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How to Make Democracy Work in the Arab World?

Ideas about Democracy Problems and Reform Obstacles in the Arab World

Does democracy have a chance in the Arab world? If the answer is yes, what problems would emerge if an attempt were made to make it work? Reform and change have indeed been debated in the region ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11, and even a plan was drawn up which aimed to improve governance, empower women, and secure the rule of law. In view of their disastrous level of development, the Arab countries are entirely in agreement on the need for reforms, although their precise meaning is still under dispute. This is why any concrete steps to implement reforms have failed to materialize so far. Instead, most regimes in the Arab region are busy inventing reasons for delaying that process. In addition, purely cosmetic steps are undertaken to alleviate the growing pressure from outside. The arguments produced by local regimes to cover up their delaying tactics are many and varied. The first reason invoked is the Arab-Israeli conflict which, while it certainly does obstruct modernization in the Arab world, was used often enough as an excuse for decreeing emergency laws and suspending civil liberties in the region. Unfortunately, the efforts undertaken by Arab governments to disrupt progress in their own countries coincide with analogous manoeuvres by American groups. Washington should change its attitude towards the conflict, so that the Arab nations no longer feel threatened by initiatives like the Broader Middle East Project. Resolving the conflict would certainly boost the process of reform in the Arab countries. Second, national sovereignty is used as an excuse for rejecting calls for reform from abroad. While domestic opponents are silenced by accusing them of endangering the security of the nation, the self-same regimes hardly ever think about national sovereignty as they offer concessions to foreign powers. The third reason for rejecting democratic reforms that is commonly mentioned is the uniqueness of Arab culture. To be sure, the Arabs’ cultural heritage, with Islam as its backbone, forms an obstacle on the path towards augmenting democracy in more ways than one. At the same time, Islam is susceptible to various interpretations. A much more difficult obstacle on the path towards transformation is the insistence of many Arab governments on conventional forms of rule that largely preclude public participation. Another obstacle is the development initiated by the military coups of the ’50s and ’60s. When the blessings and evils of the oil boom began to manifest themselves in the ’70s, leading to the present uneven distribution of the newly-won wealth in the countries concerned, the problems confronting the forces of modernization in the Arab region grew even more difficult. The fourth argument against change is that reforms lead to chaos, civil division, and greater power for Islamic fundamentalism. While this is certainly true, the argument has been inflated so much that it now forms a bugbear. What is more, the fact that the regimes themselves provoked fundamentalist movements is never mentioned. What would be needed is a policy that deals responsibly and sensitively with national, ethnic, and religious groups within the country. The fifth and last point relates to the political, economic, and social developments within the Arab region which, so the argument runs, cannot be reconciled with democratic reforms. What would be needed in this instance is pressure from the inside coinciding with pressure from the outside. After supporting dictatorial regimes for decades in order to combat communism, as in Afghanistan, for example, the West now would be well advised to show solidarity with the forces of civil society and modernization in the Arab world. There are two approaches to reform which have recently been implemented in the region that may repay a closer look – the reform projects initiated by Washington after the occupation of Iraq and the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. The first approach: In America, many believe that the events of September 11 imperatively demand that terrorism must be fought at its roots and sources. Thus, terrorism was used in the Arab countries to justify the imposition of severe restrictions on the freedom of opinion, an action that was tacitly tolerated by the USA but did little to help democracy in the region. The occupation of Iraq by the USA, which was done without international legitimation, and the country’s disastrous governance after the overthrow of Saddam did not exactly transform Iraq into a gateway for change in the region. Neither transformation nor democratization were supported in any way; instead, the policies pursued by the US government in Iraq served to strengthen religious and conservative forces as well as the authority of other Arab regimes. Finally, the behaviour of the Americans at Fallujah, Ramadi, and Abu Ghraib recalled the actions of the Israelis at Gaza, Rafah, and Nablus – a fact which certainly did not help to mitigate the Arabs’ image of their enemies. The second approach: Because of their history and their geographical proximity to the Arab world, the Europeans seem to understand it far better than the Americans. For the same reason, Europe recognized the threats building up in the Middle East and North Africa at an early stage – the growth of Islamist movements, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the growing number of illegal immigrants. In response to these new challenges, the Euro-Mediterranean partnership was created in the mid-’90s which, among other things, highlights certain values, such as human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and the empowerment of women. It is awkward, however, that some EU member states do not adhere to the standards which they themselves laid down in the Barcelona convention and go on maintaining splendid contacts with corrupt dictatorships. Even so, Europe did not side with the hawks in Washington who wanted to enforce change, instead supporting the forces of moderation in all governments. This is why the South now apparently wishes for more European commitment in the region, not only in solving conflicts but also in providing support for reform movements. There is no uniform pattern of change and reform in the Arab region; rather, the countries there may be broken down into a variety of groups. Thus, there are countries where change will begin as soon as tyranny is overthrown, others where regime change is predicated on policy change, and yet others where the ruling regime is quite capable of coexisting with changes in politics and governance. To which of these groups an Arab country must be assigned depends on its development. It is certain, however, that there is no country which will not have a long way to go on the path towards transformation, reform, and democracy.

Power Shifts in Asia and the Role of the USA

Peaceful power shifts between states or regions have been rare in history. Similarly, it is to be feared that the power shifts going on within the international system today will not take a peaceful course because they require striking a balance between the interests of political and cultural traditions which could hardly differ more than they do. For it is mainly the populous states of Asia that are demanding a greater role in global politics these days. The changes initiated by the end of the Cold War were profound not only in Europe but in Asia as well. Next to powerful China, it is mainly India which keeps trying to enhance its influence in Asia and even extend it beyond the region. In the space of no more than a few years, China has moved into the centre of international politics. The country is growing stronger not only in economic but also in political terms, advancing to the status of a world power and, by the same token, rivalling the USA. While China’s foreign policy mainly focusses on east and south east Asia in geographical terms, it also shows a growing interest in other regions, such as central Asia and the Near and Middle East, because of its growing energy needs. The impact of China’s rise is felt everywhere. By now, the country ranks first among the trading partners of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and occupies rank three in the USA. To be sure, Beijing is confronted by great challenges, but the economic boom continues unbroken despite the baleful prophecies of the past – the country has become a global player. India is another economic heavyweight that became the talk of the region a while ago. China’s rapid rise helped to invigorate Delhi’s economic and political endeavours. Today, India is fully integrated into the global economy, and its national economy is one of the most dynamic to be found anywhere. And since the end of the Cold War, when the country’s former nonalignment policy was called into question, many things have changed in the political field as well. Today, India’s foreign policy follows a realistic approach that is guided by the country’s own national interests. Asia’s rise has only just begun, and if its great powers manage to hold on to their stability, its growth might endure. China was stronger than Japan for along time, but in the last 200 years, Japan gained ascendancy. Today, both countries are powerful, a fact which represents a particular challenge to the endeavours to maintain security and stability. Relations between India and China are characterized by a traditional rivalry over status and influence within the region, with China claiming a leading role for itself without ever recognizing India as a partner of equal rank. Thus, for instance, the Chinese turned a deaf ear to Nehru’s vision of an Indian-Chinese axis. Beijing and Delhi are still locked in a dispute over open border questions. Bilateral relations began to grow more relaxed only recently, although it does appear likely that the rivalry between India and China will persist. Another factor in the region’s power fabric is the USA, whose influence began to extend across the Pa-cific as well as the Atlantic 150 years ago. Washing-ton’s Asian policy focusses mainly on three objectives: First, there are the country’s traditional economic interests in the region. Second, it is pursuing security-policy interests that go back to the time of the Cold War. And third, it wishes to promote the spread of American values within the region. The network of economic contacts between the USA and the national economies of Asia is growing denser by the day. For half a century, Asia’s growth has been underpinned mainly by exports, and its most important export market is the USA. At the same time, Asia’s culture is being increasingly moulded by the Americans. A considerable proportion of Asia’s elites is taught at American schools and universities. And finally, many countries in the region enjoyed decades of relative peace because of Washington’s guarantees of security – a peace which allowed their national economies to flourish in its shadow. Today, however, stability is threatened as Asia now harbours quite a number of international hotspots. The two Asian shooting stars are entangled in hazardous territorial conflicts. In addition, they are confronted by grave challenges including, for instance, domestic problems, ossified leadership structures, ethnic conflicts, and ubiquitous corruption. Because of all this, the interest of the US in preserving stability in Asia is urgent indeed. In Washington’s Asian strategy, east and particularly north east Asia are regions of outstanding importance. Together with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the risk that the economic and social system of the People’s Republic might collapse presents a great challenge. The Korean peninsula has been a persistent security problem both for the region and for Washington ever since the end of the Second World War and the division of Korea. The alliance with Japan forms the core of America’s Asian policy. In Washington’s political relations with Beijing as well as with south east Asia, it is an enduring constant. China’s ambitions to enhance its role in regional and global politics will very likely entail a conflict with the USA, in which the Taiwan question will probably be of particular importance. At the same time, the two countries share certain interests, and fields of cooperation are opening up. Since the events of 9/11, south east Asia’s importance for the US has grown as well: There, the focus of attention is on Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic country and a stage for anti-western terrorist attacks. While relations between Indonesia and the US are by no means free of problems at present, those with other countries in the region, such as the Philippines and Singapore, have been improving. Another region of importance for Washington is south Asia. Here, the US tries to prevent any destabilizing developments such as a renewal of the war between India and Pakistan in which, at worst, even nuclear weapons might be employed. However, it appears doubtful whether American politics will ever succeed in bringing the conflict over Cashmere closer to a solution. It is becoming increasingly clear that a new triangle of power consisting of China, India, and the US is emerging in the Asian region, although the US will go on playing a dominant role. In this development, each player is haunted by the concern that the two others might band together against him. The construction of the power triangle itself is asymmetrical in two respects: On the one hand, China and India are more concerned about the aforementioned possibility than the American side. On the other hand, Washington’s and Beijing’s interest in mutual relations is greater. China’s political and economic rise will probably be unstoppable in the years to come. India, too, belongs to those states within the region that powerfully strive for greater influence. Nor should Japan be written off entirely, and the Asian interests of the USA as the only remaining world power continue unbroken. Given this dynamism, the importance of this power constellation is bound to grow in the years to come, both in Asia itself and in the world as a whole. It would be fatal for Europe to do nothing more than take note of this development.

Why democracy is central to prosperity and peace

During our lifetimes, the major part of the world’s citizens have come to life in democracy. And since the late 1970s, more than 90 countries have made progress in establishing a democratic system. However, and despite this transformation, there still persist notions of an „authoritarian advantage“. Three main tenets can be pointed out. First: Poor countries can expand their economies more rapidly under some form of authoritarian system. Second: Economic growth favorizes democratic transitions. And third: Autocratic governments can better ensure stability in volatile environments. The empirical bases to these tenets are worth to be looked at. Categorizing regime types presents certain challenges. In our context, democracy can be defined as a system that employs mechanisms of shared power, established institutions for the selection of the community’s leaders and protected channels for public participation in the political process. Let’s turn to the three tenets mentioned above.1.)„Authoritarian governments oversee more rapid growth in the developing world.“ Reviewing the economic growth performance of all developing countries since 1960, it appears that democracies have attained rates of per capita GDP growth equivalent to autocratic systems. So, there is no empirical evidence of authoritarian growth advantage. And there will not be any evidence even when looking at the exceptional autocratic growth experiences in Asian countries such as China, Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea, and Taiwan. Outside of East Asia, developing country democracies have a growth rate that is 51 percent higher than that of autocracies. Countries such as Botswana, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Senegal may serve as good examples. Apart from the economic growth rates, anthropometric indicators are worth to be examined. On these human development measures, developing country democracies also excel relative to authoritarian countries. Here, citizens have, for example, life expectancies that are nine years longer, infant mortality rates that are 21 percent lower and secondary school attainment levels that are 40 percent higher than those in autocracies. All these superior outcomes are obtained without massive social spending. Processes internal to democracies are responsible for them.2.)„Economic growth leads to democracy.“ It is assumed that once countries reach a middle-income threshold and the reduction of poverty, expanded middle-class, literacy and urbanization, they will automatically start transitioning to democracy. This notion is repeated so often that it is taken as true. However, the assumption lacks empirical grounding. Research shows that economic decline, rather than growth, is a more powerful impetus for democratic transition. Everywhere, people become more restless for change when their living conditions worsen.3.)„Democratization is destabilizing.“ Of course, democratization is a process far away from being without a risk. But this risk has to be weighed against the relatively greater danger of conflicts associated with governments that resist political reforms, relying on repression to stay in power. A look at these three tenets does not imply that all developing country democracies grow more effectively than autocracies. To make it clear, there are nine authoritarian systems that have sustained economic growth for at least one decade since 1981: Bhutan, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Tunisia, and Vietnam. China is even a poster child for the autocratic growth argument. And in former times, the Soviet Union, Romania and Yugoslavia were held up as models for authoritarian growth.What is the explanation for democracies’ impressive track record of steady and broad-based development? There are a variety of interrelated reasons belonging to three categories – accountability, openness and adaptability. Accountability is what drives democracies developmental superiority. Democratic systems tend to be stronger systems of checks and balances, independent media, and rule of law than other systems. Openness, that means the greater access to information in open societies, fosters more informed policy debate and analysis. Adaptability is essential for any democratic system. Political competition gives leaders incentives to identify new ideas that will address public priorities. Over a wide range of development measures, democracies have performed consistently better than other governance regimes. Democracy is central to development and conflict mitigation. As a result, it should be taken into account when development policy is designed and implemented. Some suggestions shall be made: Developing countries that have „self-selected“ their way towards a more transparent and accountable government should receive more aid. This is not the case at the present time. Even low-middle income democracies do not receive an edge in aid. Bilateral donors should explicitly make democracy a criterion in their funding decisions. Recently, some donors have given special emphasis to „good governance“. However, this term is often interpreted as economic government, rule of law, or corruption. How reliable can „rule of law“ be if it is contingent on the discretion of leaders who stand above the law? This does not mean, that developing country autocracies should not receive international assistance. Allocutions for humanitarian assistance and transnational threats – HIV/AIDS, avian flu, or polio –should be made. However, it should be ensured that these resources are used for the purposes defined and not to promote the regime as such. The international financial institutions (IFIs) –World Bank, IMF, and regional development banks –should amend their charters in favour of the affirmation of democracy. Countries with transparent and participatory political systems should be given priority in funding decisions. Moreover, they should afford more flexibility to democratically elected governments. One regional developing bank, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, already cites democracy as one of its two principal objectives. Development responds to incentives, too. However, the incentives created by current development financing practices are rather ambiguous. 93 percent of all development assistance goes through national governments. Trouble starts where undemocratic governments are part of the problem the solution of which is urgent. Here, the flow of aid resources only serves to perpetuate their hold on power. The funding should be diversified through a variety of actors with different approaches. Diversification is not destined to undermine the capacity and authority of national governments. Democratic space should be encouraged. Even autocratic governments try to be perceived as meeting international expectations and norms. Clear signals from established democracies that legitimacy is valued will encourage more space for independent voices. Finally, the initial months and years are essential for the success of the opening process of developing and democratizing countries. As a result, international actors are not as influential in ensuring a democracy dividend is realized. Here, the creation of„democracy response accounts“ may be helpful. We live in a historic and hopeful time. The expansion of democracy and its implications for development and security throughout the world are encouraging. If we don’t want to put at a risk what we have reached so far, we should no longer treat democracy as a secondary objective.

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