Is democracy a policy goal of the United States in the Middle East? Clinton administration officials are reticent to use the word democracy in their statements on the Muslim Middle East However, they do not explicitly exclude the region from their general foreign policy goals of expanding the number of democracies and market economies throughout the world. In speeches and policy statements to Congress, administration officials put democracy on the list of good things Washington wants in the region, along with peace, "moderation", "stability," economic development and the isolation of "rogue states" (Iraq, Iran and Libya). For example, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Robert Pelletreau recently listed "promoting more open political and economic systems, and respect for human rights and the rule of law" as one of seven American objectives in the Middle East.1 When elections (whose results are in accord with American interests) occur in the region, administration officials point to them as evidence that America's global policy of "democratic enlargement" can bear fruit "even" in the Muslim Middle East.2 The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has funded a multimillion-dollar project on "governance" in the region, so taxpayer money is being put where officials' mouths are.
Perhaps more importantly, the United States is seen in the region as being on record, at least rhetorically, as supporting democracy. Human rights and pro-democracy movements in Middle Eastern countries look to Washington for support, despite American unwillingness to criticize the many undemocratic U.S. allies in the region. Yet when real elections do occur, American policy goals can be set back. Islamist parties that do not hide their opposition to American political and cultural influence in the region frequently do well. The results even of Israeli elections can complicate U.S. diplomatic initiatives.
Nowhere in the world do the cross-pressures of America's interests and America's ideals present starker choices. Persian Gulf security and progress on the Arab-Israeli peace process rank far ahead of promoting participatory politics in the list of America's real goals in the Muslim Middle East, and that is as it should be. However, there are an increasing number of elections, of more or less legitimate provenance, occurring in Muslim countries to which the United States has to respond. Since November 1995 Algeria has held a presidential election; Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon and Kuwait have had parliamentary elections; and Palestinians elected a legislative authority. American officials have been called upon, and will be called upon, to pronounce upon the fairness and openness of such elections. In a number of cases, the United States faces the difficult task of balancing between its principles - support for free and fair elections - and its particular interests in supporting some incumbent regimes and delegitimizing others.
When elections stand in the way of securing American security and economic goals, Washington drops its normal rhetoric of "democratic enlargement" When countries that oppose the United States on these issues, such as Iran, have elections, those elections are ipso facto seen as undemocratic. When countries that support the United States on these issues have sham elections, or ignore their own constitutions in prohibiting or postponing elections, Washington remains silent There is a pervasive sense in the Middle East that the United States does not support democracy in the region, but rather supports what is in its strategic interest and calls it democratic. What is widely seen as blatant U.S. hypocrisy on the democracy issue has a corrosive effect on America's standing in the region. It is particularly harmful among groups that are disposed to look favorably toward the United States - those who want their governments to be more open and responsive to the sentiments of the people. In this case, talk is not cheap. There is an easy solution to this problem, which we discuss in more detail below. It can be summarized simply: U.S. policy makers should talk much less about democracy in the Muslim Middle East, and do a little bit more to promote it
THE DEMOCRACY CONUNDRUM IN THE MIDDLE EAST
In most of the world, U.S. advocacy of democracy represents a happy marriage of American values and American interests. Elections in Latin America, Eastern Europe and East Asia have brought to power, for the most part up to now, leaders who are favorably disposed toward the United States and who support the market-oriented economic policies that Washington urges. In many cases, these new leaders have supplanted communists (Eastern Europe) or economic nationalists (Latin America) with whom the United States had difficulty doing business, both politically and economically. Even where communists in Eastern Europe have returned to power through the ballot box, they do so much transformed. In such circumstances, American support for democracy is cost-free. Publicly promoting our values serves our interests.
Such is not the case in the Muslim Middle East The United States has no problem dealing with most incumbent regimes in the Middle East(with the exceptions of Libya, Iran and Iraq). American interests are intimately tied up with the ruling elites in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states. Washington even has a promising relationship with Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad, a prickly leader who hardly shares American democratic values. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani might have declared Yasir Arafat persona non grata at Lincoln Center, but the head of the PW is certainly now Washington's favorite Palestinian. The status quo in the Middle East serves American interests very well. Domestic political change, be it democratic or otherwise, would probably bring to power people less likely to follow Washington's lead.
Moves toward greater democracy in any of these Middle Eastern countries (including the Palestinian Authority) would undoubtedly increase the power of Islamist political groups, as recent elections demonstrate. For the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic, a party with an explicitly Islamist platform received a plurality of votes in a legislative election. The Welfare party polled over 21 percent of the vote and received 158 seats (nearly 30 percent of the total) in the Turkish elections of December 1995. The Islamic Action Front, the political face of the Muslim Brotherhood, is the largest group in the Jordanian parliament The arrest and military trial of about I00 Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt, on the eve of the November 1995 elections to the Egyptian parliament, is a signal of where the Mubarak government sees its most threatening challenger. While Hamas boycotted the recent legislative elections to the Palestinian Authority, it is clear that this Islamist group is Yasir Arafat's major opposition in Palestinian politics.. Eighteen of the 40 Kuwaiti parliamentarian-selected in October 1992 were members of the three Islamist groups that fielded candidates or independents endorsed by one of those groups. Islamists held on to about that number of seats in the 1996 elections. Moreover, newly emerging Islamist opposition groups are presenting the Saudi regime with its most serious domestic challenge since the heyday of Nasserist Pan-Arabism in the 1960s.
Thus, for the foreseeable future more open politics in the Middle East likely mean more "Islamic" politics. That is something that unnerves Washington, and with good reason. Islamist groups uniformly oppose the Arab-Israeli peace process that is at the heart of American policy in the Middle East; some (Hezbollah, Hamas) actively confront Israel. They criticize the close relations their governments have with the United States, seeing in such ties a veiled form of political domination. Most centrally, they see the American consumer culture as the biggest threat to the "re-Islamization" of the social values of their societies. In short, any American administration would find it more difficult to do business with Islamic regimes than with the current incumbents in almost all Middle Eastern states.
The democracy conundrum for the United States in the Muslim Middle East is straight-forward. American interests are tied up with incumbent regimes; American values, if pursued vigorously, could weaken those regimes. The problem is not that Muslims are not "ready" for democracy, as some have condescendingly argued. It is that Washington is not ready for the choices that they would probably make.
THE DEMOCRACY CONUNDRUM ON THE GROUND
Two recent elections in the Arab world highlight the democracy conundrum for the United States. In one, it appeared that American principles and American interests were served. In the January 1996 voting for the legislature of the new Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, candidates of Yasir Arafat's Fatah group and affiliated independents took 68 out of 88 seats. Candidates close to Hamas received only 5 seats.3 Arafat himself was elected president of the authority with well over 80 percent of the vote against token opposition. Turnout was high- according to some estimates over 70 percent of registered voters - as Palestinians enthusiastically voted in their first national elections. USAID provided logistical support to the election organizers and held seminars for Palestinians on voting procedures. International monitors pronounced the vote free and fair, and the United States officially congratulated Arafat on his victory and complimented the Palestinians for a successful exercise in democracy.
But what if the results had been different? A hypothetical question, to be sure, but not an outlandish one. Both Hamas and Arafat's leftist opposition urged a boycott of the elections. It is doubtful they will do so on the next round, if there is a next round. After some years of rule by Arafat, Palestinian voters might find themselves in the mood for a change, particularly if final-status negotiations with Israel have stalled and real Palestinian independence seems unlikely. Given the Likud victory in the Israeli elections of May 1996, such a scenario is highly likely. Arafat might have to rely on less democratic methods to tum out a convincing majority to support him in a future election. What would Washington's response be? We have an example in another recent election in the Arab world.
In late November and early December 1995 Egyptians went to the polls to elect a new parliament in two rounds of voting. During the campaign the government arrested a number of leading figures in the Muslim Brotherhood who were running for election. In a pre-election security round-up, hundreds of campaign workers and poll watchers for Brotherhood candidates were detained by the police. President Mubarak's National Democratic party won a crushing victory, with party members and affiliated independents taking 444 out of 458 seats. Only one candidate affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood won a seat.
The head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, a local non-governmental organization which monitored the voting, called the elections "a real insult to democracy." The group reported widespread ballot rigging, fraud, harassment of candidates and voters, and arrests. The Egyptian government contended that the poll was free and fair.4 If American support for democracy should have any impact in the Middle East, it is in Egypt, the recipient of over $2 billion in U.S. aid annually for nearly 20 years. USAID's ''governance'' project has been particularly active in Egypt.
American foundations have helped to fund a number of research institutes and organizations in Egypt committed to developing civil society and pluralistic politics. American human-rights organizations have developed ties with Egyptian counterpart groups. Yet the parliamentary elections of 1995 could hardly be called democratic.
The balloting placed the United States Embassy in Cairo in a very difficult position. Called upon for a comment, the Embassy simply said that it took cognizance of the fact that there were reports of fraud in the voting. This response pleased no one. The Egyptian government was enraged, with government newspapers rejecting what they termed American interference in the domestic affairs of Egypt Advocates of democracy and human rights questioned why Washington would keep silent in the face of such massive fraud. Egyptian liberals with whom we spoke were genuinely puzzled and hurt that the United States would not even provide verbal support to a cause- free elections-that Washington actively encourages elsewhere. Egyptian Islamists did not have to be told why: the United States prefers the increasingly autocratic Mubarak regime to any democratic alternative, because that alternative would inevitably be more "Islamic". Thus the American waffle on "democracy" in Egypt irritated a pivotal Middle East ally without gaining the United States any friends in Egyptian society. Far from settling issues, the Egyptian elections have only raised tensions and increased the political polarization in the country.
The United States faced another uncomfortable moment in March 1996, when Iran elected a new parliament To call Iran a democracy would be wildly inappropriate. The range of acceptable political positions allowed to contest the elections was very limited. A large number of candidates for parliament were prevented from running by the authorities because they were insufficiently "Islamic." But the Iranian elections were an open affair, with rival factions hotly contesting seats and the local press presenting the points of view of all the various political tendencies fielding candidates. Washington's reaction to the elections was wholly negative. While this stance did not make the headlines here, people in the Middle East noticed it, as they noticed Washington's reticence back in December 1991 to condemn the Algerian military coup that derailed the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front It served as another proof to them that America's support for Middle Eastern democracy is limited to those results that serve American interests.
A MODEST APPROACH TO THE DEMOCRACY CONUNDRUM
Is the clash between American values and American interests in the Muslim Middle East insoluble? No. The United States in fact has an interest in dealing with stable, broadly based regimes in the region. Encouraging our friends to open up their political systems, in an evolutionary way, is the best way Washington can help to assure their long-term stability. We should be clear that, while near-term democratic transitions in key Middle East allies are not in America's interest, gradual steps toward more participatory politics are. The leverage the United States can use in this direction is limited, because of the immediate and important American interests at stake in our relations with a number of Middle East regimes. But such leverage does exist
The first step Washington should take is to confront America's own hypocrisy on the democracy question. American policymakers should make clear that our tangible interests in the Middle East are more important than the immediate promotion of democracy. They should not be afraid to say that, while not opposed to democratic transitions, the United States is not particularly pressing for them, either. Our policy will be based on our interests, not on pious statements about our values. Middle Easterners believe this anyway; stating it publicly can only gain Washington credit for honesty, a commodity in preciously short supply in Middle Eastern politics.
It is also important that the United States not exaggerate the Islamist "bogeyman." The further away a country is from the core American interests in the Middle East- Arab-Israeli peace and Gulf oil - the more comfortable Washington should be about dealing with Islamist forces. If an Islamist government came to power in Algeria as a result of the December 1991 parliamentary elections, it certainly would have troubled Paris. It should not have troubled Washington. Where Islamist groups oppose regimes that Washington also opposes, as in Libya and Iraq, we should not be dissuaded from dealing with those groups by questionable theoretical arguments about a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West Islamist governments, even revolutionary ones like Iran, have to sell their products on world markets. We should remember that the United States is boycotting Iranian commerce, not the other way around. The rational basis for American fears of "Islamic" political change in the Middle East rests upon specific differences of opinion on Arab-Israeli issues and on the strong American ties with a number of incumbent regimes challenged by Islamist opposition. Washington must be at pains, in both word and in deed. to make clear that its policy is governed by those specific interests, not by a general opposition to political forces that call themselves "Islamic."
In stating its policy, Washington should also be clear that it favors efforts to allow more wide-ranging public discussion and more freedom to publicly organize for political purposes in the Muslim Middle East One of the reasons that Islamist groups dominate the political field is that they do not need "civic space" to organize politically. The protected space, both metaphorically and physically, provided by mosques, religious schools and other religious institutions allows Islamist groups to build social bases of support. Non-Islamist political organizations lack such space. They are caught between nervous governments intent on dominating all aspects of public life and Islamist groups intent on monopolizing opposition discourse and activity. The United States should use what leverage it has to help open up the space for other political groups to emerge, groups that could ameliorate the growing polarization of Arab politics between American-supported regimes and Islamist oppositions.
The results of the December 1995 parliamentary elections in Turkey are a good indication of how a political system can develop when the opportunities for political organizing are not limited to ruling parties and underground Islamic oppositions. The Welfare party, Turkey's Islamic party, won the poll with 21.3 percent of the vote. However, two right-center secular parties, the True Path party of Prime Minster Tansu Ciller and the Motherland party, founded by the late Turgut Ozal, former prime minster and former president of Turkey, each received nearly 20 percent of the vote. The Democratic Left and Republican People's parties, successors to Kemal Ataturk's Republican People's party, together polled 25 percent Secular parties with a history of support for Turkey's membership in NATO won the support of an overwhelming majority of Turks, and control 392 of the 550 seats in parliament.5 When Welfare party leader Necmettin Erbekan was called upon to form a government in June 1996 (as a result of the collapse of the Motherland-True Path coalition government), he had to accept the True Path as a governing partner with Ciller as foreign minister. It remains impossible for the Welfare party to form a government on its own.
In Turkey, decades of democratic practice have allowed the development of strong political parties across the electoral spectrum. Those parties serve as a check on each other, and a guarantee against a single political movement, supported by a minority of Turks, coming to dominate the government as a result of one election. The Turkish road to democracy has had plenty of bumps, with military coups in 1960 and 1980, a Latin American-style military promunciamento in 1971 and severe political polarization and civil violence in the 1970s. However, Turkey demonstrates that an open and institutionalized political system can accommodate Islamist political activity and avoid the dangerous polarization of politics into an autocratic secular government and a violent, under-ground Islamist opposition so characteristic of many Arab states. The United States has nothing to fear from the Turkish model, and much to admire in it
A modest American policy toward encouraging OW' Arab allies to emulate, in a gradual and evolutionary way, the Turkish model would consist of the following elements:
· Support for freedom of expression. While Islamic groups would be the immediate beneficiaries of such liberalization, it would encourage other political tendencies to enter the public arena. Logistical support for independent publishers of books and newspapers would be a good use of some small partof American and international organization aid to the stat.es of the region.
· Dealing seriously with participatory institutions in Middle Eastern states, even if the governments themselves do not The USAID "governance" project has taken some useful steps in this direction, providing technical assistance to legislatures in Arab stat.es. American diplomats should consult with and take seriously the views of members of appointed consultative assemblies in the Gulf CO\D\tries and the elected legislatures in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait Washington should urge that its important agreements with Arab governments be debated and approved by such assemblies, even if at the outset such approval would be a foregone conclusion. It is interesting to note that the United States signed a defense agreement with Kuwait, after Desert Storm, that was never submitted to the Kuwaiti parliament The evolution of these institutions into freer and more representative institutions is the best hope for stable political transitions in these countries.
• Provide opportunities for political activists, including Islamist activists, to meet with American politicians and analysts, even if such meeting, displease ruling regimes. That kind of networking, particularly in the countries with smaller populations, can be very useful in establishing personal links that could be important in times of crisis and transition. It is disheartening to note that, despite the importance of Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf monarchies to U.S. interests in the Middle East, very few American resources are available for exchange programs with these countries. Such exchange programs are not going to convert every Middle Eastern activist into a Jeffersonian democrat But they could help Washington establish lines of communication with important political and social figures in Middle Eastern countries. When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, he was an unknown figure to Washington. That kind of thing should not happen again.
• Notice and take seriously important social groups that already exist in the Muslim Middle East. A largely ignored but enormously important group in all these states is the chamber of commerce. In many countries the chamber is the only existing social organization that has some independence from both the government and Islamist groups. The chambers generally support the American goal of more open economies. With the general trend toward privatization, the political and economic clout of the chambers will only increase in the future.
• When democratic transitions and real elections do occur, support them, even if their direction at the outset is uncertain. The mealy-mouthed American response to the Algerian military intervention halting the electoral process in 1991 did more to damage Washington's image among devoted democrats in the Arab world than any recent U.S. policy.
• Be honest about sham elections. If one of our allies stages an electoral fun::e, the United States should not try to give it a democratic cover. Washington should make clear to our allies that we are not pushing them to have elections, but, if they do, Washington will evaluate those elections on their merits. Relations will not be cut off nor aid stopped because of sham elections, but the United States will not lie about the nature of those elections simply to avoid hurting the feelings of autocratic rulers.
A TEST CASE: BAHRAIN
One place where this modest set of proposals could be immediately implemented is Bahrain. This small island state off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia has been the scene of a steady series of civil disturbances since the end of 1994, a phenomenon that Gulf activists have termed the Bahraini "intifada." Twenty-five people have been killed in clashes between demonstrators and security forces and in arson attacks on public places since that time. There has been extensive damage to private property, including bomb blasts in two major hotels. Bahraini opposition groups publicly call for the restoration of the elected parliament, suspended in 1975, and a return to constitutional life- not for the downfall of the Al Khalifa or the establishment of an "Islamic Republic." During 1995 the government of the ruling Al Khalifa family attempted to find some middle-ground solution with opposition leaders, but since the beginning of 1996 has relied almost exclusively on the security forces to deal with opposition forces.6 In June 1996 the government arrested scores of Bahrainis, charging them with participating in an Iranian-sponsored plot to overthrow the government
In many ways Bahrain is a unique case. The ruling family is Sunni while the majority of the population is Shii. It is the only Gulf monarchy where there was an elected parliament suspended and not re-established by the ruler (Kuwait's elected parliament was twice suspended, but both times restored). In December 1991 the ruler established an appointed "consultative council" in response to popular demands for a greater role in decision-making, but opposition elements collected thousands of signatures for petitions in 1992 and 1994 calling for a restoration of the elected parliament The opposition to the current government does have a sectarian aspect to it, but it would be a mistake to see it as an exclusively Shii phenomenon. The petition drives included prominent Sunnis, and some well-known Sunnis have been arrested or encouraged to spend time outside the country by the authorities.
Events in Bahrain have to disturb policymakers in Washington. Since 1948 the island has been the base for the permanent American naval force in the Persian Gulf. In 1995 that force was upgraded to fleet status, becoming the U.S. Fifth Fleet Any revolutionary change in Bahrain's political system would place U.S. basing rights in jeopardy. At the same time, the continuing of civil disturbances makes Bahrain a less hospitable place for the American base. It is remarkable that, through more than 18 months of disturbances not a single American institution or official has been targeted for attack. The mainstream political opposition does not call for the removal of the U.S. base or for cutting ties with Washington. If the polarization of Bahraini politics continues, however, that could change.
The American response to events in Bahrain has been unimaginative, limited to ritualistic statements of support for the government Given the stakes for the United States of events in the country, and in the Gulf as a whole, a more active and subtle tact is called for. Simply supporting the re-establishment of an elected Bahraini parliament is not a useful approach. With the hardening of positions on both sides, early elections will only contribute to polarization and increase the likelihood that extreme elements of the opposition will capture the electoral process. On the other hand, it is not in American interests to become increasingly reliant on a government that ignores its own constitution and refuses to deal with responsible elements working for the restoration of constitutional government
A better American policy would be to support the eventual return to constitutional government on ah established timetable agreeable to both the regime and the leading elements of the moderate opposition. Such a timetable could include a number of preliminary steps on both sides before parliamentary elections. The government could commit itself to the release of prisoners not directly implicated in criminal activity, to removing limitations on freedom of expression and loosening its control of the media, to abolishing the special security courts and to relaxing its burdensome oversight over social and religious organizations. Responsible opposition elements could commit themselves to ending the violent demonstrations that have wracked the island, to reaffirming their nationalist bona fides by rejecting any political link with Iran, and to a pluralistic opposition, where its various strains all have the right to compete for parliamentary seats. In the time between the adoption of such a timetable and parliamentary elections, the various politic.al tendencies present in Bahrain should be allowed and encouraged to engage in organizational and informational activity, provided that they agree to accept the timetable and the constitution.
It is not Washington's place to impose such a solution on the Bahrainis, even if it could. More appropriately, American officials in Bahrain could make known our preferences to the government, major political figures and important social groups in the country' through private meetings and consultations. United States officials could offer their good offices in helping the various segments of the Bahraini political scene to reach such an agreement This approach has the advantage of providing for an extended "cooling-off'' period, avoiding the equally damaging options of a quick return to electoral politics and the continual narrowing of the regime's domestic base. It holds out the prospect of a Bahrain friendly to the United States, with the long-term social stability that makes for a reliable ally.
Bahrain is simply one case in a region where the United States will increasingly confront the necessity of facing up to its democratic rhetoric while maintaining its strategic interests. The steps outlined in the previous section for a realistic American approach to its Middle Eastern "democracy conundrum" are hardly a panacea. They will not dramatically change the nature of politics in the Muslim Middle East But they will help to remove the odor of insincerity that characterizes much official American discourse about democracy in the region. They will signal that the United States, within the limits of its interests, is serious about encouraging participatory institutions and broader based politics in its Middle Eastern allies. They might even, at the margins, improve the chances for gradual and evolutionary political change in the area, the best guarantee of stability and American interests there. A little less empty talk and a little more modest action could go some distance to decreasing the extent to which Muslim Middle Easterners see American policy toward political change in their countries as nothing but hypocrisy.
1 U.S. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations. Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. "U.S. Assistance Programs in the Middle East," 104th Congress, 1st Session, May 11, 1995.
2 As Under Secretary of State Strobe Talbott did in his article "Democracy and the National Interest," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 75, No. 6, (November/December 1996), p. 54.
3 Results reported by Agence France Presse in al-Hayat, January 24, 1996, p. 4.
4 See "Group: Egypt Vote Was Fraud," Associated Press (on-line), December 28, 1995.
5 "Final preliminary results of Turkey general poll," Reuters (on-line), December 25, 1995.
6 A good background on the situation in Bahrain can be found in John Daniszewski, "Unrest in Persian Gulf Isle of Bahrain Has U.S. Unsettled," Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1996.