POMED Notes: Reflections on Democracy and the Arab Spring
On Tuesday, the Program for Jewish civilization of Georgetown University hosted a discussion entitled “Reflections on Democracy and the Arab Spring.” The panelist discussed the political perspectives about the change in the Middle Region and suggested for U.S. actions. The discussion featured from the senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations Elliot Abrams. Abrams formerly served as the Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy under the second term of President George W. Bush.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF.
Elliot Abrams introduced the discussion explaining that its roots can be found in the events of 9/11. He believed that the Arab Spring began at this particular time as former President George W. Bush attempted to understand the attacks causes. Some analysts interpret it as a reaction to U.S support to Israel, however Bush thought differently, the “Arabs are more animated about Mecca than Jerusalem.” Bush conclusion was: the lack of democracy in the Middle East. At the same time UNDP published a report on the Arab world referring to a “freedom deficit.” Bush then came to the conclusion that “lack of democracy” is a threat to national security.
Abrams reminded the audience that in the past decades, some analysts asserted that democracy was not compatible with certain cultures. Japan after the Second World War was not be ready for a democratic system as it was too traditional and submissive to its imperial regime. Under the Reagan administrations, some advisors believed that South America could not undergo a democratic transition as the Catholic Church was a too influential institution and opposed a democratic agenda. Bush disagreed with these assumptions and believed that democracy could spread. Finally the Arab Spring was not foreseen by any foreign entity and was based on democratic claims. From the West’s perspective, what happened in “Tunisia,Libya andEgypt was very exciting but now the mood had changed.” The West is skeptical about the aftermath.
Those regimes that fell were “completely illegitimate” according to the Abrams. Abrams discussed different type of “legitimacy”. Some regimes are utterly authoritarian but they succeed to enrich the population, which is the case in China. Religion could serve be a source of legitimacy, which is the case for some of the Arab monarchies. A true democratic regime is legitimate per se. Tunisian former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who did not rely on any of these sources of legitimacy “was just a thief.”
Abrams shared thoughts of the ramifications of the Arab Spring. “Now that dictatorships were overthrown, do the transitions will lead to democratic states? Or will it be followed by Islamist repression?” asked Abrams. The lecturer draws a comparison with the last wave of democratic process in modern history, the Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet empire. “The record is positive,” said Abrams. However, Abrams mentioned differences between this experience and the Arab Spring experience. In Eastern Europe, the dictatorship was implemented by an external state, while in Arab state it was an internal administration. Moreover, European eastern states have the perspective to become real democracies with the promise of prosperity and security by joining the European Union, and NATO. Abrams argued it was because of the ‘’chaos’ in the society, the lack of job opportunities and lack of security. The emergence of authoritarianism is a possible scenario in the Arab world because of the fear of uncertainty.
Regarding the rise of Islamist parties, he predicted that Islamists might be challenged and loose power after two or three mandates. They currently enjoy popular support due to their association as the main opposition to former regime and not associated to corrupt practices. “They are the clean alternative,” Abrams said. The Muslim Brotherhood already has a strong position in the parliament and its candidates to the Presidential elections in June may be elected. However, they will have to solve the Egyptian economic challenges “but they will fail,” as it is very challenging, so Abrams assumed that they would lose future elections.
Abrams addressed the evolution of the Islamist’s perception of democracy. It used to be seen “un-Islamic” by the conservatives as the Koran and the Islamic law could produce governance. However, now Islamist movements, including the Salafists, have engaged with democratic process and entered in politics. Abrams believed that “democracy will moderate the Islamist parties.”
Then, Abrams considered what the U.S should be doing regarding democracy promotion. Abrams understood that the U.S was concerned about the NGO issues in Egypt, shortly followed by the similar decision by the Emirati government. Abrams stated that NGO programs were not about promoting democracy, NGOs are “symbolic of our commitment,” they are a “cheap answer but not a democracy policy.” Democratic policy should come from the top; from the President of the United States. According to the lecturer Human rights should be at the top of the list of issues that a U.S. President address when he meets a state leader of undemocratic regime. Abrams mentioned that when Philippines President Ferdinand Marccos came to the U.S, President Ronald Reagan never mentioned human rights issues, resulting in an understanding of the Filipino regime as a little interest for the U.S administration. The Philippines example leads Abrams to address Bahrain “rough” current situation. He believed that the U.S. should have a stronger voice toward the regime and drive the monarchy to understand that it “needs to compromise’ with the opposition.