Deterring Arab Democracy

CAMBRIDGE – The lack of democracy in the Arab world results from an unholy alliance between Western interests and local autocrats, justified by what both sides claim to be the region’s “cultural specificity.” In a nutshell, it has been much easier for the West to do business in the post-colonial Middle East with un-democratic regimes, which have found Western support and recognition useful in marginalizing local liberal and democratic forces, even as it paved the way for the rise of Islamist radicalization.

Sticks as well as carrots have been used – by both sides – to maintain this alliance. For example, the Western emphasis on reform and democracy in recent years has been used more often than not as a threat, a typical message being: “Help us in Iraq or we will press for democracy and human rights in your own country.” And the Arab reply is equally threatening: “Stop pressing us on the reform issue or we won’t cooperate in the ‘war on terror’!”

Two other major issues have sustained the trade-off: Israel and the rise of the Islamist movements. The Arab public overwhelmingly regards Israel as an alien and illegitimate entity imposed by force on Palestinian land with Western support. If this perception was channeled democratically and allowed to shape Arab countries’ policies toward Israel, any peace negotiations would be even more complicated than they are now.

So it is far easier for authoritarian regimes like Egypt and Jordan (and in the future perhaps Syria), where there is no need for parliamentary agreement, to launch negotiations and sign peace agreements with Israel. Likewise, in Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain, where various low-level contacts and Israeli representations exist, undemocratic regimes can define whatever relationship with Israel they choose.