Tunisia and Egypt: The Future of Arab Democracy?

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The Tunisian uprising and subsequent protests in Egypt have sparked discussion about the potential for democracy in the Arab world. Having managed to overthrow their repressive leader, the Tunisian people look poised to embrace Western-style government. Though some find the Arab wave of democracy long overdue, experts warn that achieving real representative government may prove extremely difficult. As unrest begins to boil elsewhere in the region, observers ask--is the Middle East ready for a democratic revolution? And, if so, what role will the United States play?

  • The Arab World's Turn to Democratize  At the Christian Science Monitor, Clayton Jones notes that "democracy's growth during the 20th century did seem to come in regional waves." We saw this in African nations' move towards decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s, the debt crisis that knocked down dictatorships in Latin America during the 1980s, the "people power revolution" in Asia in 1986, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. "Arab nations are long overdue in joining this global trend," Jones claims. But, as evidenced by the Bush-led effort to promote democracy in Iraq, "the US interest in working with Arab autocrats to suppress terrorist-supporting Islamic groups only works against America's historic role in promoting democracy." Though Tunisia may look like a good sign for Arab democracy, Jones warns, "elections in the Middle East can also backfire if they strengthen Islamic groups not really committed to democratic ideals."
  • U.S. Cooperation Required for Successful Transition  Steven Heydeman, senior vice president at the United States Institute of Peace, takes to Foreign Policy to clarify that the notion that Arab regimes are "sclerotic and archaic" is incorrect. In fact, he writes, "over the past two decades, they have confronted and overcome a wide range of challenges that have caused authoritarian governments to collapse in many other world regions." If Western-style democracy is to succeed in the Arab world, Heydemann argues, democracy promoters must "demonstrate the same flexibility and responsiveness shown by Arab regimes." The United States' previous strategy of promoting democracy in Arab countries has proved faulty in the past, creating the necessity for a new "strategy aimed at containing the arbitrary power of authoritarian regimes." The U.S., he suggests, can at least start by removing "emergency laws and security courts that give legal cover to the arbitrary exercise of political power by Arab autocrats" and ensuring that "if and when the next Tunisia happens, there will be an experienced and credible opposition ready to step in and complete the transition from authoritarianism to democracy."
  • How Arab Countries Have Avoided Democracy This Long  Today's Zaman blogger Omer Taspinar questions the lack of democracy in the Arab region and rejects culture and religion as viable explanations.  Rather, he credits "proximity to energy resources and proximity to Israel" for allowing Arab regimes to succeed without allowing democracy. The money Arab government's receive both from state-controlled natural resources, such as oil, and from Western leaders as an incentive to aid the Middle East peace process, is so sufficient that they don't need to tax their citizens. "When citizens don’t pay taxes, they don’t develop a sense of civic consciousness or sense of ownership for their political system. There is no real driver for human and political rights when there is no responsibility," he explains. "In other words, no taxation often leads to no representation."
  • 'The United States Must Invest in Populations, Not in Dictators'  The New Yorker's Steve Coll acknowledges that, by supporting Tunisia's transition to democracy, its ties with other countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia may become frayed. Regardless, he argues:
The practical rewards for promoting democracy in Arab societies may be uncertain and slow, if they come at all. There are significant risks, particularly if Egypt’s government were to fall to leaders who would abandon any alliance with Washington. But it is the right strategy—in principle and in pursuit of America’s national interests. Tunisians showed that the status quo in Arab politics is not stable.
  • WikiLeaks Proves U.S. Needs New Tactics for Promoting Democracy  At Foreign Policy, Tom Malinowski takes a look at the WikiLeaks cable that revealed former Tunisian president Zine el-Abedin Ben Ali's vast corruption and, though this was not news to the Tunisian people, is considered by some a catalyst to protests that resulted in Ben Ali's ousting. Malinowski thinks the cable suggests a problem with the way the United States' efforts to diplomatically pursuade governments, namely Tunisia's, to ease up on the authoritarianism. These efforts are largely conducted behind closed doors, but it's obvious that simply "exposing what the United States really thought about the Ben Ali regime" had an impact on the Tunisian people. Malinowski acknowledges that the U.S. often refrains from publicly admitting it's opinions of foreign leaders in avoidance of cutting diplomatic ties and hampering its own agenda. But if promoting democracy is really America's goal, this policy must be reevaluated. "Authoritarian rulers do not ease repression or agree to checks on their powers because foreign officials convince them it is a good idea in a private meeting," he explains. "Such rulers make political concessions when it is necessary to retain the support of key actors in their societies--from the general population to the security services to economic and political elites."
  • Help Arab Countries Democratize by Denying Authoritarian Leaders  Juan Cole at the Indypendent agrees that the United States only does a disservice to itself and the global community by supporting authoritarian Arab leaders who promote themselves as "pro-Western secularists who promise to block Muslim fundamentalist parties (or, in the end, anyone else) from coming to power." The history professor and director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan comes to the conclusion that "it's time for Washington to signal a new commitment to actual democracy and genuine human rights by simply cutting off military and counterterrorism aid to authoritarian regimes that are, in any case, digging their own graves."

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