Forced Democracy and the Repercussions

10 august 2004

Alexander Aksenyonok is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, a veteran diplomat and Arabist who has had assignments to many Arab countries. He served as Ambassador to Algeria and Slovakia, and as Special Envoy to the Balkans. He has a Doctorate in Law.

Resume: A simplified approach to the Middle East problems does not conform to local realities. It would be more fruitful to follow the ‘do-no-harm’ principle, separating what must be reformed from traditional elements of life that do not impede the modernization processes.

Why is the Middle East so fertile for international terrorist activities conducted under a religious guise? For the U.S. administration, the answer to this question at first seemed very simple: a majority of Arab or, broadly speaking, Moslem regimes, are bogged down in obscurantism; economic and political reforms have stalled or are merely imitated; and the economic situation in those countries is worsening, creating a suitable ground for terrorism and various kinds of extremist sentiments. Hence the conclusion: the Middle East must be urgently rebuilt on democratic principles through political and market reforms, which have already justified themselves in other regions.

However, Iraq’s example has shown that unilateral actions to impose democracy on a backward region may provoke social upheavals. Furthermore, the experience of building new states in various parts of the world (Kosovo and Haiti, for example) with the help of multinational forces has been controversial, to put it mildly. A transition from one social structure to another that is more adapted to the requirements of globalization is always painful; expediting the process can only cause complications.



The vast Middle East region, stretching from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, which has a total population of almost 300 million people, has in the last two decades delayed its historical transformation. Per capita incomes in the region have remained stagnant, while in other developing countries with comparable economies they have been growing by three percent on average. Meanwhile, per capita income distribution in the region is very uneven – from U.S. $335 in Mauritania to U.S. $30,000 in Qatar. From 1981 to 2002, the contribution of Arab countries to world trade decreased from 9.6 to 3.2 percent, which attests to the region’s low integration into the global economy.


Foreign investment in Arab countries has been steadily decreasing, while labor productivity has been on the decline, as well. Unemployment has reached a dangerous level, exceeding 25 percent of the manpower in some countries. In Algeria, where unemployment is even higher, idle young people are easy prey for terrorist recruiters. The UN’s Arab Human Development Report (2003), which sparked heated debates, named three of the primary obstacles to the Arab world’s development: increasing gaps in freedom, women’s empowerment and knowledge across the region.


Political structures in a majority of the Arab countries are as rigid as the economic structures. The post-colonial construction of independent statehood was completed by the last decade of the 20th century with the formation of rigidly centralized power. Following military coups which broke out across the region in the 1950s-1960s this power helped achieve political stabilization amid the formation of national identity in each Arab country. The ideology of Arab nationalism, which called for the unity of the entire ‘Arab nation,’ is now history. The idea of a nation has ceased to be an abstract illusion and is now increasingly associated with a specific state within the framework of its historical borders.

From the point of view of the formal criteria for liberal democracy, accepted in the West (although even it widely differs), the incumbent political regimes in the Middle East are autocratic. In other words, there are no such things as handovers of power, division of powers, or legal opposition. The electoral system is far from being recognized as free and just. Even in the more developed countries, such as Egypt or Syria, institutions of popular representation are only intended for rubber-stamping bills drafted by the government. Arab oil monarchies (Qatar, the United Arab Emirates) have been making timid moves to modernize their political structures, as well as make their governments more open. Yet the largest country in that Arab subregion, Saudi Arabia, since the kingdom’s establishment in 1932, has been run as a family business with no electoral institutions whatsoever.




Most people tend to agree that a majority of Moslem countries suffer from a deficit of democracy and free enterprise, but when it comes to proposing recipes for changing the situation for the better, heated debates arise. The first reaction to the U.S. Broader Middle East initiative showed that the idea of forcing Western values on the Moslem world evokes a critical response in Europe and meets with skepticism or total rejection in the Islamic world.

The ambitious plan for rebuilding the entire region, from Mauritania to Afghanistan, provides for a series of measures to help Islamic countries with the preparation and holding of free and fair elections, the drafting of laws, parliamentary training and the establishment of independent mass media. It also pledges assistance with the formation of political parties, nongovernmental organizations, restructuring of the educational system and other attributes of a civil society. The economic section includes reforms aimed at releasing the private initiative of small and medium-sized businesses, reducing state regulation and liberalizing the business climate.


The initiative’s main provisions seem to be copied from the large-scale and successful reforms that have been held in post-Communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe over the last decade. Furthermore, Washington resorts to its time-tested financial channels – the National Endowment for Democracy, whose budget President George Bush has promised to double to U.S. $80 million, and a special division of the U.S. Department of State, whose 2005 budget is planned at U.S. $190 million.

However, such a simplified approach to Middle East problems does not conform to local realities. The region has civilizational special peculiarities, ages-long history, a deep-rooted mentality, and governance and public life traditions that are different from those in the West. It would be more fruitful to follow the ‘do-no-harm’ principle, separating what must be reformed from traditional elements of life that do not impede the modernization processes.

Unlike Eastern Europe, which has always been susceptible to the political culture and historical traditions of the West, the Middle East, which has experienced aggressive wars and colonial rule, first tasted national self-determination quite recently. Whereas in the integrating Europe the notion of ‘foreign interference in domestic affairs’ is becoming an archaic concept, the Moslem East accepts the funding of its political parties from abroad with tremendous unease (incidentally, in the U.S. such funding is punishable by law). From the point of view of the regional mentality and traditions, regular handovers of power through general elections and the presence of organized opposition mean the weakening of centralized control and a split in the army which has always symbolized national sovereignty in the East. Middle East countries – however different in forms of government – usually have strong and charismatic rulers. The public’s mindset does not view their rule as autocracy but rather as a way of national and state existence. Egypt has a strong presidency; Syria has its Baath party, which has been ruling the country for the last four decades; there is Algeria where the presidents are traditionally ‘made’ by the military; Arab parliamentary monarchies (Morocco, Jordan), not to mention Saudi Arabia – all of these are examples proving the aforementioned rule.

The bitter experience of the first attempts to reform the region also attests to the tenacity of political traditions and the way of life in the Middle East. Between the two world wars, under the influence of the British and French colonization, constitutional forms of government were established in the largest and best developed territories of the former Ottoman Empire (the Nile Valley, Mesopotamia, Palestine), with some participation of representative systems. By the 1950s, there emerged independent states in the region – Egypt, Iraq and Syria, whose political systems were patterned after Western ones. Many prominent Orientalists admit that those ‘great experiments’ were ill-conceived. Bernard Lewis wrote that a political system brought ready-made – not just from another country but from another civilization – and imposed by the West on rulers friendly to it could not adequately correspond to the nature of the Islamic Middle East society. According to another authoritative Orientalist, Edward Hodgkin, political parties established in the ‘Arabian climate’ were mainly ‘tadpoles’, that is, organizations with very large heads and very small tails.


The Broader Middle East initiative was copied from the reforms held in post-Communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Arab political regimes produced by the colonial epoch in the 1950s-1960s were later swept away by a wave of military coups (Egypt in 1952, Iraq in 1958, Syria in 1962), which can be viewed as forms of national-liberation struggles, considering their consequences and the extent of popular support. Outside factors did not play the leading role in these dramatic changes on the political map of the Middle East (the East-West confrontation in the Third World was only beginning then). Those past regimes fell because the ruling elites were no longer supported by their own people. Isolation from their national roots, together with a policy of Westernization and a propagation of liberal values in unprepared societies, sparked mass discontent and gave rise to nationalist movements.


Equally abortive were the attempts to impose foreign models of development on the Middle East countries during the period of Soviet-U.S. rivalry in the region. Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Algeria (Arab states in the Soviet Union’s zone of influence) rejected the Communist ideology and built their own style of socialism. Their leaders borrowed from Soviet practices only what helped them consolidate their influence and build states with a strong ‘power vertical,’ that is, the concept of a ruling party and the principle of the state sector’s supremacy. Meanwhile, these political and economic levers worked differently in Arab countries. Egypt had the amorphous Arab Socialist Union; Syria and Iraq were ruled by two branches of the split Arab Socialist Renaissance (Baath) Party; Algeria was formally ruled by the National Liberation Front which served to conceal the behind-the-scene rule of the military. The state sector also played the leading role in the Arab economies, but in a way that was different from the Soviet administrative command system. Arab nationalization reduced the scope of private property, yet it remained decisive in production relations, especially in farming, the services sector, construction, light industry and trade. Manpower was concentrated largely in the private sector. In Egypt, for example, between 1962-1970 the state sector accounted for not more than 2.7 percent of agricultural production, although the state made a 97 percent investment in agriculture. In other purportedly socialist-oriented countries, things were almost the same.

The United States was no more successful than the Soviet Union in planting its own models of government and political power mechanisms. Democratic reforms were the most advanced in Jordan and Morocco, although outward attributes of democracy (Western-style parliamentarianism and a multi-party system) did not drastically change the autocratic nature of the monarchies in those countries. Their tenacity and adaptability to the changing outside world were largely explained by the personal qualities of their leaders. Jordan and Morocco, in the period of their national growth, were ruled by wise leaders – Kings Hussein and Hassan. These men were believed to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed and were figures of great charisma.

Meanwhile, the oil-rich territories of the Persian Gulf, which were in the zone of Western influence, became a showcase of well-being and a life of luxury. However, the changing economies of the Gulf countries, and their ossified political systems which have survived since medieval times, have come into dangerous conflict. In Saudi Arabia, absolute power still rests on the centuries-old alliance between the Al Saud family and the Al ash Shaykh, religious leaders professing Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam.

As we have seen, the reforms in the Middle East in the colonial and subsequent periods have shown how delicate and difficult this process can be. It cannot produce quick results. Reforms must be conducted gradually, with patience, paving the way for democratic changes and raising the population’s cultural and educational standards. Instead of destroying outdated foundations, the latter must be gradually and consistently reformed from the inside, while preserving national traditions – religious, social, family and cultural. Any assistance that is provided to the Moslem countries must also include patient, lengthy interaction with old and newly born political elites and influential religious figures.




What are the reasons for the suspicious and occasionally hostile attitude of the Arab people to changes imposed on them from the outside? Middle East countries generally ranked as undemocratic (Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and others) fear that the United States is accusing their regimes of rejecting reforms as a pretext for military and political pressure aimed at replacing unwanted rulers. Washington’s messianic rhetoric only adds to these fears. Iraq is not the only example. The strong pressure and economic sanctions leveled against Syria and Iran, compared with Washington’s good relations with undemocratic Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Algeria, cause Arabs to think that it is not ‘love for democracy’ that is behind the U.S. policy but rather political considerations which the Americans establish unilaterally. Some European policymakers predict an opposite effect of the stick policy.


Outside pressure makes evolutionary reforms more difficult, while the ‘besieged fortress’ syndrome only plays into the hands of those who oppose reform.
Many Arab countries, whose leaders feel the need for change, have been discouraged from launching sweeping reforms by the unfortunate examples of other regions, most notably in the former republics of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The very high cost of the Soviet perestroika period and the first stage of the democratic reforms in Russia – the breakup of the state, sharp economic decline and the chaos of political structures following the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party – make sensible people in the Middle East think of ways to minimize the negative effects of a transitional period.

Another argument against hasty reforms imposed from the outside is the experience of the U.S. itself, which helped rebuild state structures in other countries after World War II. According to U.S. expert estimates, only three of 16 such attempts were successful: in Japan, Germany and Panama. The success in Haiti proved temporary: in 1994, 20,000 U.S. military troops helped ‘democrat’ Jean Bertrand Aristide return to power. Ten years later, Washington and Paris demanded his resignation, which finally helped end a bloody civil war in the country.


Prospects for democratic reforms in the Moslem world will largely depend on the outcome of the military campaign of the United States and its allies in

Iraq. The authors of various kinds of scenarios for Iraq’s postwar development must have underestimated many historical and psychological factors (America has never had very reputable Orientalists). The U.S. committed political mistakes from the outset, and their desperate attempts at correcting the situation are inflicting a huge cost against the Iraqi people, the Americans and the international community.


The overthrow of the Baathist regime, which was the rule of one party, triggered the collapse of the entire political system in Iraq and all attributes of statehood (it reminds one of the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party and difficulties of the transition of Russia and other post-Soviet republics to democratic rule). Filling the vacuum of power in Iraq has proven to be much more difficult than the military operation. The primary problem is finding a national political alternative that would be acceptable to the Iraqi majority. The interim Governing Council, which consisted mostly of opposition members who had spent years in exile and whom no one in Iraq knew, was generally viewed as a puppet quasi-body of the occupation forces.

Another aggravation was the impulsive decision to dismiss all Iraqi servicemen and policemen, which left about one million men and their families without a means of subsistence. Outlawing the former ruling Baath party was another mistake which added to political destabilization. Since practically every Iraqi family included Baath party members, to outlaw these individuals only served to produce a feeling of collective guilt. This is what the anti-Nazi coalition, and the Germans themselves, had avoided after the victory over Nazism in World War II.


Baath members include people who are not responsible for the crimes of Saddam Hussein and his administration. They tend to hold moderate political views which resemble West-European social-democratic ideas. In order to counter the rise of militant Islamists, these people should be invited to participate in the stabilization processes, especially on the eve of elections planned for next year.

Finally, some problems of the transition period could have been avoided had the confessional balance not been so drastically upset. Formally, the prevalence of Shias in Iraq’s provisional political structures reflects the Iraqi population’s composition, but it arouses fears among Sunnis, many of whom have already joined the resistance movement – not because they are loyal to the former regime but because they fear oppression and revenge. The developments in Iraq have shown that the reliance on the Shia majority, intended to win over radical Islamists, proved to be ill-conceived. The differences between imam Muqtada Al-Sadr, who launched armed resistance in Iraq, and moderate leaders of the Shia community are rather tactical. The former displays impatience, anticipating events, while the latter, who are more experienced, prefer seeking power by parliamentary methods. They remember too well the suppression of two Shia uprisings in the last century. So, whether or not the forthcoming elections bring democracy to Iraq remains an open question.


In the last decade, examples of international intervention that was aimed at forcing individual countries to establish peace and rebuild national statehood, show that such actions have the best chances for success if they are organized in a multilateral format. If they are approved and controlled by the UN Security Council, then it does not really matter who commands the operation. The United Nations Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES), headed by U.S. retired major general Jacques Paul Klein, efficiently handled Eastern Slavonia’s integration into Croatia: it carried out demilitarization in the region and helped organize democratic elections for the local government bodies, thus ensuring fair representation for the ethnic Serb population who are a minority in the region.


Another example of a well-organized operation is the one being conducted by a multinational force in Bosnia, which has been proceeding for several years now. Although it is a NATO operation, it was supported by the Security Council. This organization has levers of influence that allow it to correct ill-conceived political actions, as well as to make important decisions on the basis of international consensus. The multiconfessional institutions of the Bosnian state, established in the last few years with international assistance, have proven to be efficient, despite the difficulties of inter-ethnic relations among the Moslems, Croatians and Serbs. This is a great success in peacemaking activities, achieved through UN-approved multilateral agreements which outlined the contours of statehood, internationally constructed later. Yet, it is still an open question whether or not the Dayton pattern of statehood construction will stand the test of time. Does the present calm mean the establishment of genuine ethnic reconciliation in the region? Is it possible that the fragile compromises will collapse once the multinational force leaves Bosnia?

In Kosovo, the situation is different: military intervention was launched there without a mandate from the UN, which became involved only later. Local government bodies established in Kosovo have actually legitimized encroachments on the rights of the ethnic minority (Serbs) and, moreover, legalized Albanian militarized structures which seek independence through terror. As a result of this ‘democratic construction,’ the tragedy of ethnic Albanians, used as the pretext for NATO strikes against Serbia and its invasion, has been replaced by a Serbian tragedy. For the last five years, hundreds of thousands of Serb refugees have been denied the possibility to return to Kosovo, while the multinational force is unable to curb the Albanian extremists.




There are now many measures in effect for combating international terrorism in general and militant Islamism in particular. These include military confrontation (Iraq, Afghanistan), secret service operations, security measures and other uses of force. No doubt, these are required and inevitable actions, but they are only one side of the medal. The other side – constructive political and ideological activities – is not actively pursued enough. The streets of Moslem societies continue to be covered with banners and posters carrying radical interpretations of Islam. In view of this, the international community should not seek to divide Islam into radical and moderate zones. This artificial division would only be a disservice to those religious figures who advocate depoliticizing Islam. None of them can openly declare their moderate views – such are centuries-long traditions. But making the issue of democratization a subject of open theological and secular discussions – for example, discussions about models of government and state systems in the Moslem world – would be another thing.

This would help create favorable conditions for Islam modernizing itself, which is now fettered by dogmas of the past centuries. According to Egyptian scholar Ahmed Kamal Abul Magd, a transition from psychological attachment to the past to a clear vision of the future cannot be carried out without solving a number of problems pertaining to the Islamic teaching and practices, especially the system of rule in Islam.


The problem now confronting the Moslem theologians and scholars is that Islam, however universal it may be considered, has never created any integral concept of statehood. Koran and Sharia contain only very general provisions which can be interpreted and used in practice in different ways, and depending on changing circumstances. An Islamic state is a myth used in the contemporary world for achieving one’s political goals by force. The first Moslem community established on the Arabian Peninsula around Medina existed in its original form for not more than three decades. The late 7th century saw a departure from the theocratic nature of the supreme power, as had been practiced by the first ‘faithful’ caliphs who had combined both religious and secular features. Full authority went to the sultans, although formally the supremacy of ‘God’s will’ was proclaimed. Later, the Arab Caliphate turned into a typically Oriental despotic regime, and by the beginning of the 20th century this form of state, artificially maintained from the medieval times, remained purely nominal and ceased to exist after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

Calls for renewed Islam are not something new, yet all of them contain arguments substantiating the need for more democracy based on religious legitimacy. In the 1970s-1980s, Arab scholars introduced the following approach: original Islam only worked out the fundamental principles for a state system and political democracy, but it is the people who must determine ways and methods for implementing them in practice. According to Kuwaiti professor Mohamed Fathi Osman, there must be a clear distinction between the hard-and-fast fundamentals of the Islamic form of state power, and those models that are prone to change. Syrian lawyer Dr Mohammed Salim Al’awa, in his monograph The Political System of Islamic State, also proposed distinguishing provisions of Islam that are mandatory for contemporary Moslems from those that existed in specific historical conditions but that have now lost their force. By way of example, he described the modern state system in Morocco as a refined blend of Islamic traditions and pragmatic modernism.
Finally, it is necessary to take into consideration foreign-policy factors that affect the situation in the region. The present psychological atmosphere in the Middle East is not in favor of democratic changes. Arab leaders are well aware of the sentiments reigning among ordinary people, which have been growing increasingly anti-American and, to some extent, anti-Western. For a majority of Arabs, the occupation of Iraq and Washington’s unbalanced policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, blend into one front of struggle for upholding their outraged national and religious dignity.


Following the bloody events in Iraq in April and George Bush’s statement of support for Ariel Sharon’s plans, it will take much time and effort to create an outside political environment that would be favorable for reforms from the inside. The domestic foundation of changes, which the Broader Middle East desperately needs, suffers most of all from a series of mistakes in the U.S. Middle East policy, as well as from the superficial black-and-white attitude to problems of the Moslem world. The Secretary General of the League of Arab States, Amre Moussa, in his address to the 2003 Davos forum in Jordan, described the present situation in very plain words: all Arab countries want to cooperate with the United States, but they are not sure of the Americans’ real intentions; Arabs know that they should change, but changes must not be imposed from the outside – they must originate from the people, since democracy is not a gift from the U.S. or Europe.

The situation in the Middle East, swept by protests mixed with the feelings of disappointment, humiliation and anger, is approaching a critical point. Throughout its post-World War II history, it has remained a region of interstate confrontation and military coups. Now, when the frameworks of the Arab-Israeli conflict have been reduced to the Palestinian problem, there has arisen the ‘Iraqi puzzle.” This situation has complicated the struggle against international terrorism. Whatever attitude one may have about the U.S. military operation in Iraq and the attempts to impose democratic values on Moslems by force, the international community must, in the long run, proceed with concerted efforts in all interrelated fields. These would include the struggle against terrorism, political and diplomatic activities, ideology, culture, education and religion. In this way it will create prerequisites for a democratic transformation of the Greater Middle East in a natural way, without skipping crucial historical stages.

Last updated 10 august 2004, 13:28

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