The Project on Middle East Democracy is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to examining how genuine democracies can develop in the Middle East and how the U.S. can best support that process. Through dialogue, research, and advocacy, we aim to strengthen the constituency for U.S. policies that peacefully support democratic reform in the Middle East.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, promoting democracy abroad became a fundamental principle of American foreign policy. But in the Middle East, short-term economic and security concerns often crowded out America’s long-term interest in political reform, leading the U.S. to strengthen friendly dictatorships rather than support democratization. In practice, American economic aid, military assistance, and diplomatic support often helped these authoritarian governments repress demands for political participation from their own citizens. This, in turn, strengthened the appeal of radical Islamic organizations.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was a growing recognition that democratic reform in the Middle East should be viewed not merely as a development objective, but as a strategic priority. However, despite the Bush administration’s dramatic rhetorical shift towards a “forward strategy of freedom,” U.S. policy on democracy in the Middle East changed only incrementally in the years that followed. New aid programs have been relatively small, and too frequently paired with mixed diplomatic signals, undermining their impact. Much worse, by linking Western efforts to promote democracy to deeply unpopular military-led regime change, the administration undermined support for “democracy promotion” in the Middle East and the U.S. alike.
With dramatic transformations sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, sparked by historic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the importance of democratic change in the region is clearer than ever. There is an increasing recognition that the U.S. should get on the right side of these transitions and support the democratic aspirations of Middle Easterners. But there is a compelling need to rigorously examine how the U.S. can effectively support transitions to genuine democracy. This involves fostering constructive dialogue among academics and activists, policymakers and practitioners, Americans and Middle Easterners; identifying clearly the parameters of legitimate, constructive support for democracy; and empowering the diverse coalition of actors that support policies consistent with those principles.
“Political freedom is a part of human freedom in general, and exercising civil and political rights is a crucial part of good lives of individuals as social beings.”
- Amartya Sen
Winner of 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics and author of Development as Freedom
“The West, and particularly the United States, needs to change the incentives created by present foreign policy so as to facilitate, not discourage, democratic development in the Muslim world.”
- Noah Feldman
Author of After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy
“The U.S. needs to show that it has the courage of its convictions. It must be willing to put up with the inconvenient vicissitudes of democracy in the Arab world, just as it does in Israel or Turkey…This would be a more complex scene, to be sure, but one that offered a better life for peoples of the region and a more healthy and transparent environment in which to promote U.S. interests.”
- Michele Dunne
Editor, Arab Reform Bulletin, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace