Forced Democracy and the Repercussions
No. 3 2004 July/September
Alexander Aksenyonok

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Vice President of the Russian International Affairs Council.

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


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




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

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




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

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


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

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


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
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

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.