Can Governments Become More Democratic?

Editor's Note: This is part three of TTLA's four-part archival conversation with RAND's Dalia Dassa Kaye. Here's the link to last Friday's part one and Monday's part two.*

TTLA: Is the audience for your report domestic, international, or both? And as a follow-up, can the current governments in the six countries you studied adopt more democratic means? Or will there have to be changes in government in some of those places for that to happen?

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DALIA DASSA KAYE: They can and it's really good question about audience. That raises a larger question for RAND's work "? who are we trying to influence? And I think we try to influence many levels. First and foremost of course, our client, who we're doing the work for. And often that client is our government sponsor, at least in my area of national security. Other areas, less so. But in my area of national security, many of us are working for government sponsors. And we are trying to educate and, help advise U.S. policy makers so that they can adopt sound and effective policies that further U.S. interests. So in the national security realm first and foremost we are trying to educate and advise our clients in the national security decision-making realm. But we also believe "? and this is why this is a public report, and in fact this particular report I have to say was not sponsored by a government client, which gave us so much more freedom in terms of who we can talk to and --

TTLA: -- So this is one of RAND's self-initiated works as opposed to sponsored by an outside concern?

DALIA DASSA KAYE: It's one of the self initiated projects, and it's a great thing that RAND does because, honestly, the constraints of having a government sponsor in this region, especially these days when the U.S. is kind of radioactive, in many areas, really helps. There was several instances where we wouldn't have gotten the interviews we had with key Islamists for example--.

TTLA: If they thought the federal government was behind the report.

DALIA DASSA KAYE: We were always honest about who were our sponsors, but we were clear that this wasn't a project directly sponsored by the Defense Department, that this was a RAND project. Of course everyone knows RAND does a lot of work for the Defense Department. But it does provide a cover that's critical to our access and gives us an ability to get to people that--.

TTLA: So people might not have agreed to talk to you?

DALIA DASSA KAYE: I know that for sure. [Independence] really helped in terms of getting more information from people we needed to get information from. So it was very useful. So therefore, this is quite a public document. And the great thing about being public is, that's our audience, as well as informing the public debate.

We're educating the public about these really critical national security problems, where often times, there is ignorance, there's these assumptions thrown out and nobody's really delving in a non-partisan way. We didn't have an agenda here. One of our blurbs I'm most proud of is by Nathan Brown, who heads the [Institute for Middle East Studies] at George Washington. He's a very renowned scholar on issues of reform and democracy in the region.

He said, you know, for too many decades the debate is too wedded to ideology and divorced from dispassionate analysis. And he said this makes the study especially welcome. I think that was a great compliment because we really wanted to get away from this "agenda" "? whether it's a "freedom agenda" or whether it's attacking the "freedom agenda." We didn't want to come at this in a partisan way "? this is an important issue for U.S. national security.

And so, let's get information that helps us understand this in a rational way, and inform the public debate and our national security establishment. There are a lot of folks in the region and in Washington and European capitals who work on this issue of democracy. I know for a fact that many scholars and interlocutors that we had in the Middle East are interested in reading this book. They will use it in their own forms, they're going to have discussions about it at their think tanks. And as I said before, the democracy agenda, you know, it's in the region. It's not up to us to start it or stop it. We're suggesting we can help it or hurt it in some ways. But we have to be very cautious about the extent to which we think we can influence everything. We can't. Even though we are the U.S. and we have lots of influence in this region, there are limits to that influence.

So, will these governments in the region take it to a second point, be able to enact these kinds of reforms without being overturned? Absolutely, they already started to do it.

TTLA: So what can the U.S. do to help?

DALIA DASSA KAYE: The point about U.S. policy prescriptions is, there are things that we can do to move them along. Give them incentives. Like Egypt, we give close to three billion now in foreign assistance. We have a lot of leverage with the Egyptians. Same goes with the Saudis. But they're much more authoritarian and difficult than the Egyptians in this regard. The Egyptians, between 2003 and 2005 when the U.S. really made this a high priority, the pressure really did lead the Egyptians to open up their system and they had a lot of positive developments during that time period. So there again, because promoting democracy is not about regime change or even just about elections, and the kind of reforms we're talking about, opening up some of this political [space] allowing for assembly, being much more careful about rule of law and some of these judicial processes. All this can be done with the current regimes.

No regime, of course, in the region wants to give up its own existence, its own power. But oftentimes that's put up as a very false kind of a straw man argument against democracy. Like, "If you do democracy then the whole region's going to be overturned and you're going to have it more radical." That's not what anybody who's serious in this business is really talking about.

And, we just think this region over the long term will be much healthier and stable if it moves more in this direction, but carefully. You know, you have to be very careful in terms of the kind of programs you're promoting, you don't want do more harm than good. So we're very sober about that. We're not talking about radical change.

TTLA: Wouldn't Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood "? wouldn't more radical groups win in direct democratic elections?

DALIA DASSA KAYE: Your question has a lot of assumptions "? and they are common assumptions and there's nothing wrong with them "? but they do reveal a lot of misunderstanding about this issue. Because what happens in the American policy discourse is everyone tends to lump all the Islamists together as one group, Hezbollah, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood "? they're very different organizations, with very different agendas. And in the countries that we were looking at, the Muslim Brotherhood is operating as a political opposition group that is non-violent. So it is not a Hamas or Hezbollah, which has terrorist factions. Even though they do have governing factions, they are extremist groups. We are not advocating letting Hezbollah control Lebanon or Hamas control Gaza. The idea is just to be more realistic that we need to understand the differences among Islamists "? there are Islamists in this region who we can work with "? and we need to "? who are non-violent. Of course the condition has to be the U.S. cannot engage groups who are extremists and espousing violent methods.

But there are many Islamists in this region who the U.S. needs to engage, because we need to be realistic about the regional situation. Let's face it, because of the vacuum created by these governments who are not serving their people, who have really failed in many ways, because of that vacuum, and because these governments often work with religious establishments to curtail rights and freedoms for their own benefit because these groups help them stay in power. The only functioning opposition that has been able to operate are Islamists. So they have not opened up the playing field for other kinds of opposition. So while the U.S. government should be looking for other kinds of opposition that might be more to our liking "? you know, more liberal, secular, kind of groups "?[showing] preference to those groups can backfire.

We need to recognize that, for whatever the reasons, Islamist groups have the most legitimacy and grassroots support in most of these Arab societies. So if you want real democracy, you're going to have to figure out how to deal with Islamic groups. Now that doesn't mean that you deal again with these really radical kinds of groups. And it's also important to recognize that if these Islamist groups really do come to power, and if they are not delivering "? like Hamas in Gaza, it's a mess there "? they're not going to continue to be popular. They're popular because there's no alternative. So you know, we need to be very careful about, again, these kind of straw man arguments that if you just open it up, then the Islamists are going to take over.

If you move incrementally, toward political reform, there are checks and balances and ways to prevent that kind of emergence of a dramatic, Islamist group taking over. But also we should recognize that, again, there are Islamist groups who are non-violent, who can work within the political system. And you know, look at Turkey. Turkey's been ruled by an Islamist government. Has the world ended? No. The U.S. is having some problems with Turkey, but not because of the Islamist government, because of the situation in Iraq and the Kurdish situation. It's more of a geo-strategic issue that we would be facing with any Turkish government. In fact there are some advantages from a U.S. perspective of an Islamist Turkish government more interested in mediating with Middle Eastern powers, between Syria and Israel, I mean, this can actually be very beneficial, for the U.S. to have an ally with an Islamist government who has credibility, who can serve a mediating role in the region. That we cannot ourselves do. So, again, I think we need to be very careful about thinking, "Because we're so scared of Islamists, we think democracy's a bad idea." I think that's a false argument.

[Also,] if you look at the recent elections in Morocco, the Islamists haven't been doing so well, they haven't been doing so well in Jordan. Part of it is because the government structures the system to exclude them. They kind of stack the deck against them.

Coming Wednesday: Meeting Comic Book Artists in Jordan

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