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Is Middle Eastern Democracy Flowering?

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

TTLA: These past few years, is democracy flowering?

DALIA DASSA KAYE: It's become pretty clear that Iraq has not exactly been a domino effect in terms of the democracy front in the region. It's kind of had the opposite demonstration effect. It's led a lot of regimes to actually clamp down and become more authoritarian again.

So the effect of, of the Iraq War has been very negative in terms of moving forward with political reform in this region. The Iraq War has had quite the opposite effect of its intent in terms of, instead of democratizing the region, we're seeing more authoritarianism than we've ever seen. And in many ways, the west, the United States included, is kind of giving a green light to this. And again, this is across the political spectrum, this isn't just the Bush administration. This is Congressional leaders and others. Democracy is just not considered as high a priority any more. U.S. policy's kind of going back to that notion: "You know what? Democracy in this region is dangerous. Let's not mess around with this." Look what's happened in Iraq, look what's happened in Gaza. There are lots of examples, and now Iraq is kind of the new specter about what dangers democracy can bring, just like Algeria was in the `90s.

So you're kind of hearing these very conventional arguments again about, "be careful of democracy, its just going to bring these Islamist regimes that are going to take over." Well, what our report does is say, yes, there are a lot of dangers to democratization in this region. But the dangers often have more to do with not bringing democracy "? with the fact that democracy has not really been brought about at all. Or the extent to which there have been democratic reforms, those reforms have been reversed.

TTLA: Why is that? What's going on?

DALIA DASSA KAYE: A lot of times, the more destabilizing effects are not the political advances and reforms themselves, but the government backtracking. And here we look at democracy quite broadly, we're not just looking at elections. We're not just looking at parliaments; we're also looking at opening the space for political rights. For the ability to assemble. To protest. Fundamental human rights protections. Freedom of speech.

These kinds of liberties are actually being rolled back even among the more moderate states like Jordan and Morocco. Our very good friends in the region are kind of taking advantage of this post-Iraq environment, saying, "Look, nobody wants an Iraq." And to a great extent their publics are going along because, you know, nobody wants to be an Iraq. In the region, people value stability. But this is also creating a lot of resentment.

TTLA: How so?

DALIA DASSA KAYE: For example, I did a lot of interviews in Jordan. I'm not talking about just typical Islamist opposition, but people who normally support the government, who are supportive of Hashemite rule, are very frustrated by the way in which these reforms have been neglected and by the increasing repression of the government "? cracking down on secular types, prominent political figures have been practically thrown in jail. There's really a widespread problem in the region.

And so this creates frustration, and what happens in the connection to terrorism is, when you promise reforms and then you backtrack, instead of marginalizing the extremists, you then really create new space for them to exist in. And so what happens, let's say among Muslim Brotherhood opposition. Countries like Egypt or Jordan or Morocco all have these kinds of mainstream Islamist groups. The groups have more moderate and more hard line factions. The more moderate factions want to play by the rules. They often can be co-opted by the government. They want to play the political game. They want to be in Parliament. They prefer and they usually are non-violent groups. But what happens is the hard liners in those groups, say, "Playing by the rules has gotten nowhere. The government is more repressive than it's ever been, this isn't a real democracy. Our rights aren't being advocated. This non-violent means is not the solution."

Then they become more radical, more hard line, and the danger is, is they can splinter off and either support existing groups like Al Qaeda. You are seeing this in Morocco, Al Qaeda is gaining quite a foothold in North Africa right now. And this is a danger even in countries like Jordan where, they're very close to Iraq, they have a lot of these foreign fighters coming in and out. And so this is a real concern that splinter groups can emerge that will become much more radical, extremist, and ultimately violent. And launch terror attacks, in the region and abroad. So it's not a far-fetched notion that measures [that lead to] the reversal of democratization, can really have an effect on extremism. So we do see a very mixed bag, in terms of the effect of democratization. Yes, there are dangers to it. Yes, it's not perfect. In many ways, it divides societies because of the way it reinforces tribal and sectarian identities. And all the stuff we've seen in Iraq is true as well across the cases we looked at. But there are also dangers in not moving forward with reform. And let's face it, whether the U.S. likes it or not, the genie's out of the bottle. This is a force that's already happening in the region. And there is a demand for greater freedoms. So, so in terms of the policy implications of this, we advocate for keeping democratization on the foreign policy agenda, prescriptively.

[There's a concept called] return to realism, which is this notion of, "We need our stable allies so who cares what they do at home? We'll sell them arms and as long as they give us bases and help us when we need it, they can do what they like." That's kind of the pre-9/11 mentality, and that's starting to come back. But we argue instead of that return to realism, what we need is realistic democracy promotion, which means you don't promote democracy with regime change. You don't promote democracy with wars. Democracy is not just about pushing for elections in systems that might not be ready for it. It's about quietly and consistently advocating for these kinds of rights and civil liberties that are very important. And we should be consistently advocating those issues with our close allies, like especially Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. And not because we want these regimes to be overthrown. On the contrary, it's true, we do need these regimes, we want them to be stable.

But the argument here is that they're not going to be stable in the long term if they continue with repressive policies at home because this will come back to bite them and ultimately, we think, lead to pockets of instability that could really be disruptive to the regional order. So we do think that this is a very important issue to still have on the policy agenda from a U.S. foreign policy perspective.

Coming Tuesday: Can governments become more democratic?

*=Part one of the interview also contains biographical information about Kaye, as well as more information about the interview itself.

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