Democracy’s Dawn in the Middle East

With Operation Odyssey Dawn – the NATO-led enforcement of UN Resolution 1973 having commenced in the skies over Libya at the time of this writing – a new democracy paradigm has emerged throughout the Middle East with foreign policy implications for forward-thinking Western actors. A growing rebellion in Syria by a young generation railing against an old tyranny has placed the dictator’s dilemma before Bashar al Assad. The new paradigm realigns the dictator versus Islamist dichotomy that has paralyzed policy in the broader Middle East and North Africa.

Secular democrats have demonstrated that they exist in large numbers, that they will attempt peaceful protest and that – in the cases of Libya and Bahrain – they will fight for their freedom and for a chance at a democratic future. Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have compelled monarchs and despots throughout the regional arc to respond pre-emptively to the will of their people. In places that have never known freedom, these are unprecedented events. Tyrants are responding because they know how dangerous these sandstorms of democracy are to their regimes – they know there are more aspiring democrats in their midst than there are Islamist hard-liners or members of the security apparatus. The challenge before the world is to ensure that transitions are fostered through ballots, not bombs, and when necessary, to confront tyrants who deploy the machinery of war against peaceful protests. It is both morally right and strategically imperative to level the field for those who share our highest aspirations for a democratic world, and it is reasonable to pursue regime change when aligned with the popular uprisings of aspiring democrats.

Given the history in the region, this will be a difficult task. Arabian monarchs betrothed to colonial powers subverted any notion of popular sovereignty throughout the imperial era until pan-Arab nationalism and strongman regimes sequestered Middle Eastern politics when Gamal Abdel Nasser seized Cairo in 1952. President Nasser’s vision of pan-Arabism and socialist thought gave rise to the Arabian despots of the Cold War era; their descendants continue to sponsor economic slavery by expanding dependence on regimes through food and oil subsidies.

Following Nasser’s death, Arab dictators universally styled themselves as leaders of the Arabian world, and all failed miserably in their grand designs. Instead, they lapsed into garden-variety autocrats or worse.

In the post-Nasser Middle East, Arab nationalists were forced to respond to the Islamist influence of recent decades. Throughout the 1990s, political Islam spawned dissident movements as the only alternative to authoritarian police states. Dictators were the source of rising militant Islamist strength, and hegemonic Islamists provided dictators with the excuses they needed to cling to power. The strongest opponents of Arab autocrats until the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003 were the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and their transnational brethren. Their participation in overthrowing colonial monarchs was instrumental in Nasser’s revolution in Egypt until the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Nasser in the opening hours of his presidency. His ensuing crackdown on more than 20,000 dissidents, including Brothers and communists, laid the stage for the odious relationship between tyrants and Islamists for decades to follow.

Like Nasser, Arabian autocrats cast themselves as leaders of secular states, corporatized tribes and quashed dissident movements. Political Islam gained traction on the street as a backlash to tyranny; regimes commenced reinvention, in which they embraced archaic and misinformed Islamic theology and cloaked their stranglehold on power under the veil of faith.

This story of greater Arabia is depressing. Saddam Hussein launched his “faith campaign” in the 1990s. Enriched by oil and weapons buyoffs from Riyadh, Saudi sheikhs provided deeper funding for Islamic extremism, namely Wahhabism and Al Qaeda. The confluence of Saudi tribes and Imams allowed the regime to claim the title of Defenders of the Faith as stewards of Mecca and Medina.

In Egypt, the Brotherhood was brutally suppressed, and Hosni Mubarak’s regime decorated itself as the sole defender of a secular and rational Arab state. Monarchies in Jordan and Morocco emphasized benevolence. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi built anarchic alliances with grand delusions of African leadership, sponsored terrorism against Israel and the West, antagonized Lebanese Shi’a Muslims by killing their leader, attempted to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah (now King Abdullah) and facilitated a major black market economy in arms and oil. Eventually, he gave up on Arabian identity and took on the ridiculous mantle of “King of the Kings of Africa.”

Frustration on the street with the West’s inability to act against these regional gangsters for the sake of stability fomented various radicals, deepened anti-American resentment and allowed both the most radical elements to organize under Al Qaeda and their attack on 9/11. Al Qaeda’s most effective appeal has been to point the scimitar to Western convenience in supporting tyranny for the sake of stability, building a narrative of victimhood and offering Islam and jihad as the alternative.

On the smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers, U.S. policy in the Middle East irreversibly transformed. No longer could the tyrant versus Islamist dichotomy be allowed to persist during an era in which transnational terrorists were able to employ more-lethal and broadly based instruments of mass murder. Unable to precipitate extensive and immediate change throughout the entire region, U.S. policy was informed by the notion of cleaving open the Gordian knot of Middle Eastern tyranny. By inducing democracy in Afghanistan and then Iraq, the first steps would be taken toward enfranchising a historic first generation of freedom in the region. Afghanistan was the outpost where Arabian Islamists trained in jihadi camps and schooled at madrasa, but the bloodlust was born from the Middle Eastern dichotomy.

The interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan commenced quickly yet continued violently, and Iraq became ground zero for the test of the potential for Arabian democracy. In both places, the tides have ebbed and flowed toward the realization of popular sovereignty, yet it is indisputable that both countries are indelibly freer today than they were under the Ba’ath Party or Taliban rule.

During the course of these wars, the pace of reform gained speed throughout the region as a new generation came of age. Arab language channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya emerged, gradually expanding accessible, independent coverage in the realm. At one time, the Internet was only available to the elite through dial-up connections, but the anonymous blogosphere, higher bandwidth and portable technology progressively allowed citizens to challenge unassailable ideas and autocrats. This created space for a new generation to ask hard questions about how to break the dichotomy between brutal dictatorships and fundamentalist political Islamists. This space also afforded the young and technologically savvy to form political associations in anonymity, learn from the experiences of democratization by others and, by 2011, carry those associations and lessons to the streets in revolt against the old order.

In the Libya intervention today, it is remarkable how slow the West had been to respond to the aspirations of a generation growing up from under the thumb of tyrants. Rather than encouraging popular sovereignty, multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, NATO and the European Union have muddled through moral ambiguity. Ultimately, the Arab League endorsement of a no-fly zone paved the way for United Nations Security Council, which authorized force and “any necessary means” to defend the civilian population with a humanitarian intervention. The Arab League, however, is a council of gangsters and thugs, more interested in personal fealties than in shaping prosperity in the Middle East. And the UN has become safe harbour to the world’s tyrants, rather than a lighthouse for freedom and democracy in the world.

In this intervention, there is a responsibility to protect civilians from mass murder and the strategic interest to ally Western interests with the aspirations of the young. There are limits to what the world can do – the fate of Libyan democracy ultimately rests with Libyans who yearn to continue their peaceful demonstrations until they have achieved the democratic system change they seek. Yet, policy in the modern Middle East should not be set by chasing the ghosts of Iraq, or upon the analogies of Europe. In cases where regime change ought to be pursued, as in Libya, it should be pursued through all means available without undermining the leadership of Libyan democrats.

Road to a Democratic Region

While the erupting democracy movement gains momentum, violent dictators are likely to seek every conceivable avenue to retain power. This will make for tough choices in the road to a democratic region. The more dictatorial the regime, the higher the price of freedom will be. Surging democratic passions in the wider Middle East and North Africa delicately bring to mind what Thomas Jefferson once posed: “The tree of liberty is refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” The governments of Libya and Bahrain are more autocratic and entrenched than those of Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali. Yet, Libyan and Bahraini regimes are less despotic than those of the deeply rooted tyrants of Damascus, Riyadh and Tehran. The crucible for regional democrats will continue before regional transformation can truly take hold, and with every falling dictatorship, the terrain grows rougher while momentum grows stronger. However, the cognitive dissonance of policy that draws a hard-line with moderate autocrats and mollycoddles tough autocrats must be reversed. It will take time, and it will require a fresh way of thinking about new foreign policy in a new Middle East.

Foreign Policy at the Intersection of Realism and Idealism: A Values Agenda

In Egypt, Western realists are obviously concerned with outcomes in elections. Realists have a lot to answer for in their past deals with devils in the region, and complacent policy-makers in the West must rethink attitudes on whether democracy is exclusive to one part of the world or is accessible to all. It is time to trade cynical realism and bowing before tyrants for practical idealism and standing with patriots.

Revolts throughout the Middle East scream a central question: Are we confident enough in the system of democracy itself to marginalize extremists and encourage compromise?

World leaders should not hesitate to stand by a generation that has grown up from under the thumb of Middle Eastern despots. The world can no longer tolerate cynical interests that rest in direct opposition to the democratic aspirations of the people of the region and the awakening of their imagination. Each of these countries has cynically named parks within their cities: Tahrir (Liberty) Square in Cairo, Azadi (Freedom) Square in Tehran, Hurriya (Freedom) Square in Benghazi. It is on these plots of symbolic real estate that people continue to demonstrate that the consent to govern no longer exists in the hands of gangsters, that tyrants must leave and that a system of democracy must be at the heart of their emerging societies. And the juxtaposition is fantastic.

On the hemmed grounds of cynical realism now roars a new, practical idealism. It is a source of inspiration on how world leaders can go beyond the policies of multilateralism and bilateralism toward the full and robust engagement of “micro-lateralism.”

Engaging Micro-lateralism in the Modern Era

States traditionally partner in multi-national diplomacy and in state-to-state relationships. However states also have clear preferences within tyrannical regimes – and a desire to aid and assist friendly forces within those societies. This micro-lateralist foreign policy engages on multiple levels: support for independent civilian-led militaries (from freedom fighters to professional militaries), strengthening targeted elements of local economies, mainstreaming democracy assistance and modernizing foreign policy to meet the demands of citizens organizing within the digital age.

Support for Independent Civilian-Led Militaries

In crisis, governments tend to be guided by the agencies with the most data and the most relationships. In Egypt, the U.S. Department of Defense informs the U.S. government about local events more often than does intelligence, diplomats or aid organizations. In this transitional period, military-to-military relations have been the lifeblood in assurance toward a meaningful transition to democracy. Wherever that is absent, tyrants are more dangerous and war is more likely.

More often than ever before, the U.S. military is central in addressing asymmetric or micro-lateral engagements. Whether in the inducement of democracy as in Iraq and the U.S. military’s surge – as much about a tactical shift toward local ownership and accountability as it was about a troop buildup – or in partnership with indigenous forces of democracy as in Egypt, the military has taken on far more than it did traditionally. There are fair questions about whether the military ought to remain in this realm; at the very least, it certainly has established its bona fides in innovating to meet the needs of the modern century. Indeed, the military’s role in the reconstruction of post-World War ll Japan adds to this credibility.

Military partnerships, mentoring programs and combined training provide invaluable relationships and guidance toward the establishment of common values. The more robust these relationships, the stronger the ties are toward the maintenance of independent, secular militaries that accept civilian control. In societies emerging from the midst of tyranny, these military partnerships ought to be extended in materiel and training to forces fighting for freedom.

Strengthening Targeted Elements of Local Economies

The greatest measure of success in a transitioning region will be the benchmark of jobs and growth. Free enterprise, a reverence for private property rights and establishing market economies governed by the rule of law must feature prominently in the region if the transition to democracy is to take hold. A large part of the emerging Middle Eastern economy will be built on international defence and commercial partnerships, essential trade relationships on land and at sea, building non-state-owned oil economies that invest in education and infrastructure, and seeding tourism in nations thin on industrial natural resources.

Governments should encourage agreements and treaties between emerging democratic states. These agreements should be genuinely governed by principles drawn from the independent metrics developed by the World Bank, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Transparency International, Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Annual Democracy Index. These treaties ought to exclude states that refuse to accept democratic governance and ought to have clear benefits for those that have embraced freedom. A network of agreements throughout the region for the free and legitimate flow of labour, capital and commerce will sustain a lasting peace by improving the quality of life, unleashing entrepreneurism and creating jobs. For example, banking reform in the Islamic world has been on the precipice of dramatic change when dealing with issues of interest and fees. Major Arabian banks have been innovative in this realm, and they ought to be invited to participate in the establishment of the market economies.

The billions of dollars of tyrants’ assets that have been frozen in overseas accounts and the hard assets situated within state borders (i.e., gold) should be established as sovereign trust funds. These funds would favour investing in the levers that unleash local economies: capital projects, infrastructure and education, rather than propagate state dependencies through oil, food and other subsidies.

Alongside commercial development in the Middle East, the West can target growth by working with labour movements, accessing trade associations, establishing Chambers of Commerce and insisting on transparency in transactions. The West’s universities can also invest in the expansion of business knowledge, leadership and entrepreneurship by encouraging academic exchanges at Cairo University, the University of Baghdad and other institutions in the Middle East. These schools could also become incubators for think-tanks and research labs that cultivate local talent and enrich human resources in the new free economy. Through these targeted investments, the realization of private property laws and dynamic stock, bond, commodity, and foreign currency exchanges are likely to emerge. Free market thinkers will arise, and transform regional economic mindsets. Arabian tribes have long and ancient traditions as tradesmen and entrepreneurs before black gold seeped through the sand and underwrote regional socialism.

As states undergo this democratic transformation, the world will need to respond to the primary demands of aspiring democrats. Without a doubt, the economy, jobs and access to a higher quality of life rest at the heart of these aspirations. Some have suggested that the transitions in Eastern Europe could serve as a model. Indeed, a regional Marshall Plan like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for transitions in Eastern Europe or the Inter-American Development Bank for transitions in Latin America may be fine examples of how the world invests in the long-term prosperity of the region. China and Russia should be brought into these types of initiatives, rather than undermine the rule of law and feed corruption from outside the international system.

Mainstreaming Democracy Assistance

More than 25 years ago, Ronald Reagan, impressed with Lane Kirkland’s organization of Polish resistance in the Solidarity movement, founded the National Endowment for Democracy. The visionary initiative foresaw that the long-term investment in democracy provided an essential avenue for U.S. foreign policy in building vital partnerships with citizens in states yet to realize their full free potential. Over the last decades, the field of democracy assistance has experimented, professionalized and expanded beyond a U.S. enterprise to include a host of organizations around the world.

Western countries should thus ensure that their foreign service officers are made aware of the tools available to them such as political party assistance, civil society support and advancing an independent media to engage and develop vital relationships with people in these places. Foreign services should be directed to interact with all parts of a state rather than just the tyrants who occupy the halls of power. They should engage schools, labour unions, political parties, trade associations, tribes, online activists and others. Foreign policy should also be guided by measuring public opinion in foreign environments; if we are to have credibility in our engagements and commitments, surely those interactions must also have credibility in the eyes of the hosts.

Democratic proponents exist everywhere irrespective of culture or religion; they are worthy of our support and their success throughout the region ought to feature centrally in our foreign policy. Constitutional process and democratic institutions should guide policy, not the personalities of the day who may look and behave more like Western politicians. Jeffersonian democracy will not be born overnight, but even in Jefferson’s life, the ideal was a long way from the reality of early American democracy.

Today’s solutions result from almost three decades of democracy promotion by mainstreaming this important assistance throughout the foreign policy establishment. There are a few areas where democracy assistance will be especially useful now and in the future:

  • Public opinion polling: Understanding public attitudes can greatly inform foreign policy and allow policy to act in the interests of those who hold democratic aspirations. By being responsive to local opinion, states will be able to respond more directly to the will of the people, enhance the institutions of governance and enhance commitment to processes over personalities.
  • Political party formation and supporting of civil society: The transition from protest movements or civil war militias into political organizations is likely to be difficult. As consensus around singular objectives fray, secular democratic movements are vulnerable to the individual aspirations of the elite rather than guided by the priorities of the people. When invited by local organizations in partnership, this kind of peer-to-peer technical assistance can be essential in forming coalitions, developing broad platforms, creating a bottom-up system of party decisions and the resolution of conflicts within movements. Civil society should also be supported to enfranchise minorities and women and assure they have enough resources to inform the public debate with crucial issues of modernity. Civil society also extends into the realm of training cadres of independent media, wherein professional journalism holds leaders to account, informs voters and offers a venue for debates and roundtables on issues that are priorities for the people.
  • Election/referendum support: Traditionally, multilateral organizations are at the forefront of assisting transitions. The lessons learned from a litany of failed transitions must be applied. Already, the Egyptian Supreme Court is playing a principal role in the organization of the Egyptian Referendum, and local actors throughout the region should be in the lead in implementing their election systems. At times, foreign expertise may be helpful, but it should be limited wherever possible.
  • Observation: An effective instrument to measure democratic progress would be to deploy short-term and long-term observers without delay to states in transition. Those with an eye to abuse, manipulation or outright corruption can inform policy-makers in real-time, affording the opportunity to respond in the interest of aspiring democrats and in the defence of young democratic institutions.

When compared with major defence and military investments, the costs to mainstreaming democracy assistance are fractional.

Reform Development and Aid

Aid to any state or any NGO should be conditional and strictly aligned around ideals and interests. The development industry has aimed to occupy a space in which practitioners are above the fray of foreign regimes, negligent of obligations to taxpayers, wrought with corruption and lost in the ether of distorted metrics and Western timetables. If development allocations are to increase, development practitioners must establish that they are worthy of enlarged responsibilities. This requires a direct correlation of aid strategy to metrics of liberty, democracy, market economics and the rule of law.


The dawn of democracy in the Middle East is a historic moment, but the path will not be easy, as entrenched dictators are testing the limits of their tyranny. As much as we hope this dawn will be bloodless, it is unlikely that the worst autocrats will go easily. But go they must. Their ultimate decline is now, finally, irreversible.

This is not the first time such remarkable events have shaped history in the last 200 years, particularly in the assertion of liberal democracy. Nor is it the first time that such waves of democracy were realized with the direct support and assistance of like-minded states.

In the First Wave of democratization across Europe and North America, French assistance was supplied to American Revolutionaries against England, as Benjamin Franklin courted vital support from the French Republic. The Second Wave commenced as the guns went silent in the quiet dusk of the Second World War. In the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur oversaw the democratic transformation of Japan, while in Europe, the early days of this wave were characterized by the formation of the United Nations, the notion of inalienable human rights and the development of an international system designed to abate nuclear war. Assuredly, the wave waned into ripples as the Cold War raged in earnest during the 1970s, an era of global decolonization, satellite wars, nationalist uprisings, energy partnerships and nuclear brinksmanship. Only as the Soviet Empire gasped its dying breath would the Third Wave in Latin America and Eastern Europe come into being. Again, it was – and continues to be – achieved with the direct assistance of Europe and America, the expansion of NATO and the integration of Latin America into the global economy.

In this context of great wars and cold wars, hegemonies and revolutionaries, partisans and policemen is the dramatic story of liberty in the world: a liberty that is written into the hearts of all men and all women, an irreducible aspiration of freedom in the modern era.

We should be on the right side of this history, in what some have termed the “Fourth Wave” of democratization in world politics.

It seems appropriate to conclude with the words of a Canadian Nobel laureate prime minister. He was at the precipice of a world that sought reinvention on the eve of the Second Wave of democratization and in the early days of the Cold War, well before the Third Wave of the 1990s. Lester B. Pearson sought to argue that there was an “underlying community of interest.” In his opening address to the 1954 session of the UN General Assembly, the now-hallowed halls once heard these powerful words of our highest aspirations and our most worthy interests:

There is, first, the fundamental division between totalitarian and free societies. In the former, the citizen is the mere servant of the state, while, in international matters, reliance on force and aggressive expansion is a normal development, however much the words ‘peace’ and ‘co-existence’ may be used to camouflage or confuse. Free societies, on the other hand, are based on the doctrine, however imperfectly realized in practice, that man has rights and duties above and beyond the states and governments which have been created by him in order to protect his freedom and security under law and justice.

… A people who are governed by a dictator, whose power is based merely on military or police control, is not self-governing, even if the dictator happens to be of the same race, and to speak the same language as most of his subjects … .

… Our direction is clearly laid down: it is toward economic and social progress and away from poverty: it is toward full and free self-government and away from dictatorial regimes imposed from inside or from outside: toward the progressive realization of human rights and the dignity and worth of the individual person.

Like this article?


Leave a comment