Arab Democracy Without Foreign Pressures

"A Scholar's Take" in white text above a white pen outline

Arab Democracy Without Foreign Pressures: How Possible?

This issue was raised by a number of researchers who wanted to tackle the necessary conditions for democratization in non-democratic societies. The traditional paradigm was that democratization is closely related to stimulating prerequisites like a minimum level of economic development and consequent conditions like income levels, educational attainment, size of the middle class, in addition to the share of the private sector of local production. However, it is most of the present forty non-democratic states (out of approximately 200 states) have achieved most of these socioeconomic prerequisites without becoming democratic. Thus, a new paradigm focuses on the roles and strategies of political domestic and foreign actors rather than the prerequisites of democratization.

One of the starting points for understanding the role of foreign pressure in jump-starting the democratization process was the term “outposts of tyranny” coined by Condoleezza Rice in 2005 to describe a group of countries in which despotism is so firmly established that their peoples cannot fight it alone. Thus, these peoples need the help of the regional or international community in order to oust their authoritarian regimes. She used specific examples of five authoritarian countries (Belarus, Burma, Cuba, North Korea, and Zimbabwe) in addition to the broader Middle East including the region that extends from Mauritania to Pakistan.

In order to support her idea, she made use of Natan Sharansky’s town square test, which means that “If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a “fear society” has finally won their freedom” Thus, it is the responsibility of free societies to help enslaved societies to rid of their fear.

So, the discussion became centered on the following question: Could democratization happen without the support of foreign – mostly, Western – powers?

In a recent piece of research, a colleague of mine and I explore this question using empirical tools. We reached a number of findings that deserve profound consideration. Out of 80 successful cases of democratization during the last 40 years, the role of foreign pressure was strongly effective in 90% thereof. Out of 57 cases of failed democratization or democratic breakdown, the foreign element was also clear in as much as 80% thereof. This means that even the continuation of despotism requires foreign support.

The chances of the success of a home-made revolutionary change a la 1952 revolution of Egypt or the 1979 Iranian revolution (regardless of how (un)democratic they were) are weaker today than what was the case several years ago. One of the main reasons for this change is technological advancement which gave huge capabilities for both despots and their oppressors yet it was more in the favor of despotism than its opponents. Authoritarian regimes are increasingly showing that they are alert, savvy and brutal in their defense of their thrones. Moreover, authoritarian governments are now more capable of learning past lessons and utilizing them in creating vertical divides in change-demanding forces, in addition to using flagrant oppression if enticements, deterrence, and containment did not succeed.

So, a number of studies found that the chances of success for home-grown spontaneous popular democratic movements are considerably lower than those for movements that enjoy regional or international support.

This takes us to another question: What are the conditions according to which the West supports popular demands of democracy?

The West exerted lots of pressures for democratization in South and East Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, East, South, and Central Asia, and South America for several decades. The drive behind this Endeavour was a genuine belief that a more democratic world should be richer and more peaceful. The last two democratic states that went to war with one another were Athens and Syracuse back in the fifth century BC. This idea was originally articulated by German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who believed that democracy leads to world peace. Yet, what if democracy resulted in bringing anti-democratic forces to power like the case of the Nazi party in 1933? And, what if democracy brought pro-democracy, yet anti-Western, forces to power like the case of Allende in Chile who came to power in 1970 and the US conspired to get rid of him in 1973?

Once again, field studies show that during the last 40 years the West did not support democracy when its outcome was favorable to it except in 2% of the cases (like the case of Hamas in 2006) because of miscalculated moves. However, in 98% o the cases, the West offered support for democratic forces that had a pro-Western agenda.

If we combined the last two conclusions, we would understand that it is all about a simple calculation of the balance of power. Tell me who supports despotism locally and abroad versus those who support democratization, and I can tell you who would win.

To be less abstract, let’s recall the Western support for the civil disobedience movement in Georgia and Ukraine in the beginnings of this millennium as two contemporary examples of the success of a “people” in allying with the West although the latter, for sure, had completely opportunistic considerations.

We currently see similar cases as Western countries continue to condemn the results of the Belarusian presidential elections in which the President Alexander Lukashenko won a fourth term. The West also condemned the police violent repression and arrests of seven presidential candidates of the opposition. If it were not for the Russian support to Lukashenko, he would not have withstood Western pressures.

Cote d’Ivoire is another case in which Western diplomatic and financial sanctions were taken in order to push the President Laurant Gbagbo to relinquish power even after the Elections Commission’s announcement of the victory of his opponent. The latest of Western sanctions was the freezing of a number of loans the World Bank was supposed to offer to Cote d’Ivoire, which practically amounted to the government’s bankruptcy.

However, Western condemnation of comparable cases of election forgery in the Arab world is never as strong as it was in the above case because the oppressor is a friend and aggrieved is a foe.

So, the question posed before Arab democratic forces is: “to what extent are they capable of neutralizing the impact of Western support to despotism in the Arab world?”

This is a mandatory question that is shockingly realistic in a way that some people hate.

Moataz A. Fattah is an associate professor of political science at Cairo University and Central Michigan University. He is also a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

This article was originally published by Middle East Online.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.



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