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Promoting Democracy in the Middle East: a Case of De-construction without Re-construction

Apr 12 , 2011
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

The fierce Western military bombing campaign in Libya and U.S. President Barack Obama’s encouragement of anti-government movements in other parts of the region have emphatically demonstrated America’s ambitious promotion of democracy in the Middle East. Collectively these initiatives also demonstrate the U.S.’s dominance in the region, despite its reluctance to play a leading role in enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya.

In truth, while Libya is the latest example, the story is not new. Since the beginning of the new century, the United States and its European partners have funneled tremendous financial aid and other resources into promoting democracy in the Islamic Middle East. They have employed various means, including military measures, to achieve their goals in the likes of Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran.

Though the West has been successful in removing old regional regimes, it has not been able to establish capable new and efficient ones, so the region has not actually advanced in the direction prescribed by the West. To put it another way, the promotion of democracy in the region is de-constructive rather than re-constructive.

Reform in Palestine resulted in political power in 2006 moving into the hands of Hamas which the U.S. has long defined as being made up of radicals or even terrorists. And the isolation of Hamas further entrenched the division of Palestine into two parts separately administered by Hamas and the Palestinian authority, further intensifying conflict between the two factions.

The 2003 Iraq War toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in a very swift manner. But post-war Iraq has witnessed a worsening security situation and the stalemate of political reconstruction. It is one thing to win the battlefield victory but quite another to translate it into security and political order. And Iraq has turned into another Lebanon of the Middle East.

Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution in the aftermath of the 2005 assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri successfully ousted the nation’s pro-Syria cabinet led by Omar Karami and expelled Syria’s military forces. However, the revolution itself had more geopolitical significance than implications for Lebanon’s power-sharing political system. After that, Syria’s influence has been greatly diluted.

In 2009, Iran’s reformists launched a massive protest against the “rigged” presidential election. The U.S. had hoped that this Green Revolution would produce another Yeltsin to overthrow the Islamic republic. But the indigenous movement that grew out of reformists’ dissatisfaction with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s policies failed to reverse the election results, and was far from being able to shake the Islamic system.

The current Middle East anti-government movements, nominated  by many as the second Arab awakening, have already ousted Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.  And a number of other regimes are facing more or less similar challenges, including Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. This round of peaceful and non-peaceful demonstrations will result in political reforms in different ways and to different degrees. After all, the lessons of Tunisia and Egypt are stark.

Yet it is too early to be optimistic about the prospects of an Arab Spring. It is unknown how far the train of revolution will go and whether it will further cause the collapse of regimes. And there is no evidence to show that the challengers can establish stable and efficient political systems that are responsive to the needs of the people. Richard Haass, President of the independent Council on Foreign Relations, believes that all outcomes are possible but none is likely to lead to greater freedom.

The bombing of Libya suggests that the lessons of Iraq and Palestine have not dissuaded the West from the belief that every state is suitable for a transplant of its political system. For historical and realistic reasons, most Middle East countries have not accomplished the task of nation building. The so-called nationals in regional countries are more identified with their own religions or tribes rather than the nation. And their division is defined by cultural backgrounds rather than political and economic interests.

It is true that some countries in the region have established Western-style political systems. However, the power sharing systems which serve well as a stage for bargaining political and economic interests in the West, have become instruments used by different religious sects and ethnic groups  to protect their own interests. As a result, the checks built into different government branches to control the abuse of power have never been really implemented so therefore government crises are always possible.

That is one of the reasons for the failure of Lebanon’s power sharing sytem, where Christian Maronites, Muslim Sunnis and Muslim Shiites respectively hold the positions of President, Prime Minister and Parliament Speaker. It also accounts for the failure to establish a feasible and efficient political system in post-war Iraq, where Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis are respectively slated with the posts of Prime Minister, President and Parliament Speaker.

The stifling of Western political initiatives resulting in half-baked democracies in the region is also caused by strong and entrenched tradition, and Iran is a good example. The Islamic Republic of Iran is both modern and traditional. On the one hand, it has established a political system with power divisions which is the closest of the regional Islamic countries to the Western style. On the other hand, though, Iran has a Supreme Leader sitting above the whole system, reflecting the country’s strong traditional tenets and the importance of religion in its political and daily life. Though the U.S. and the West tried various means to facilitate the Green Movement, the reformists ultimately refrained from challenging the Islamic system.

The West is undeniably pioneering political modernization and has left other nations far behind. However, this does not mean that its model is the only one for others to follow. Indeed, the results of efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East indicate that it is not a good cure to transplant a Western heart into a Middle Eastern body.

Jin Liangxiang is SIIS research fellow.

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