The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World

Larry Diamond
Times Books, Henry Holt and Company
Chapter 12: Can the Middle East Democratize? Pages 277-283

Democratic Prospects
The obstacle to democracy in the Middle East is not the culture, or the religion of Islam, or the society, but rather the regimes themselves and the region’s distinctive geopolitics. Until the first region-wide “Arab Barometer” is available for study in 2009, a few, more limited public opinion-surveys present a hopeful preliminary picture of the support for democracy in the Arab world.” (49)

For example, at least 84 percent of people surveyed in Jordan and Palestine in 2006, in Iraq and Algeria in 2004, and in Egypt and Morocco between 2000 and 2002 agreed that “despite its problems, democracy is the best form of government.” The proportions topped 90 percent in Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco. (50) And this belief in democracy cuts across demographic categories; according to the University of Michigan professor Mark Tessler, “there is almost no difference in the views of men and women, of better-educated and less-educated respondents, and of respondents of differing ages.” (51) When asked in 2006 if democracy is a Western form of government, incompatible with Islam, two-thirds of those surveyed in Jordan and in Palestine disagreed.

To be sure, when Arab citizens say they support democracy, it is not necessarily secular democracy they have in mind. In each of the Arab countries surveyed, there is a fairly even division of opinion on whether Islam should play an important role in politics. In Jordan in 2006, the 85 percent who believe democracy is the best system split almost evenly between those who agree “men of religion should have influence in government decisions” and those who disagree. The 15 percent nondemocratic population is also split down the middle between religious and secular orientation. A virtually identical pattern was found in Iraq in 2004, with roughly similar patterns in Algeria and Palestine, as well. Supporters of democracy in these four societies more or less evenly divide between those who favor a secular democracy and those who favor an Islamic democracy (though it is not entirely clear what respondents mean by that preference). Tessler’s statistical analysis of the recent Jordan survey shows personal religiosity does not have much impact in shaping commitment to democracy; rather it is education that matters. And the most powerful predictor for a political Islamist orientation: a feeling of powerlessness. Political and economic problems, including low confidence in political institutions, are also associated with support for political Islam. (52) Better and more democratic governance thus appears the best long-term strategy - and quite possibly the only one - for countering the growth of radical Islam.

Significantly, even as Arab authoritarian states have thrown the pendulum back to political closure, many elements of civil society - intellectuals, NGOs, dissident bloggers, and even moderate Islamist activists - have labored to keep democratic reform on the national agenda. The danger of the moment is that when the path of peaceful participation and dialogue (however limited and incremental) is closed, many Islamists - who constitute the best organized and most powerful opposition in almost every Arab country - might turn to violence, as they did in Algeria in 1992. States like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia remain strong, resourceful, and proficient when it comes to repression. But as dissent is shut down and political reform is deferred for longer and longer, the legitimacy deficit becomes more acute, the young become more alienated and radicalized, and eventually the regime becomes more vulnerable to violent uprising in the wake of a performance failure, such as a sudden economic downturn or a miscalculated upsurge in brutal repression.

Arab authoritarian regimes will likely at some point revive political reform just enough to get by, renewing the cycles of “tactical liberalization” much like a pair of lungs, breathing in and out but never permanently expanding. A true shift in that stilted paradigm will not come until there is a transformation in the regional security context - a significant easing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if not actual peace, and some measure of stabilization in Lebanon, Palestine itself, and most of all Iraq. Such broad improvement would provoke three changes: First, it would ease the deep fear of losing control that causes regimes to tighten their authoritarian grips. Second, it would remove a prominent excuse that regimes utilize to justify political stagnation and oppression to both local publics and external ones. And third, it would greatly diminish the strategic anxieties that cause the United States and Europe to back off from applying serious pressure for democratic reform.

It is not only in the Arab Middle East where democratic hopes have been crushed in the last few years. Nowhere in the Middle East has the repression of democratic hopes and movements been more vicious than in Iran. During the first few years of the two-term presidency of Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005), the Islamic Republic began to decompress. Political and civic pluralism widened, as “more than 200 independent newspapers and magazines were established representing a diverse array of viewpoints.” (53) Internal debate and international exchanges accelerated, political pluralism increased, and the oppressive social restrictions of the Islamic Republic were loosened. But Khatami never held the predominant reins of power; those remained in the hands of unelected conservative theocrats, beginning with the supreme leader Ali Khameni and the Council of Guardians, which can veto legislation and disqualify candidates for office. Beginning with the 2000 elections, the hard-line clerical establishment, which controls the judiciary and the state security apparatus, struck back. It closed reformist newspapers and think tanks, vetoed political and economic reforms, and jailed hundreds of liberal journalists and student and civic activists (subjecting some to severe torture). Although Khatami was reelected in 2001, it was a hollow victory for a humbled president, leaving advocates of civil society deeply disillusioned. The reform movement retreated and fragmented. Hard-line elements swept the 2003 municipal elections and then won the 2004 parliamentary elections “after the Council of Guardians rejected the candidacies of most reformist politicians, including scores of incumbents. (54) Finally, in 2005, the regime reactionaries managed to maneuver and manipulate their stealth candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, into the presidency by disqualifying the most popular reform candidates. After attempting to rally the wider Muslim world with Holocaust denials and a vow to “wipe Israel off the map,” Ahmadinejad proceeded to crack down on the modest political and social liberalization of the Khatami years.

In Iran, the suffocation of democratic aspirations has come with a unique twist. In contrast to the Arab world, where secular ruling establishments have lost political legitimacy and Islamist forces constitute the main alternative, it is the reactionary Islamists who constitute the corrupt and brutally oppressive ruling establishment, illegitimate and even despised in the hearts of most Iranians. And it is the disaffected majority - some of it purely secular, some of it privately religious but fatally disillusioned with the system of Velayat Faqih (the “guardianship of Islamic jurists”) - that is liberal, prodemocratic, and thus even pro-American. In this respect, Iran has a unique advantage in establishing democracy in the short term: the necessary transition from Islamic utopianism (and before that Marxist utopianism) to liberal realism and skepticism has already been made by the bulk of intellectual and civil society. When the works being read in a country are authored by classical liberals like Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, and Hannah Arendt, the philosophical seeds of a democratic revolution are planted. The ideological transition is epitomized by the regime’s most famous dissident, a “Revolutionary Guardsman turned investigative journalist, ” (55) Akbar Ganji, whose eighty-day hunger strike in 2005, near the end of his six-year imprisonment, adopted the methods of Gandhian nonviolent resistance and posed a significant moral and political challenge to the regime. Ganji was willing to pay a price but was just as determined that the regime should also pay a price - which meant striking while the world was watching. (56)

Over the nearly three decades of the Islamic Republic, many other Iranians, most unknown to the West, have resisted the regime and paid dearly for it. In the midst of a consolidation of extreme conservative domination, it is easy to believe that their struggle has been in vain, but that is a highly questionable conclusion. Despite the boom in world oil prices, Ahmadinejad has so mismanaged the economy that the Iranian stock market has sharply declined in value during his presidency. “In a June 2006 open letter, 50 prominent Iranian economists accused the president of unsettling the investment climate, pursuing inflationary policies, opening the floodgate to imports and implementing misguided interventionist policies based on the faulty premise that there will be noend to oil money. (57) Officially, unemployment stood at 15 percent in 2007, but in urban areas it may have been double that level. Economic growth has been sluggish, unable to generate the many hundreds of thousands of jobs needed each year just to keep up with the staggeringly young population - two-thirds of which is under age thirty-five - that is trying to enter the workforce. Some 40 percent of the population is below the poverty line, and inflation is running in double digits, “outstripping wage increases.” (58) The problems are deeply structural. The economy must struggle against the huge drag of “a bloated, inefficient state sector, over-reliance on the oil sector, and statist policies that create major distortions throughout,” (59) including massive subsidies of basic consumer goods that drain away investment from more productive purposes. The oil industry alone is in need of tens of billions of dollars each year in foreign investment that it cannot attract.

In many respects, the revolutionary regime in Iran resembles another revolutionary utopian regime that was breaking down from within during the 1980s: the Soviet Union. Belief in the ideology is gone. Corruption is rampant. The economy does not work and survives temporarily on natural resources, while massive subsidies rob future viability. The country is isolated from international capital flows. What is different in Iran is that there remains considerable pluralism in various niches of society: “more than 8,000 NGOs continue to function; human rights lawyers are battling the state; select relatively independent media outlets are still in business,” (60) and over eighty thousand Iranian bloggers are daily challenging or debating the system. (61) Moreover, the conservative religious establishment and its repressive arms (such as the Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basijis) are divided into complex factions as never before. While the regime seems strategically self-confident enough to defy the United States and the United Nations in seeking nuclear weapons, it runs great risks of further international sanction and isolation in doing so. And it faces serious dangers in its own strategic environment. With extensive Kurdish, Azeri, Arab, and other ethnic minorities - and Persians constituting barely half the population - the regime is vulnerable to serious destabilization should Iraq implode. As the Hoover Institution’s Iranian American historian and democratic intellectual Abbas Milani argues, “The regime is tactically strong but strategically vulnerable,” lacking - as the Soviet Union did - a long-term plan for its stabilization and renewal.” (62) What the opposition lacks is leadership and organization, but some of that is poised to emerge from the battered but unbowed student and worker movements. The regime, in short, is brutal but fragile. If the United States avoids a military confrontation that would give the failing Islamic leadership a new political life, the profound contradictions are bound to catch up with it sooner or later.

Still, the best prospect for serious democratic reform in the Arab world today appears to lie in the country farthest away from its burning cauldrons, Morocco. Like Jordan and Bahrain, Morocco saw the succession to the throne in 1999 of a much younger and more politically modern new king following the death of his often severely repressive father, King Hassan II, who reigned for thirty-eight years. During the last decade of King Hassan’s rule, constitutional and political reforms gave Morocco the most vibrant party system and the most meaningful parliament of any Arab monarchy, but real power remained a monopoly of the monarchy. The ascension of thirty-six-year-old King Mohammed VI ushered in a new era of political liberalization. King Hassan’s feared interior minister was dismissed, thousands of political prisoners were released, and exiled opposition figures returned home. The 2002 parliamentary elections and 2003 municipal elections “were judged to be the most democratic since independence” was won France in 1956. (63) Early in 2004, King Mohammed inaugurated the Equity and Reconciliation Commission to document human rights abuses under his father’s regime and to compensate victims. The commission, which included former political prisoners, did not allow victims to identify their abusers, but in holding open hearings “officially recognizing state responsibility for human rights violations” and then paying compensation, the body charted a new path for human rights in the Arab world. (64) Later that year, with the king’s support, Morocco reformed its personal status law to improve the social and family rights of women.

Today, “Morocco competes with Lebanon as the most open Arab country, while being [much] more stable.” (65) There is more political pluralism in the electoral process, greater rights for women, more media freedom, and more space for criticism and initiative in civil society than in any other Arab country save for Lebanon (and in terms of electoral pluralism, Iraq). However, while reforms have liberalized political life and improved human rights, they have not altered the fundamental distribution of power. “A veritable shadow government of royal advisers keeps an eye on the operations of all ministries and government departments. (66) Mainstream party politicians and even many actors in civil society are constrained through the vast “informal system of clientelistic networks” that radiates down from the monarchy. (67) In this sense, Morocco is not much different from the typical Arab state. The power of the king is still unchecked; what he gives politically he can take away at any time. When the country was rocked by a series of suicide bombings killing forty-five people in Casablanca in May 2003, a harsh antiterror law was quickly adopted, “and thousands were immediately imprisoned and sentenced.” (68)

If political liberalization is to extend beyond fragile improvements for human rights, women’s rights, and civic and political space - to the actual democratization of power and thus the constitutional limitation of the monarchy - the initiative will have to come from below, most of all from the political parties. (69) But the traditional left and liberal parties, though they enjoy much stronger support than their kin elsewhere in the Arab world, are co-opted and wary of the larger public backing enjoyed by the Islamists. (70) Their tendency, as in Egypt, is to accept the role the authoritarian regime gives them rather than join Islamists in demands for democratic change. Genuine democratic reform thus requires “the emergence of independent political forces that the king can neither suppress nor co-opt.” (71) That means the traditional secular parties must democratize their own internal structures and rejuvenate their stagnant leaderships, and the moderate Islamist party, the justice and Development Party (or PJD), must join them rather than let itself be pulled into an alliance with the monarchy after it demonstrates its growing political support in elections.

Morocco highlights the common challenge of all Arab authoritarian regimes that carefully calibrate and periodically recalibrate the balance between liberalization and repression. Are these regimes, and the organized secular forces that have been granted varying degrees of status in them, willing to risk a redistribution of power that would inevitably mean a larger political role for Islamist forces? And will they ever summon the vision and self-confidence to negotiate with more moderate Islamists (those willing to commit to the democratic rules of the game) a new political dispensation? The September 2007 elections (which were considered reasonably free and fair) seemed to suggest that Islamists do not necessarily fill political openings, as the PJD scored very modest gains. But with a record low voter turnout of 37 percent (and with many voters spoiling their ballots in protest), the real lesson may be that voters want real power and real change.

There are a number of reasons why an enlightened ruling elite could be tempted to consider genuine democratic reform if the costs of resisting it were to rise considerably due to political pressure from below. For now, harder-line Islamists to the right of the PJD remain outside the system, limiting the hazards of opening up power. But poverty, inequality, and urban unemployment (at 20 percent) continue to breed disenchantment and could feed a deeper political radicalization. The modest scope of reform to date has failed to curb rampant corruption, which saps the country’s development potential and its appeal to foreign investors. And Western aid and investment might pour much more effusively into an Arab country that was visibly moving toward democracy, transparency, and rule of law. The odds of such a transition in Morocco in the next few years are not good, but they are better than in any other Arab country. A transition scenario would be more likely if the United States and Europe were to facilitate the internal democratic “transformation of the major secular parties through pressure on their leaderships.” (72) But more Western pressure is needed on the monarchy as well, and so is more open Western engagement with the PJD and other Islamists in the region who evince a commitment to democracy.


(49) The Arab Barometer project is managed collectively by principal investigators Mark Tessler of the University of Michigan and Amaney Jamal of Princeton University and by five Arab country directors. I am grateful to Mark Tessler for providing me with some of the data from the 2006 surveys. Click here to go to the Web site for the project.

(50) Mark Tessler and Eleanor Gao, “Gauging Arab Support for Democracy” Journal of Democracy 16 (July 2005): 83-97.

(51) Ibid., p. 88.

(52) Analysis provided to me by Mark Tessler.

(53) Freedom House, Freedom in the World, 2006, p. 338.

(54) Ibid. For more extended historical interpretation, see Ladan Bouramand, “Iran’s Peculiar Election: The Role of Ideology,” Journal of Democracy 16 (October 2005): 52-63.

(55) Ibid., p. 55.

(56) Interview with Akbar Ganji, September 8, 2006, Palo Alto, California.

(57) International Crisis Group, “Iran: Ahmadi-Nejad’s Tumultuous Presidency,” Middle East Briefing no. 21, February 6, 2007, p. 8.

(58) Bahman Baktiari, “Iran’s Conservative Revival,” Current History 106 (January 2007):13, and “The World Factbook: Iran,” US Central Intelligence Agency,….

(59) Ibid.

(60) Michael McFaul, Abbas Milani, and Larry Diamond, “A Win-Win US Strategy for Dealing with Iran,” Washington Quarterly 30 (Winter 2006-7): 133.

(61) Vali Nasr, “Iran’s Peculiar Election: The Conservative Wave Rolls On,” Journal of Democracy 16 (October 2005): 11.

(62) Abbas Milani, “Whither Iran? Nukes, Kooks, or Democracy?” presentation to the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, June 5, 2007.

(63) Freedom House, Freedom in the World, 2006, p. 488.

(64) John Damis, Morocco, in Freedom House, Countries at the Crossroads, 2006: A Survey of Democratic Governance (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), p. 362.

(65) Marina Ottaway and Meredith Riley, “Morocco: From Top-down Reform to Democratic Transition?” Carnegie Papers, Middle East Series, no. 71, September 2006, p. 18.

(66) Ibid., p. 3.

(67) Ibid., p. 10.

(68) Freedom House, Freedom in the World, 2006, p. 487.

(69) This is the central argument of Ottaway and Riley, “Morocco,” pp. 10-17.

(70) The two most important of these traditional secular parties have been the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) and the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, which have formed the nucleus of an alliance that has cooperated with the government in parliament and that has held the largest bloc of seats, though still a distinct minority. Ibid., pp. 6-9.

(71) Ibid., p. 11.

(72) Ibid., p. 19.

Copyright © 2008 by Larry Diamond.

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