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Friday, June 20, 2008

Democracy in the Arab World? The Western Position between Interests and Ideals

How could the western world solve the incompatibility between its ideal of promoting democracy and its interest in enhancing stability in the Arab region? From an idealist point of view, you might think that peace and security in the Middle East goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of democracy and freedom. However, from a realist point of view, you would answer that the western world could only negotiate peace with a stabilized government. A rapid democratization pushed from outside could create civil disorder, radicalism, and stop the process of political reformism.
When there is not any strong movement towards democracy in the Arabic countries themselves, promoting democratisation might bring the opposite results.

Eva Bellin, Associate Professor of Political Science at Hunter College,
reviewed two books on this theme: Freedom's Unsteady March, by Tamara Cofman Wittes, and Beyond the Façade, edited by Marina Ottaway and Julia Choucair-Vizoso.
Both books explore the US interests in promoting democracy in the Arab world.
According to Bellin, promoting democracy from outside cannot replace "the work of forces on the ground who daily make their own calculations of the costs and benefits of mobilizing collective power and challenging the status quo".
Therefore, the best proposition for the US and also for the EU is that outsiders "cheer from the sidelines, pressure allied regimes to make space for these local forces, and provide material and technical assistance where possible. . . . Washington must narrow its efforts to the protection of political freedoms, . . . press reluctant regimes to include Islamists in the political process, and make aid and trade conditional on performance on these more limited goals" says Eva Bellin in regard to the books’ proposals. In addition, she says that this should be done "without the slightest hope of cashing in any political returns in the near term".

But is the devil not in the details?
First, for example, the movements of the Muslim Neighbourhood were impeded by mostly non-democratic governments that were backed by Washington and Brussels. How could the western governments now give preference toward Islamists in the political process while they were declaring that combating the 9/11 terrorist’s cells in the Arab world was the major task? If the western world is willing to tread this brave path then they need to stop the rhetoric war against the "Islamists enemies" and completely change their policy toward the Arab world.
Secondly, since the beginning of the Barcelona Process, the EU has been trying to make aid and trade conditional on their making reforms regarding political freedom, state of law, and human rights issues. However, as the EU cannot offer lucrative prospects (as done in the East Enlargement with the EU Membership), the current proposal is far too unattractive for the Arab governments to accept and thereby risk their own political power. The EU should talk with the leaders at eye level to better understand what the autocratic leaders really want.
In the last years, the EU has rather worsened their image and authority in the Arab world by implementing similar policies within the ENP (European Neighbourhood Policy). For example, as Belarus might be a potential EU member state candidate in the future and because of its geographical important status between Russia and Europe, there are many arguments as to why a conditional policy might work. North Africa and the Middle East have no chance to become member states of the EU, and even more importantly, there would be neither chance nor recommendation to split off the region in either EU favoured or non-favoured states. As Gaddafi outlined a few days ago, the Mediterranean Union should be a common strategic policy. If this cannot be made clear to the Arabic partner states, the tragedy in the EU-Med relations will continue and undemocratic governments will be supported with an even stronger Islamic opposition.

Some critics suggest that the idealistic proposals presented in the two books are fundamentally flawed and, perhaps, naive. One of the strongest arguments for this is the following: Who really believes in western politics where the long-term goals are prioritised before the short-term ones? It is too easy for politicians to hide behind the rhetoric of long term goals and to close their eyes to the present.

Foreign Affairs

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