attributed the speech to the White House?s desire to redefine the very purpose of the Iraq war, the fact of the matter is the administration?s neo-conservatives long have argued that the toppling of Saddam Hussein was the first shot in a long campaign to democratize the Middle East. Bush?s speech clearly showed that the President has fully embraced the neo-conservatives? conviction that it is the ?calling? of the United States (as he put it), to extend the global democratic revolution to the Middle East.

Will such idealism withstand the test of time and circumstance? Thus far, the administration has adopted a philosophy rather than a strategy, an aspiration rather than a coherent plan. As a result, it has been operating on a kind of default policy mechanism, whose main outlines defer to the ?liberalization strategy? that has guided the Middle East democracy aid programs of the United States for nearly a decade. That strategy calls for reinforcing civil society organizations in the hope that they eventually will push ruling elites to move beyond state-managed political liberalization strategies?strategies that Arab elites have used to avoid the challenges of democratization. This ?demand side? approach has been welcomed by the rulers of what I call ?liberalized autocracies? for obvious reasons: Insofar as the rulers of Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, and Yemen depend on a certain measure of state managed pluralism to maintain their rule, American aid programs that encourage a gradual opening up and pluralizing of civil society are, by design or default, consonant with the regime survival strategies of Arab rulers. Thus the obvious questions that are central to this monograph: Can or should the United States encourage Arab leaders to move beyond the confines of state enforced pluralism? Can political liberalization be transformed into a handmaiden of democratization rather than an adjunct of liberalized autocracy?

As we shall see, the answers are far from clear or obvious. To move beyond the piecemeal liberalization approach that has long guided our Middle East democracy aid programs, the United States must reinforce its traditional ?demand side? civil society policies with a ?supply side? focus that tackles the key problem: the institutions and ruling ideologies of Arab states. Such a shift will be very difficult, since it will require pressuring some of the very Arab leaders whose support on the war on terrorism the administration needs. Moreover, inasmuch as a state-focused, supply side approach could open the door to Islamist political power, the United States will have to carefully assess where and when a democratization strategy is least likely to create a zero-sum conflict between Islamist oppositions and the state. Since such a conflict benefits only two players?Islamists and regime hard-liners?the most likely candidates for a successful democratization strategy will be those whose party systems already boast a level of ideological pluralism sufficient to contain the challenge of Islamist parties. For reasons I will explain below, I believe that Morocco is one of the few countries in the Arab world where the risks of a full blown democratization strategy might be worth taking.

Finally, I should state for the record that as far as I am concerned, no serious democratization strategy has the slightest chance of success so long as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues to simmer and periodically blow up. Unless the administration shows in words and, most important, in deeds that it believes that the Palestinians are as deserving of independence and democracy as are the Iraqis, all the talk of democratization in the Arab world will ring hollow in the minds of a vast majority of Arab youth.


The Bush administration has not chosen the path of encouraging democratization of liberalized autocracies. Rather than find even one Arab country that might be suitable for a genuine democratization strategy, it has hitched all its hopes on a policy of military intervention and regime change in Iraq. The guiding assumption here, it seems to me, is that the eclectic legacy of semi-authoritarianism is so deeply embedded in the social, economic, and political soil of the Arab world that there can be no hope of genuine political reform unless one Arab country is given the chance to demonstrate for the entire region how to get it right from the very beginning. To put it in both political science and medical terms, the administration believes that the scourge of ?path dependency? can only be removed by transplanting the political heart of the region?s sickest patient: Iraq.

This assumption is as compelling as it is troubling. It is compelling in the sense that, however sick the patient, Iraq has always suffered from a malady that afflicts nearly all Arab states: a basic lack of consensus over national identity. The divisions between Shi?a, Kurds, and Sunnis in Iraq may be sharper than those between Berbers and Arabs in Algeria or Morocco, or between secularists and Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen; but the problem of how to pursue democratization in societies divided by profound ideological, social, or ethno-religious differences is present in every Arab state.15 As noted earlier, this problem arises from the capacity of democracy to reward one group repeatedly at the expense of others. When elections reproduce the same winners and losers over time, the latter have no rational reason to support democracy. Faced by the possibility of their ?democratic? exclusion, they will often prefer autocracy or revolt over free elections.16

The solution to this ?democracy dilemma? in Iraq was to impose through violence, intimidation, and oil-financed patronage a particularly vicious form of full autocracy in the name of ?Arab nationalism.? In an interesting echo of Bolshevism, although this ideology claimed to speak for the (Arab) ?masses? or ?people,? in practice it was designed to defend or rationalize the particularistic interests of the Sunni minority in general, and the Saddam Hussein Tikrit-based super minority clan in particular. If the United States can, by force of arms, destroy this cynical system and replace it with a successful experiment in democratic power sharing, one can readily imagine that such a happy outcome might eventually inspire other Arab leaders and their oppositions to negotiate democratic solutions to identity conflicts. In this sense, the administration?s reasoning is compelling, even if it rests on a political and military ?experiment? (to use Kanan Makiya?s own words) whose odds of success were at best 50/50 when the United States and its partners embarked on the Iraq campaign in March 2003.

Since then, the odds have gone down considerably, so much so that the experiment in Iraq eventually may produce the very opposite result intended by the United States: more rather than less autocracy in the Arab world. This is why the Iraq gambit from the start was?at least in the opinion of this author?even more troubling than it was compelling. The chances of success always were small because, to prevail over the long term, any credible power sharing arrangement between Kurds, Shi?a, and Sunnis would have required?among other things?a long-term political and especially military commitment from the entire international community. As in Kosovo and Bosnia Hertsogravenia, the international community for the foreseeable future would have to take on the state?s most important function: maintaining a monopoly over the means of coercion. This was especially true in Iraq, since it would be years, if not decades, before any new Iraqi military or police force would have the nationalist credibility and military discipline to resist the centrifugal forces of ethno-religious conflicts that Saddam Hussein?s fall released. When the United States chose to go it alone, it effectively gave up the crucial symbolic and political umbrella it needed to transform what many Iraqis viewed as an American-led invasion into an internationally blessed and secured liberation. Thus many Iraqis?and not merely the Sunnis?have come to view the current unhappy situation through the lens of the ?1920 Revolution,? when Shi?ites and Sunnis joined in common cause against the British.

We can only hope that the current?and certainly belated?effort to internationalize the Iraq gambit will reverse what appears to be a growing Sunni-Shi?ite insurrection. But even if the United States is lucky enough to contain the insurrection and secure a long-term political and military commitment from the United Nations and/or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to rebuild Iraq?s political and military institutions, much damage has been done already in Iraq, and in the wider region as well. The liberalized autocracies of the Arab world always had a distinctive solution to the dilemma of political reform in divided societies. Rather than opt for either full democracy or full autocracy, they have promoted experiments in state-managed power sharing that have endured precisely because ultimate power rests in the hands of the state. As we have already noted, in Kuwait, Algeria, Bahrain, and Jordan, liberalized autocracy allows for a kind of peaceful coexistence in parliaments whose lack of authority is, paradoxically, the precondition of social peace: So long as no one group actually wins or loses?or actually wields real power on behalf of elected majorities?the system can totter along. Viewing the chaos in Iraq, many Arab leaders, from both regimes and oppositions, probably will conclude that trying to fix this novel, if flawed, system is foolish. In societies where traditional values and norms remain strong, a preference for the supposed comforts of stability may once again prevail, eclipsing the few noble and courageous voices who have dared clamor for democracy.


15. See Milton J. Esman and Itamar Rabinovich, eds., Ethnicity, Pluralism and the State in the Middle East, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.

16. For the classic statement of this problem, see Arend Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977. More recently, see Donald Horowitz, ?Democracy in Divided Societies,? in Larry Diamond and Marc Plattner, eds., Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict and Democracy, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.