The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged democracy promotion
Iran, the US, and democracy promotion

A protestor in Tehran, from Flickr user Green Movement

POMED's account of a recent Congressional hearing on what policy to pursue towards Iran, and most notably whether and how to support its opposition movement, made for some interesting reading. Several of those testifying — former Bush administration officials, regional experts, etc. — made the case of a human rights-based approach, with the US taking steps to challenge the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic's regime on human rights grounds. The approach being suggested by, if you compile the different witnesses' testimonies to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is basically:

  1. Highly targeted sanctions to hurt the elite, esp. the IRGC;
  2. Open support for the Green Movement, which can decide whether it accepts that support or not;
  3. More funding for democracy promotion through the National Endowment for Democracy and other vehicles (although it's not clear who would eventually receive that money);
  4. A commitment to continue to side with the opposition no matter what takes place in the negotiations over the nuclear program, so that no "betrayal" of the Green Movement takes places if the regime is willing to back down;
  5. A public diplomacy campaign and commitment to internal regime change as an ultimate goal, which would also solve the nuclear issue.

I should add that Genevieve Abdo in particular was less gung-ho, and suggested that a reconciliation between the regime and opposition leaders could very well take place by the next parliamentary elections, which would leave the more radical elements of the Green Movement out on their own. I don't know much about Iran but I also see no reason a more democratic government in Iran would not be attached to a nuclear program considering the threats the country faces in the region. Logically, all of the larger Middle Eastern powers should pursue WMD programs of some sort, and indeed they all have (mostly chemical and biological for Egypt, Syria and Iraq and of course Israel's nuclear arsenal).

All of this to say: we are seeing considerable Congressional enthusiasm for a tough, democracy-driven (at least on the surface) policy towards Iran. Yet, at the same time, democracy is effectively absent from the relations between the US and Arab states (no, I will not count the State Dept. annual rights report). It is true that Iran's opposition is potentially much more credible than opposition movements in Arab countries, with seemingly real elite and popular traction. But that's also because in many respects are less democratic, and have less healthy political systems, than Iran's theocracy.

I am very supportive of the Green Movement, whatever it may actually be, and the goal putting an end to the militarization of the Islamic Republic, its corruption and its human rights abuses. I hope it's possible, and am conscious the US can influence this. But when I see US policy elsewhere in the region, I would warn Iranians: don't take this democracy talk too seriously. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan (invoked in the Congressional hearing for an uncompromising stand on Iran): don't trust, and verify.

On US democracy promotion in Egypt
Analysis: Democracy in Egypt appears to wane:

"Four years ago, the United States talked about two laboratories for democracy in the Middle East: Iraq and Egypt.

Egypt was supposed to be the easier one. But now it's battered Iraq that has shown democratic advances, while Egypt seems to be going backward with President Hosni Mubarak's government solidifying its hold on the levers of power.

Still, Egypt is hoping for improved ties with the United States under President Barack Obama after the Bush administration called for reform by Mubarak and after years of strains over the staunch U.S. ally's human rights record.

The Obama administration has already hinted it won't hinge its relationship with Egypt on human rights demands, moving away from former President George W. Bush's ambitious — or overreaching, as some in the region felt — claims to seek a democratic transformation in the region."

Already some people in Cairo are nostalgic (or have been nostalgic for several years) for that 2004-2005 moment when the Bush administration was publicly, relentlessly, critical of Egypt's lack of political reform. Ironically Obama, with his charisma, could make an even better democracy promoter than Bush, whose neo-conservative version of democracy promotion appeared like a barely concealed fig leaf for a pro-interventionist, pro-Israeli Middle East policy. The problem remains the same: how do you craft a successful democracy-promotion policy? Can you do so when you have a strategic alliance with a repressive state? I think government-to-government pressure has limited effectiveness, especially when Egypt is such as a great counter-terrorism and regional diplomacy ally. Or when you're unwilling to reconsider over $1bn of military aid that subsidizes your own military-industrial complex and irrigates the backbone of the regime. (sorry for the terrible mixed metaphor.)

The way to go may be lobbying in the US, EU against businesses involved in Egypt and naming and shaming politicians that support Egypt. But even then you run the risk of becoming the useful idiot of those who claim to be concerned about democracy in Egypt but are merely cynically adding a card to play in regional politics.