Democracy in the Arab World


"Partial Democracy Suits Regimes and the West"

July 4, 2008

an interview by Bitter Lemons with George Giacaman 

Question: A couple of years ago, the US launched a democratisation programme for the Middle East. What happened?

Giacaman: States usually pursue their interests rather than any high ideals. So the question should be; what was intended by this programme? It seems to me that the issue here is that in certain countries, especially in some Gulf countries, it was thought that some degree of domestic political openness to include emerging elites in the decision-making process would ensure better stability.

This was evidenced by the fact that Saudi Arabia was pressured to hold at least municipal elections, which they did in the first elections in that country. Preceding that in Bahrain, a parliament was formed, where, even though half the members are appointed, at least the other half is elected.

I think the idea was that in these countries stability was better preserved if some degree of openness, no matter how gradual, began and this was probably done against the wishes of the traditional ruling families.

At some point, I also think the inclusion of Islamists was considered, especially in countries such as Egypt. But the problem with Islamists, as far as the US is concerned, is their position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In any case I think the process was arrested chiefly because it was thought that it was a more important to allow these countries to fight domestic terrorism and globalised Jihad. One should recall that in Saudi Arabia there were several such incidents that were given priority.

How big a role did the election victory of Hamas play?

Giacaman: In principle, the US and European countries have no problem with elections. It is the result of such elections they may not like. [US Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice said as much, when she stated, "we don't have to accept the results."

But it begs the question, why push for democracy if you are not willing to accept the results?

Giacaman: I don't think the West is pushing for democracy but rather for the partial openness of political systems and some degree of inclusion in parliament of opposition forces. One of the countries mentioned by US President George W. Bush in his 2003 speech as a model for the region was Jordan. There, there has been a long-standing tug of war between the government and Islamists, and the latter have been included to some degree in parliament and in some specific ministries. That is an example of the policy of containment rather than a policy of full-scale democracy.

But is it possible to sustain such partial democracy?

Giacaman: No. I think the slogan is used for political expediency. The people in the region genuinely want democracy if by this is meant the rule of law, regular free elections and the protection of civil liberties and human rights. These issues all score high in opinion polls over the last ten years.

The problem of course is opposition first of all on the part of Arab regimes and secondly concern in the US that full-fledged democracy will bring to power not only the Islamists but all those forces opposed to US policy in the region, most importantly in Palestine and Iraq.

But if increased democratisation brings stability, and the overall concern of western countries is stability in the region, how do you strike a balance of getting just enough democracy?

Giacaman: The idea is to bring enough political stability so that the countries of the region will remain within the US and western orbit. It's not to get complete democracy. A country like Saudi Arabia with about 25 million citizens has for the past 40 years been sending hundreds of students per year to the US; after their return they mostly work for the state. Many of these professionals are frustrated and want some degree of devolvement in the decision-making process. The recipe is clear: Disgruntled and educated people form revolutionary material. I think it is well understood in Riyadh that some degree of devolvement in the decision-making process is important as a policy of containing radicals.

In view of this sort of partial democratisation policy as you call it, what now for US and EU democratisation programmes in the region?

Giacaman: I think these programmes will always be extremely limited. Full-fledged democracy will not be permitted, first by Arab regimes and also by the US to the extent that US policy in the region remains the same, especially with regard to Iraq and Washington's blanket support for Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

Will this policy of containment work?

Giacaman: So far no radical changes have taken place. Keep in mind that security forces play a major part in the decision-making process in the countries of the region. They also use the question of terror to continue a mode of repression and to scare their populations to stay quiet. So far this has been successful.

However, it also clear that many people are disgruntled. Egypt, for example, has been under a state of emergency for 26 years. That is not a normal situation and it's hard to see that this can continue indefinitely.

Dr. George Giacaman is co-founder and director of Muwatin, the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy. He is also a faculty member in the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies, and in the MA Program in Democracy and Human Rights at Birzeit University, of which he is co-founder. He writes frequently on public affairs in the Palestinian and Arab press, and is a regular commentator for BBC TV and World Service Radio, among several other television and radio stations. A collection of his writings from the second intifada will appear in 2008.

© 3/7/2008. Re-published with permission.