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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Quest for Democratic Political Reforms in the Middle East and the Prevailing Arab Political Culture

Filed under: Iraq, Radical Islam, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 528    March 2005

  • President Bush’s perception of democracy as being at the forefront of American foreign policy is a change from the traditional U.S. policy in the Middle East of realpolitik – supporting the stability of friendly leaders no matter how autocratic they are.

  • The fundamental political culture of Muslim Arab societies is based on the unquestionable sovereignty of God, and democracy and popular sovereignty, in its Western sense, appear to be contrary to this concept.

  • The notion of the secularity of the state, the diffusion of power, the superiority of state law, popular suffrage and elections, checks and balances, the right of women to participate in the political process, and the role of independent groups in society are still alien to Muslim Arab political culture.

  • The common character of the current Arab regimes is their authoritarian nature. Their legitimacy stems from military power or religious ancestry, not their people. Civil society, an essential element in establishing democracy, is either weak or nonexistent.

  • Many expected that the spread of satellite television and the Internet would undermine the absolute power of non-elected regimes by exposing Arab societies to independent sources of information. However, the satellite TV channels, owned either by governments or those associated with them, served to strengthen Arab rulers. The governments also imposed heavy censorship on Internet users through the service providers and telephone companies that they owned.


President Bush’s Vision of Democracy in the Middle East

Supporting and promoting democracy all over the world has long been a centerpiece of American foreign policy. However, there is little doubt that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed the strategic direction of American foreign policy. Analysts viewed the main elements of the “Bush Doctrine” as preventive war, namely, unilateral preemptive action against threats to the U.S.; maintaining military dominance as a guarantee of the preservation of international stability; and an active pursuit of the spread of democracy around the globe. In the words of one analyst, the new Bush policy attempts “to get at the root causes behind al-Qaeda: the nexus between Islamic extremism and tyranny.”1

President Bush’s vision and determination to promote democracy in the Middle East was demonstrated in his State of the Union Address of February 2, 2005. Encouraged by the elections held in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Authority, as well as by the “higher standard of reform” taking hold from Morocco to Jordan to Bahrain, the president promised his support to democratic movements in the Middle East. He called upon Saudi Arabia and Egypt, America’s main Arab allies, to demonstrate leadership in the region by expanding the role of their people and showing the way toward democracy. The president also expressed his belief that the successful elections in Iraq would inspire democratic reformers “from Damascus to Teheran.”2

The Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), launched on December 12, 2002, by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, envisaged economic, political, and educational reforms in the Middle East as a prime U.S. interest, reflecting the administration’s recognition that effective economic and social reforms in the Arab world had to be accompanied by greater political freedom. The idea behind the initiative, outlined by Richard Haass, the head of the Policy Planning Bureau at the State Department, was that stability based on authority alone is “illusory and ultimately impossible to sustain,”3 and that gradual democratization in the Middle East would eventually strengthen stability as well as foster prosperity and peace in the region.

MEPI constituted, to a certain extent, a revolutionary approach by the U.S. towards the Middle East as it addressed, for the first time, the nature of Arab regimes in the region rather than the nature of the relation of the U.S. with them. However, on the practical level, MEPI chose to deal with the margins of reform by tackling uncontroversial programs and by working within the boundaries set by Arab governments.4

On November 6, 2003, President Bush announced “a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East,” saying that “stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty” and that as long as the Middle East lacks freedom, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.5 This policy, perceiving democracy at the forefront of American foreign policy, was a change from the traditional U.S. policy in the Middle East that favored realpolitik – the stability of friendly leaders no matter how autocratic they were.

On June 9, 2004, the White House published the Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) initiative to support political, economic, and social freedom, in partnership with the eight industrialized nations (G-8). BMENA proposed a U.S.-European framework for the promotion of democracy, a new democracy fund, and a regional forum for dialogue. The participants supported democratic, social, and economic reforms emanating from the region and committed themselves to cooperate with the region’s governments as well as business and civil society representatives. In addition, they stated that regional conflicts must not be an obstacle to reform, that change should not be imposed from outside, and that each society would reach its own conclusions about the pace and scope of change. These last two elements reflected recognition by the U.S. and its European partners of the limits of their initiative, and internalized the negative reaction and the reluctance of Arab governments to accept the initial proposals.

President Bush told the UN General Assembly on September 21, 2004, that the long-term objective of establishing democracy should take priority over the short-run question of stability in the Middle East. He acknowledged that for too long, many nations, including the U.S., tolerated and even excused oppression in the name of stability. Therefore, “Oppression became common, but stability never arrived.” He called for the U.S. to take a different approach and help the reformers in the Middle East build a community of peaceful democratic nations.6


The Prevailing Political Culture in the Arab World

Much of the fundamental political culture of Muslim Arab societies is based on the unquestionable sovereignty of God. In past decades, “propensity toward authoritarianism” also emerged from the combination of Third World nationalism and socialism, though today Islamism affects political culture far more.7 Democracy and popular sovereignty, in its Western sense, are contrary to the very concept of the divine and superior sovereignty of God. This concept has been translated in most Arab state constitutions as stipulating that the Sharia, Islamic law, is either the prime or the only source of legislation.

The notion of the secularity of the state, the diffusion of power, the superiority of state law, popular suffrage and elections, checks and balances, the right of women to participate in the political process, and the role of independent groups in society are still alien to Muslim Arab political culture. Hence, the core problem is not the establishment of the necessary political and legal institutions, but rather the absorption of different principles and values that would allow real pluralism and liberalism to exist.

The common character of the current Arab regimes, however, is their authoritarian nature. Their legitimacy stems from military power or religious ancestry, not their people. Civil society, an essential element in establishing democracy, is either weak or nonexistent. Moreover, there is no popular movement for democratic change. Arab countries lack genuine representative institutions and employ heavy restrictions on liberties. In many cases, women are deprived of their basic right to participate in any kind of political process in either the local or national arenas. Therefore, political participation in the Arab world is less advanced than in any other developing region.8

Just look at how Freedom House characterizes the regimes in the Arab world. In its 2003 annual survey entitled Freedom in the World,9 it notes that there were a total of 121 electoral democracies in the world: not a single member of the Arab League appears on this democratic list. In 2005, in Freedom House’s division of the world into “free states” (like the U.S., Britain, Japan, Israel, and India) and “not free states” (like Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria), no Arab state appears in the “free” category.”10 In the category of “partly free,” Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, and Yemen stand out. But even in these showcase countries, political rights are limited. The King of Jordan can dissolve parliament and dismiss his prime minister and cabinet at his discretion; he can postpone elections and rule by decree. The King of Morocco can dissolve his legislature and rule by decree as well.

True, the Arab world has absorbed Western technological tools that play a central role in democratic and liberal societies, with the spread of satellite television and the Internet. Many observers raised high expectations that these two tools would undermine the absolute power of non-elected regimes by exposing Arab societies to independent sources of information, and would bolster a quiet and gradual but inevitable process of democratization. Yet this assumption proved to be unfounded. The satellite TV channels, owned either by governments or those associated with them, served to strengthen Arab rulers. The TV programs were adjusted to Arab culture and focused on “outside” issues rather than domestic problems. Additionally, the governments imposed heavy censorship on Internet users through the service providers and telephone companies that they owned.11

The threat posed to Arab regimes by Islamic radical movements since the 1980s propelled non-elected Arab leaders to underscore the religious aspects of their policy and to include religious messages in their language in order to gain greater legitimacy from their public. This was the easiest solution as it replaced the need to meet the real challenges of a deteriorating socio-economic situation. At the same time, the political restrictions imposed on the Islamist movements turned the mosques into an alternative political arena as well as a center of welfare services. The result was a strengthening of the already existing connection between the state and religion. Hence, the Arab states have been distancing themselves from greater separation of religion and state, and from the establishment of a secular model of governance that is a prerequisite for the development of a genuine liberal democracy.


Arab Responses to American Initiatives

To begin with, Arab regimes rejected the notion of promoting democracy as they strongly believed that preserving absolute power was the only way to secure their survival. They argued that the U.S. had no right to interfere in the internal affairs of Arab countries. They also rejected the “arrogant American attitude” and contended that the U.S. had no credibility to promote democracy in light of its own record in the region, its efforts to subjugate the Arab peoples, its eagerness to take control of the oil fields in Iraq, and its support of Israel and disregard of the rights of the Palestinians.12 Indeed, many Arab regimes preferred to blame the rage of the new Islamic militancy toward the West on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By doing so, they could deflect attention away from the question of democratic reform in the Arab world.

In addition, these regimes warned the U.S. that, at this stage, political reform might be too risky and might shake their own stability, for it would strengthen and might even bring to power the radical Islamists who pursue a hostile policy toward the West. The victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in the Algerian parliamentary elections in 1991 and fears of an Islamic revolution in Algeria among Arab and Western leaders alike reinforced this argument.

Moreover, Arab leaders preferred to stress a linkage between the issue of political reform and the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict, and therefore claimed that the timing was inappropriate. A week after the announcement of MEPI, Egyptian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Faiza Abu el-Naga explained that the launching of the initiative should have been postponed until the situation on the Palestinian and Iraqi fronts “could allow” for it.13 Needless to say, the situation in the Middle East may never allow that to happen.

This linkage between democracy and peace in the Middle East is often mentioned. King Abdullah of Jordan explained that the main reason for postponing the implementation of democracy in his country was the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He claimed that peace between Israel and the rest of the Arab world would create a new sense of stability and freedom and might bring along a chance for democracy.14 Amin Al-Mahdi, an Egyptian intellectual and prominent peace activist, explained that the Palestinian issue was “the prop for the war declared on democracy and modernization, an external pretext for the bill of divorce from the free world and for imposing various laws, from emergency laws through military laws.”15

In an attempt to allay the furor over the Bush administration’s proposal for democracy in the Middle East, then-Secretary of State Powell explained that Arab countries would have to decide how to advance and would set their own timetable. He assured leaders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that there was no intention to impose reform on their countries. He also emphasized that reform “must come from within the region,” with each country “examining its own history, its own culture, its own stage of political development.”16

In response to this challenge, Arab leaders publicly adopted some of the democratic terminology. They used terms like “reform,” “freedom,” and “pluralism” in order to appease calls for democracy raised by both internal and external forces. However, they succeeded in diverting the core of public discourse from “democracy” to “reform.” At the same time, they avoided discussing how to execute substantial change and emphasized the needs of the state for “responsibility” and “stability.” Hence, they restricted the scope of reform and at the same time rejected calls for liberal democracy as a universal system of governance.

The publication of the UN Development Program report in May 2002 significantly increased the legitimacy of the public debate regarding the question of political reform, since it was written by an independent and well-respected group of Arab scholars and intellectuals. The report identified three main obstacles to human development in the Arab world: human rights and human freedoms, empowerment of women, and acquisition of knowledge.

The UNDP report, the MEPI initiative, and the activities of several non-governmental organizations17 have raised fundamental questions regarding political reform in the Arab world. A quasi-governmental conference was held in March 2004 in Egypt in an attempt to deal with these developments. The conference adopted a document containing significant recommendations to Arab governments on reforms in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres and called for establishing a follow-up mechanism. It also called upon Arab countries to decide on their priorities while respecting Islamic tradition. However, the participants agreed that the strategy to achieve a better future was based on promoting modernization and development as well as the need to establish a comprehensive peace in the region.18 By adopting this approach, the participants basically preconditioned political reform on a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is no wonder that the conference did not attract much attention from the Arab media.

The Arab summit in Tunisia on May 23, 2004, reflected deep disagreements over the issue of reform and modernization in the Arab world. The representatives could not agree on substantial issues, so they issued a weak statement that included a call for the continuation and intensification of the development process in the political, economic, social, and educational fields “in accordance with the cultural, religious, and civil values and concepts of Arab societies, their circumstances and capabilities.” The statement also noted a general need to deepen the foundations of democracy and to expand the participation of the people in the political process.19 Yet the summit failed to agree on a workable plan for implementing these ideas in accordance with a specific timetable.

Dr. Abu Talib of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo reported that the Arab regimes failed to understand the question of reform, and perceive it as external pressure aimed at ensuring external interests in the Arab region. For this reason, and since Arab leaders are afraid of any instability, they have suspended and delayed these reforms.20 Egypt itself has been giving mixed signals. On February 26, 2005, President Hosni Mubarak, at long last, ordered a revision of his country’s election laws. Previously, Egyptian voters could only confirm in a national referendum the one candidate nominated by the powerless Egyptian National Assembly (which Mubarak’s National Democratic Party overwhelmingly controls). Now Mubarak was proposing for the first time a competitive election for president with multiple candidates. Yet one month earlier, Egyptian authorities arrested Ayman Nour, the head of an Egyptian opposition party in the National Assembly. As a result, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice abruptly called off a trip to Cairo scheduled for early March 2005.21


The Iraqi Election

The relatively high rate of Shiites and Kurds voting in Iraq’s recent elections – held for the first time in 50 years – demonstrates the strong will of these ethnic groups to participate actively in political life. Moreover, it reflects their intensified efforts to strengthen their position in Iraq’s reshaping process, especially in light of the referendum to be held next October for the constitution’s endorsement. However, the Sunnis’ armed rebellion in Fallujah and their boycotting the elections may undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process and may also weaken the ability of the elected parliament to represent all ethnic groups in Iraq.

The advancement of democracy in Iraq requires not only the change of its regime, but also a profound change of its political culture: The Shiites, for instance, who constitute the majority in the country, were deprived from real political power since Ottoman days and were suppressed socially and religiously for decades. Now the Shiites are aspiring to amend this injustice and rule their state. The Kurds, for their part, aspire to be recognized de jure in their de facto autonomy, which they have enjoyed for the last ten years. They are also interested in extending their autonomy to the oil-rich Kirkuk region.

The development of a political culture based on pluralism, tolerance, equality, and mutual recognition among the different ethnic groups constitutes an essential precondition for constructing a new system of values upon which the democratic regime will be established. The restoration of stability, minimizing the interference of neighboring countries, enhancing the central government, as well as rehabilitating the army – Iraq’s symbol of nationhood – will all strengthen the efforts aimed at establishing an independent and sovereign state.


Constitutional Liberalism with Checks and Balances Needed: Not Just the Mechanism of Elections

Since most Arab leaders lack sufficient legitimacy from their own constituencies, the political reforms that they implemented so far were intended to alleviate American pressure and to avoid any genuine changes that might destabilize the situation in their countries. “There are some Muslim regimes that find their interests better protected if they base their legitimacy on cultural and symbolic grounds rather than on democratic principles,” observed Fatima Mernissi, the Moroccan sociologist.22 Arab leaders have selectively introduced measures that they believe might improve their image, such as elections, expansion of women’s right to vote, and legislation on personal status issues. Yet all of these efforts were limited and aimed at preserving full control and keeping existing institutions intact. One of the most critical issues, the continuation of emergency laws, has remained unchanged, enabling the regimes to maintain their absolute power.

The way these limited reforms have been implemented indicated that Arab leaders were ready to take some steps to reform the existing system rather then democratizing it. While the modern tradition in Christian countries of separation of church and state has facilitated the process of secularization in the West, and therefore assisted in the development of true democracy, the political culture in the Arab world considers Islam as a complete way of life, with all its aspects (political, social, cultural, and individual) subordinated to God and divine rule. Therefore, many Arabs, and not only the leadership, consider the secular Western way of life centered on the individual as contrary to their tradition. They are ready to accept its external manifestations (elections, for example) while declining to approve its codes of behavior (freedom of speech). Thus, the UNDP report of 2002 concluded that while de jure acceptance of democracy and human rights is enshrined in Arab state constitutions, de facto implementation is often disregarded.23 A system of governance, in general, and democracy, in particular, should be the outcome of a genuine dialogue among all segments of society. The internal discourse is tremendously important and constitutes the foundation of an emerging healthy society. Importing structures and institutions alien to the local heritage will be useless, and any attempt to impose democracy in its Western form on Arab countries will trigger strong resentment and is doomed to fail.

The issue of democratization should remain at the top of the agenda and should be discussed at the highest political levels. Consistency and commitment to promoting this issue are equally important. However, pressure or sanctions should be out of the question. The way forward depends on the ability to mobilize the cooperation of Arab regimes to develop fundamental principles of liberalism on a gradual basis.

As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, “democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war.”24 So far, the majority of Arab leaders have shown little interest in substantial political reform such as the rule of law, separation of powers, freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, and the establishment of civil society. At the same time, any attempt to connect the progress of the peace process with the advance of political reform is a recipe for stagnation.

The main defect in the political system in the Arab world is that there is little constitutional liberalism. Their constitutions concentrate power in the executive branch – whether led by a king or president – and undermine the authority of the legislative and judicial branches to challenge his decisions.25 Free elections to parliaments with no real authority are not a sufficient solution to the lack of freedom in the Middle East.

The main argument to be raised is that establishing representative mechanisms on a wider basis to promote greater public participation would contribute to the leaders’ own legitimacy and would decrease the sense of alienation, frustration, and despair. Friendly regimes, democratic activists, and civil society groups should also be encouraged through significant political support and economic incentives. Finally, in order to succeed, the central role of Islamic tradition in Arab societies must be taken into consideration with sensitivity.

Preference should be given to principles such as freedom of speech, human rights, and superiority of the law. As the 2004 Sana’a Declaration on Democracy emphasized, “democracy is achieved not through institutions and laws but also through the actual practice of democratic principles.”26 Elections, for example, are the end of the process aimed at establishing democracy, not the beginning. As President Bush has asserted, to defeat terrorism the U.S. needs to stress this vision for the people of the Middle East. This, in fact, is backed by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report: “This vision includes widespread political participation and contempt for indiscriminate violence. It includes respect for the rule of law, openness in discussing differences, and tolerance for opposing views.”27

The battle for democracy in the Arab world is still at its very beginning. Establishing Western, secular liberal democracy in the Arab world would require not only a fundamental change from within but also generations to absorb, develop, and adjust to these new notions, as happened in Europe and the U.S. The Arab societies themselves will have to forge their own type of democracy, and also decide on the pace of its implementation. The challenge is indeed huge. However, a serious process of democratization in the Arab world is very likely to decrease the risk of military confrontation, thereby contributing to peaceful settlements of conflicts among all the countries in the region.

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1. Reul Marc Gerecht, “The Struggle for the Middle East,” Weekly Standard, January 3, 2005.
2. State of the Union Address of President George W. Bush, February 2, 2005;
3. Richard N. Haas, “Towards Greater Democracy in the Muslim World,” speech delivered to the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C., December 4, 2002;
4. Tamara Cofman Wittes, “The Middle East Partnership Initiative: Progress, Problems and Prospects,” Saban Center Middle East, memo # 5, November 29, 2004;
5. Remarks by President George W. Bush at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, November 6, 2003;
6. Remarks by President George W. Bush to the United Nations General Assembly, September 21, 2004;
7. Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers, “Think Again: Middle East Democracy,” Foreign Policy, November/December 2004.
8. The Arab Human Development Report 2002: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations, United Nations Development Program, p. 108.
9. Freedom in the World 2003: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties (Lanham, Md.: Freedom House and Roman & Littlefield, 2003).
10. Freedom in the World 2005: Civic Power and Electoral Politics;
11. Uriya Shavit, A Dawn of an Old Era: The Imaginary Revolution in the Middle East (Jerusalem: Keter, 2003) (Hebrew), ch. 3.
12. Marina Ottaway, “Promoting Democracy in the Middle East: The Problem of U.S. Credibility,” Carnegie Endowment working papers, no. 35, March 2003;
13. Reuters, December 18, 2002.
14. Interview with ABC, May 18, 1999; quoted in Uriya Shavit, A Dawn of an Old Era: The Imaginary Revolution in the Middle East (Jerusalem: Keter, 2003) (Hebrew), p. 155.
15. Al-Quds Al-Arabi, December 14, 2002.
16. Middle East News Agency, March 14, 2004.
17. See, for example, the statement made by the First Arab Civil Forum that convened parallel to the Arab summit. The Forum raised fundamental demands, inter alia, to end the state of emergency, to abolish martial law and courts, to put an end to the practice of torture, to guarantee freedom of expression, and to release prisoners of conscience. See the Forum’s statement at
18. Al-Hayat (London), September 9, 2002.
19. New York Times, March 21, 2004.
20. Introduction to The Annual Strategic Report 2003-2004, Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Cairo, 2004;
21. Joel Brinkley, “Rice Calls Off Mideast Visit After Arrest of Egyptian,” New York Times, February 26, 2005.
22. Fatima Mernissi, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, trans. Mary Jo Lakeland (New York: Perseus Books, 1992), p. 54.
23. UNDP Report 2002, p. 2.
24. Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, November-December 1997, pp. 42-43. Zakaria defines constitutionalism as a complicated system of checks and balances to prevent the accumulation of power and the abuse of office.
25. Ray Takeyh, “Close, But No Democracy,” The National Interest, Winter 2004/05, p. 61.
26. The Sana’a Declaration on Democracy;
27. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), p. 376.


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David Govrin has served in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1989. He was formerly First Secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and Political Counselor of the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations in New York. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.