The Blog

Illiberal Democracy on the Rise?

Recent events highlight the need for liberal institutions in the Middle East; here's how to promote them.

12:00 AM, Apr 20, 2006 • By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS and NIR BOMS
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When Americans learned that 41-year-old Afghan citizen Abdul Rahman could be put to death for converting to Christianity, they were outraged. Chuck Colson spoke for many when he wrote, "Is this the fruit of democracy? Is this why we have shed American blood and invested American treasure to set a people free?" (Although Abdul Rahman was ultimately whisked away to the safety of Italy, the apostasy laws used to charge him haven't been repealed.) When the Abdul Rahman case is added to Hamas's electoral victory in the Palestinian territories and the Muslim Brotherhood's gains in Egypt's recent parliamentary elections, a disturbing trend emerges: the rise of illiberal democracy in the Middle East.

Elections are an integral part of a democracy--but they are not a substitute for a liberal democratic culture. Almost half of today's "democratizing" countries can be classified as what Fareed Zakaria dubs "illiberal democracies": Although they hold regular elections, they also violate their citizens' human rights, political liberties, and religious freedom. The Bush administration, which has taken on the cause of advancing democracy in the Middle East, should be particularly concerned by these developments.

The theory behind pushing Middle Eastern democracy is that of the safety valve: If Middle Easterners have a say in their governance, the theory goes, they will be less likely to turn to violence. But recent events have called this theory into question. Will democratization end up unwittingly empowering the enemies of the West?

If the United States continues down its current path, it may well end up doing just that. Right now there is only one institution in the Middle East in which citizens can safely gather and criticize the government: the mosque. Fundamentalist parties have been the strongest critics of the corrupt governments that fill the region, and voters often find that if they want to protest the ruling regimes, they are forced to vote for the Islamist opposition.

Empowered Islamists will serve as obstacles on the road to greater U.S. security. It is only after the rise of liberal institutions such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion that Middle Eastern elections can provide the vibrant alternatives that we expect truly democratic systems to provide. But how can we effectively promote liberal institutions?

Two important realizations are needed. The first is that a democratic culture cannot be built overnight--especially not in a region which has such a long history of oppressive and authoritarian government. The second is that democracy must be measured by the level of liberalism it engenders, not the number of ballots cast. As recent history shows, elections can be the continuation of autocracy by other means.

True, elections are easy to measure and can be quite dramatic: See the wave of purple-fingered citizens that marked Iraq's first democratic vote. But elections are not the most important indicator of a state's progression--and we may want to temper our enthusiasm for pushing them until the Middle East developed a more liberal culture.

To help promote liberalism, our policymakers need to improve their cultural literacy so they can more easily identify and effectively work with regional and local players devoted to the values of tolerance and political freedom. It took a revolution to create democracies in Europe and America--and it may take another revolution in the Middle East. But that revolution can only come from within, spearheaded by existing forces that already work toward democratization.

The United States needs to be careful in choosing which of these groups to support, as not all of them have the constituencies that they would like us to believe, and not all of them will be amenable to U.S. interests--or the interests of the citizens of their respective countries for that matter. By now, these groups have track records that can be examined on the merits. Policymakers should support those groups that seek, and are capable of contributing to, genuine democratic change.

The U.S. should also support expatriate movements. The democratization process seeks to bring about a new discourse that has been suppressed, both by the ruling elites and also by the Islamist opposition. Expatriate movements can help this new discourse take shape. The work of the Lebanese and Syrian expatriate communities, for example, has already proved effective in the context of the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.