The United States and the Prospects for Democracy in Islamic Countries

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Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF)

The United States and the Prospects for Democracy in Islamic Countries

The unarmed insurrection that overthrew the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia has opened up debate regarding prospects for democratization in Arab and other predominately Muslim countries.  Many in the West are familiar with the way unarmed pro-democracy insurrections have helped bring democracy to Eastern Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia and Africa. But they discount the chances of such movements in Islamic countries, despite Tunisia being far from the first. Meanwhile, the United States -- despite giving lip service in support for democracy – continues to actively support authoritarian governments in Islamic countries.

Obama was correctly cautious about offering more overt support for the 2009 pro-democracy uprising in Iran, recognizing that his advocacy could set back the more critical issue of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He was also aware that the history of U.S. intervention, explicit threats of “regime change” by the previous administration, and the U.S. invasion of two neighboring countries in the name of democracy had resulted in such strong anti-Americanism in Iran that the regime could use such support to discredit the pro-democracy movement.

Continuing Bush

Obama’s continuation of the Bush administration’s policy of arming and training security forces in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Jordan, and other dictatorial regimes in the region is much harder to defend.

The Obama administration, in rejecting the dangerous neoconservative ideology of its predecessor, has fallen back onto the realpolitik of previous administrations by continuing to support repressive regimes through unconditional arms transfers and other security assistance. Indeed, President Barack Obama's understandable skepticism of externally mandated, top-down approaches to democratization through "regime change" is no excuse for his policy of further arming these regimes, which then use these instruments of repression to subjugate popular indigenous bottom-up struggles for democratization. (Ironically, this authoritarianism is then used to justify the large-scale, unconditional support of Israel  on the grounds that it's “the sole democracy in the Middle East.”)

Bush’s high-profile and highly suspect “democracy promotion” agenda provided repressive regimes and their apologists an excuse to label any popular pro-democracy movement that challenges them as foreign agents, even when led by independent grassroots nonviolent activists. It is presumably no coincidence that the only autocratic regimes that the Bush administration seriously pressed for reform were those that traditionally opposed American hegemonic goals. Bush called for spreading democracy “from Damascus to Teheran.” Yet, while Syria and Iran could certainly use more democracy, it is striking he did not similarly call for spreading democracy from Riyadh to Cairo. In many respects, Bush did for the cause of democracy what Stalin did for the cause of socialism: he used an idealistic principle to justify war, repression, and hegemony. 

Furthermore, in recent years the United States has promoted “economic freedom” – a neo-liberal capitalist economic model that emphasizes open markets and free trade – as at least as important as political freedom. It is noteworthy that, according to 2007 figures, the largest single recipient of funding from the National Endowment for Democracy for the Middle East was the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE).  Even during the height of U.S. assistance to Egypt and Algeria, the two most populous Arab countries, CIPE received three times as much NED funding as all human rights, development, legal, and civil society organizations combined.  While liberalizing the economy from stifling state control can sometimes encourage political liberalization, the more extreme neo-liberal model of the so-called “Washington consensus” has tended to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of elites, particularly under authoritarian regimes, where the result is often crony capitalism rather than a truly free market, which weakens civil society rather than strengthens it.

The use of democracy as a disingenuous means of promoting U.S. hegemony was apparent in the way the Bush administration largely focused its attention on autocratic governments that opposed U.S. interests in the region. It criticized the human rights record of such countries as Syria and Iran and drew attention to the plight of certain suppressed minorities, dissident organizations, and individuals, while ignoring similar or worse abuses by pro-Western dictatorships. Even worse, at the request of the Bush administration in October 2002, a large bipartisan majority of the U.S. Congress supported the Iraq War resolution, asserting the right of the United States to invade Middle Eastern countries on the grounds of “promoting democracy.”

In a report released in 2008, polls showed that while the majority of Middle Easterners supported greater democracy in their countries, there was a decidedly negative attitude toward the stated goal of the Bush administration for “democracy promotion.” Only 19 percent thought such efforts had a positive effect on their overall opinion of the United States while 58 percent stating it had a negative effect.  Another revealing poll indicated that although two-thirds of Americans surveyed believed Muslim nations cannot be democratic, an even larger majority of Muslims in predominantly Muslim countries believe they can and should.

To Obama's credit, there is now a subtle but important shift in the U.S. government's discourse on human rights. The Bush administration pushed a rather superficial structuralist view. It focused, for instance, on elections – which can easily be rigged and manipulated in many cases – in order to change certain governments for purposes of expanding U.S. power and influence. Obama has taken more of an agency view of human rights, emphasizing such rights as freedom of expression and the right to protest. This administration recognizes that human rights reform can only come from below and not imposed from above. Although this has largely been rhetorical and has not altered Washington's propensity to provide security assistance to repressive regimes, it is this very right of protest that is key to the promotion of democracy in Islamic countries.

How Change Occurs

Throughout the world, in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, in recent years there has been a dramatic growth of the use of strategic nonviolent action. In contrast to armed struggles, these nonviolent insurrections are movements of organized popular resistance to government authority. Either consciously or by necessity, they eschew the use of weapons of modern warfare. Unlike conventional political movements, nonviolent campaigns usually employ tactics outside the mainstream political processes of electioneering and lobbying. These tactics may include strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, the popular contestation of public space, tax refusal, destruction of symbols of government authority (such as official identification cards), refusal to obey official orders (such as curfew restrictions), and the creation of alternative institutions for political legitimacy and social organization.

Freedom House recently produced a study that, after examining the 67 transitions from authoritarian regimes to varying degrees of democratic governments over the past few decades, concluded that they came overwhelmingly through democratic civil society organizations using nonviolent action and other forms of civil resistance. Such transitions did not result from foreign invasion and came about only rarely through armed revolt or voluntary, elite-driven reforms. In another study on civil resistance of more than 300 struggles for self-determination against colonialism, military occupation, and colonial rule over the past century, Maria Stephan and Erica Chenowith noted that nonviolent struggles were more than twice as likely to succeed as armed struggles.

Islamic countries have experienced this phenomenon at least as often as any place else in the world. In Iran, the tobacco strike in the 1890s and the constitutional revolution in 1906 were both cases of mass nonviolent resistance against neo-colonialism and authoritarian rule. In Egypt, the 1919 Revolution, consisting of many months of civil disobedience and strikes, eventually led to independence from Britain.

In addition to the recent uprising in Tunisia, there have been other recent successful unarmed insurrections in the Islamic world. Civil insurrections in Sudan in 1964 and 1985 overthrew dictatorial regimes and led to brief periods of democratic governance. A popular nonviolent uprising toppled Mali’s repressive Traore regime in 1991, resulting in nearly 20 years of stable democracy in that West African country.

In Iran, the largely unarmed insurrection against the Shah toppled the monarchy in 1979 and brought a brief hope for freedom prior to hard-line Islamists consolidating their power; the aborted 2009 uprising may mark the beginning of a more complete democratic revolution. Strikes and other forms of mass resistance forced the resignation of Bangladesh’s General Ershad and the restoration of democracy in 1990. A student-led movement in 1998 forced the resignation of Suharto, one of the world’s most brutal dictators, after 33 years in power in Indonesia.

In Lebanon, the 2004 Cedar Revolution forced Syria to withdraw its troops and end its domination of Lebanese government. The largely nonviolent 2006 Tulip Revolution ousted Kyrgystan’s corrupt and autocratic regime of Askar Akeyev. Years of protests against the 30-year Gayoum dictatorship regime led to free elections in the Maldives in 2008, resulting in the autocrat's defeat. And in Pakistan, a movement led by lawyers and other civil society organizations resulted in the resignation of U.S.-backed military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2009.

There are also ongoing nonviolent popular struggles against foreign military occupation, including the Palestinians in the West Bank, the Syrian Druze in the Golan Heights, and the Sahrawis in Western Sahara. In addition to those that took place in Iran, nonviolent struggles have sporadically challenged autocratic regimes in Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Niger, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere.

Despite Western stereotypes to the contrary, Islamic countries have been at least as prone to large-scale nonviolent struggles as other societies.  One of the great strengths in Islamic cultures, which make unarmed insurrections possible, is the implied social contract between a ruler and subject. Prophet Muhammad's successor, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, stated this explicitly: "Obey me as long as I obey God in my rule.  If I disobey him, you will owe me no obedience." Such a pledge was reiterated by successive caliphs, including Imam Ali, who said, "No obedience is allowed to any creature in his disobedience of the Creator." Indeed, most Islamic scholars have firmly supported the right of the people to depose an unjust ruler. The decision to refuse cooperation is a crucial step in building a nonviolent movement.  Massive noncooperation with illegitimate authority is critical for any successful pro-democracy struggle.

The Role of the United States

What can the United States and other Western nations do to help this process? External support for nonviolent struggles in the Middle East can be a double-edged sword. Most struggles against a repressive regime would normally welcome international solidarity. But if the outside support is seen as coming from forces that don't hold the best interest of the country’s people in mind, it can harm the chances of such a movement succeeding in its goals. At the same time, external actors have played an important role in supporting nonviolent struggles in the past. And thanks to enhanced international mobility and communication, such actors will likely play an increasingly important role in the future.

Aid for democracy assistance should be done very carefully to avoid backlash. Such aid worked in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, where the United States was seen as an ally to democracy. In most Islamic countries, however, the United States has been seen as an ally to dictatorship and foreign military occupation. So if Washington embraced oppositions groups too warmly, this could work against the public acceptance of these groups. At the same time, given the serious challenges facing pro-democracy groups struggling against the powerful autocratic regimes in the region, many activists will likely continue to look to the United States and other Western powers for, at minimum, moral and diplomatic support  The United States can apply diplomatic pressure to free political prisoners, promote the right to free assembly, and support other means of creating the political space for nonviolent pro-democracy movements to grow. Western leaders who avoid messianic and self-righteous rhetoric when talking about democracy, pursue policies that neither practice nor condone violations of international humanitarian law, and directly communicate with and respect the wishes of nonviolent activists struggling against their autocratic rulers could help to rectify the historically counter-productive policies that have for so long hurt the cause of democracy in the region.     

But it's not clear that the United States even wants greater democracy in the Islamic world. For example, regarding Tunisia, the U.S. government was silent during the first weeks of protests despite savage repression by the government. Less than a week after the uprising began, Congress voted for an addition $12 million in security assistance to Ben Ali’s regime. Tear gas canisters lobbed at pro-democracy demonstrators were inscribed with the words “Made in USA,” a reminder of whose side Washington was on in the struggle against the dictatorship. By early January, the State Department began issuing mild criticism of the Ben Ali regime for firing live ammunition into crowds of demonstrators but was equally willing to blame the pro-democracy activists. While the movement was largely nonviolent, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley chose to characterize it by its most unruly components. He stated that the Obama administration was "concerned about government actions, but we're also concerned about actions by the demonstrators, those who do not have peaceful intentions." 

On January 18, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her concern over the impact of the "unrest and instability" on the "very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia." She insisted that the United States was "not taking sides" and that she would "wait and see" before even communicating directly with Ben Ali or his ministers.  (One can only imagine the reaction if she had similarly insisted the United States was “not taking sides” in the face of the similar recent pro-democracy uprising in Iran and Burma or if previous secretaries of state had expressed such neutrality regarding pro-democracy struggles in Serbia, Poland, and other Eastern European countries.)

Three days later, as Ben Ali was fleeing the country, President Obama came forward with the most pointed declaration in support of democracy in the Islamic world since he became president. He condemned the regime’s violence and applauded “the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard.” He further called on the Tunisian government “to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.”

There has long been a sense of fatalism in the Arab world that they are simply passive victims of outside forces. Although it is easy to dismiss Obama’s comments as simply a last-minute show of support to the winning side, this shift indicates the significance of what happened in Tunisia: rather than Washington controlling the course of events influencing the Arab street, the Arab street is influencing policies emanating from Washington.

Indeed, at the point where a movement embarks upon a strategy of large-scale nonviolent action, there is little foreign governments can do to help or hinder its chances of success, other than pressure the regime to limit its repression. Large bureaucratic governments accustomed to projecting political power through military force or elite diplomatic channels tend to have little understanding of, or appreciation for, nonviolent action or any other kind of mass popular struggle or the complex, internal political dynamics of a given country necessary to create the broad coalition capable of ousting the incumbent authoritarian government.

Unlike changes of regime historically promoted by foreign governments during the colonial and much of the post-colonial period, which have tended to be violent seizures of power that install an undemocratic minority, nonviolent “people power” movements make change through empowering pro-democratic majorities. This serves as yet another reason why the Iranian regime’s claims that the United States is somehow responsible for the Green Revolution are so ludicrous. Every successful nonviolent insurrection has been a homegrown movement rooted in the realization by the masses that their rulers were illegitimate and that the current political system was incapable of redressing injustice.

As a result, the best hope for advancing freedom and democracy in Islamic countries comes from civil society rather than from foreign governments. The latter deserve neither credit nor blame for the growing use of nonviolent resistance movements in Islamic countries. As the Tunisian uprising demonstrated, the best hope for freedom in the Islamic world comes not from sanctimonious lecturing from Washington and certainly not from foreign intervention--but from the people themselves.

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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