LONDON – The Middle East continues to have the highest concentration of dictatorships in the world. But 2009 was the year that democracy appeared to take root in the region – and yet the future looks as bleak as ever.
In the Palestinian territories, Gaza’s democratically elected Hamas government and the democratically elected president of the Palestinian Authority are locked in a seeming death grip, which has seen Gaza fall into an economic black hole and paralyzed as it also allowed space for Israeli intransigence. All the while the supposed political savior, Marwan Barghouti, sits in an Israeli prison with a life sentence.
Meanwhile, the result of Iran’s presidential election was effectively hijacked, which in turn fractured the ruling elite and left the rulers more suspicious and insular than at any time since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s. Next door, Afghanistan’s president similarly decided not to leave his re-election bid to chance – or to the Afghan people.
These are but the latest signs that, more often than not, the Middle East’s recent democratic experiments have only increased instability. Sometimes the source of that instability is embedded: succession problems, electoral fraud, corruption, the absence of the rule of law, human rights violation, or official ethnic discrimination. Whatever the case, the region’s populations are growing restless, and the gap between rulers and ruled is widening.
The states in the Middle East can be characterized by a series of “F-words:” failed, frozen, flexible, flourishing, or frightening. For example, Yemen is now a failed state. Its political institutions have ceased to function, leading to civil war in its north and separatism in the country’s south. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda is finding a safe haven in Yemen as the state disintegrates.
Frozen states include Saudi Arabia, where “democracy” is omitted from official discourse, even limited partial elections have been put on hold, and the royal succession remains a secret kept from the population. Frozen states appear more stable in the short term, as oil revenues still buys subservience and submission of most of the subjects, but stability coincides with the possibility of increasing violence and civil unrest, owing to widespread grievances over sectarian rule.
The region’s flexible states are frightened of war. Most have experienced it recently and are eager for stability and economic development. Despite sectarian struggle, especially in Iraq and Lebanon, some flexible states hope to rebuild their stability by holding elections. As we saw in Lebanon and Iraq in 2009, others probably could not.
The small, emirates of the Gulf Cooperation Council are – with the exception of now tottering Dubai -- flourishing states that have joined the global economy through political and economic reform. Managing social and political inclusion is not difficult for states blessed with an advantageous position along one of the world’s major trade routes, traditions of cosmopolitanism and commerce, massive oil wealth, and small national populations.
The frightening state in the region is the United States, which, following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, was anxious to bring about democratic regime change – a failed policy that now appears to have left the US unable to leave. Two other external powers, Russia and China, have established a strategic presence in the region, but their pursuit of their interests, which are chiefly economic, is not destabilizing and has nothing to do with democracy promotion.
The change of administration in Washington replaced America’s emphasis on democratizing the Middle East with a more realistic approach in 2009. But Barack Obama has also raised expectations of a transformation in US relations with the region. Can that happen without democratization?
Oil is not a reliable deterrent to democracy in the long term, owing to price volatility and the development of alternative energy sources. Moreover, democratic experiments in countries like Qatar, the only state on the Arabian Peninsula other than Saudi Arabia that embraces the austere Wahhabi form of Islam, provide a telling counterpoint. If Saudi Wahhabis accept democratic procedures, Wahhabism will be forced to change its guiding attitudes and principles.
In Kuwait, another flourishing state, Wahabbi participation in parliament came only after permission was granted by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz, and his successor, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi establishment, it seems, objects to democratic reform only at home, where the regime’s power would be weakened.
Following the turbulence and violence of Iran’s presidential elections in June, the question of democracy has moved to the forefront for the region’s states and populations. In Iran, an indigenous movement is pushing for reform, and the country’s brand of Islam, which on the surface seems the most implacable, has the potential to become more moderate and more democratic, owing in part to the Shi’a tradition of ijtihad , religious debate or innovation.
But the push to democratization is connected not only to oil, Islam, and US policies; demographic forces and the technologies of globalization are creating pressures for change as well. An overwhelmingly young population is being exposed to the outside world and communicating with peers in the region – through travel, satellite TV, and the Internet – as never before. This has increased demands for social and political rights and greater economic opportunity, placing authoritarian rule under growing strain.
Indeed, political change in the Middle East will increasingly become an internal affair in 2010 and beyond. Although some democratic experiments have led to greater instability, the poorer countries have no option but to continue on that path. As for those who rely exclusively on oil for continued stability, delaying democratization will lead to violence in the long term. Unless sectarian politics are replaced by inclusiveness, all of the region’s “f-states” types of states will remain in a condition of prolonged turbulence.