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Democracy Promotion in the Aftermath of Iraq
Democracy Promotion in the Aftermath of Iraq
The Iraq War will surely stand as the greatest of foreign policy mistakes -- a failure, and a tragic one, as no shortage of commentators have called it. What makes it more tragic is that it needn’t have been so. Whether or not one was firmly against the war from the start, the verdict on Iraq will ultimately be characterized by an unusual mix of anger, ambivalence, and, perhaps most of all, confusion
Wednesday, March 25,2009 01:28
by Shadi Hamid* Worldpoliticsreview.com

The Iraq War will surely stand as the greatest of foreign policy mistakes -- a failure, and a tragic one, as no shortage of commentators have called it. What makes it more tragic is that it needn"t have been so. Whether or not one was firmly against the war from the start, the verdict on Iraq will ultimately be characterized by an unusual mix of anger, ambivalence, and, perhaps most of all, confusion.

From the beginning, Iraq wasn"t just about a war. It raised a series of questions that many of us still have trouble answering. If the war was morally wrong, was it because of its consequences, or despite them? Is what makes such wars immoral the fact that they are preemptive, or is it rather that preemption, from an empirical standpoint, fails more often than it succeeds? Is there something intrinsically wrong with using force in the service of what we claim are universal ideas and ideals?

The answers to these questions are not necessarily any more clear today than they were several years ago, during the fevered, rushed, run up to a war that, at the time, remained very much an abstraction. What if Iraq had succeeded? This is a counterfactual, so there is probably little use in answering it. But there is a different question worth asking, in part because one day we will likely be forced to answer it: What if Iraq succeeds?


Although it is still uncertain whether it will, in many ways it must. Iraq has become intertwined, however unfairly, with the broader effort to support democracy in the Middle East. Is the success of the former now tied to the success of the latter? Perhaps, but at least in the short run, it should not be made a necessary condition. Should the unexpected happen and Iraq manages to build on the small but significant progress made recently, it will undoubtedly have a positive effect on political reform elsewhere. For too long, though, democracy in the region has been held hostage by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no need to add a second insurmountable problem to the list.

In some sense, though, it might already be too late for that. Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton administration put democracy on the backburner in order to keep its focus on the Oslo peace process. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the region, Jordan"s short-lived democratic "experiment" -- begun in 1989 -- effectively ended in 1993, the same year King Hussein decided that peace with Israel would be the legacy he would leave to his people. The price he (and Jordanians) had to pay for it was the crushing of domestic opposition and the institution of an electoral law -- cleverly, if deceptively, named "one-person, one-vote" -- that made it impossible for opposition parties to win enough seats to matter. Today, there are roughly 9 opposition deputies out of 110 in Jordan"s parliament. In 1989, there were 36 out of 80. For American policymakers, such a wager has always seemed worth it. Indeed, U.S. aid to Jordan increased dramatically after 1993, making Jordan currently the second-largest per capita recipient of American aid.

When President Bush was elected more than eight years ago under the banner of foreign policy "humility," there was no reason to think this basic American posture, sustained by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, would change. But some years later, Bush memorably proclaimed "America"s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."

No one could possibly say today that the Bush administration"s Middle East policy was a success. This wasn"t nearly so clear, though, in the early months of 2005, when the region actually appeared to be opening up politically. Between Bush"s soaring, if overdone, rhetoric in his inaugural and state of the union addresses, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice"s very public cancellation of a March trip to Cairo, and the relatively remarkable Iraqi elections of Jan. 31, 2005, there seemed to be something in the air.

Arabs seemed to agree, at least for a short while. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Beirut demanding the exit of Syrian troops, while 80,000 Bahrainis -- one-fifth of the country"s population -- protested for constitutional reform. For the first time, Saudi Arabia held municipal elections. And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, nearly a quarter-century into his rule, announced, also for the first time, that Egypt would hold multi-candidate presidential elections.

The changes were real, or at least they seemed to be. One moment in particular stands out, in part because it was inspiring, but more importantly because, in retrospect, it was frightening. On the weekend of Dec. 12, 2004, which happened to mark the date of the first anti-Mubarak protest in Egyptian history, I joined 25 or 30 pro-democracy advocates in a workshop for Arab reformers at the Dead Sea in Jordan. At the workshop"s end, Radwan Masmoudi, one of the organizers, gathered together a few participants, including Egyptian pro-democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Muslim Brotherhood"s Esam el-Erian. He told us there was now an unprecedented window of opportunity to push for democracy, but that we would have no more than two or three years to make it happen. If we let it pass, he warned, it may not come again. He was only half right. The window would close much sooner than any of us expected.

This is where Iraq begins to cloud the picture. After the promise of early 2005, the situation quickly began to deteriorate. Sectarian violence threatened to tear the country apart. Civil war was now a real possibility. As a result, stabilizing Iraq would, for the remainder of President Bush"s term, take precedence over nearly everything else. From their perspective, Bush administration officials felt they could not rock the boat with steadfast allies like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia with so much at stake next door. Again, democracy would have to be postponed. For whatever its importance, it was a long-term project, one for the "generations." The slaughter taking place in Iraq was much more real and immediate.

So, despite the improbable suggestion that interests and ideals were now somehow fused together, the bargain -- one can always find new justifications for it -- would remain central to American policy in the Middle East. It was an old story. In exchange for supporting our strategic interests in the region, we turn a blind eye to domestic repression. As Thomas Carothers observes, reversing the conventional wisdom, "The place of democracy in Bush foreign policy was no greater, and in some ways was less, than in the foreign policies of his predecessors."

Strategic imperatives took precedence, and America could not afford to take the risk of free elections across the region. Democracy, is about uncertainty. (Later, once it is consolidated, the uncertainty becomes institutionalized.) With regards to the Middle East, that means accepting the notion that millions of Arabs might very well vote for a party that Americans perceive as anathema to their fundamental beliefs and interests.

It is one thing to worry about this in theory, but quite another to see it happen in practice. Wherever there were political openings, even small ones, Islamists did extremely well. In late 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt won 20 percent of the seats in parliamentary elections. This despite the fact that they operated at less than one-third strength, running fewer than 140 candidates out of a possible 444.

The death knell for whatever was left of the "freedom agenda" came shortly thereafter, in January 2006. Hamas surprised the State Department as well as themselves when they won a majority of the Palestinian Authority"s parliamentary seats in certifiably free elections. Democracy is good, but too much of a good thing, it suddenly seemed, can be bad. The morning after the voting, Juan Cole, writing in the pages of Salon, told us to "be careful what we wish for." He was prescient, for we would soon become very, very careful.

So the U.S. found itself struggling, again, to deal with its longstanding "Islamist dilemma," wanting democracy in theory while fearing its outcomes in practice. The same dilemma had already paralyzed American policy in Algeria 14 years prior. It has yet to be resolved. In December 1991, in the most free and fair election the Arab world had seen in decades, the Islamic Salvation Front, known by its French acronym FIS, was poised to end up with as many of two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. The military, claiming to save democracy from itself, canceled the second round of voting, provoking a civil war that would go on to take an estimated 150,000 lives.

The French, in their tendency to privilege secularism over democracy, backed the military. The United States initially sent mixed signals but ended up supporting the coup. As then-Secretary of State James Baker recounted several years after: "Generally speaking, when you support democracy, you take what democracy gives you. . . . If it gives you a radical Islamic fundamentalist, you"re supposed to live with it. We didn"t live with it in Algeria because we felt that the radical fundamentalists" views were so adverse to what we believe in and what we support, and to what we understood the national interests of the United States to be."

More than a decade later, the more recent Bush administration"s reasoning was remarkably similar to its predecessor, even though President George W. Bush, with true believers like Paul Wolfowitz and Elliot Abrams at his side, had disavowed the realism of the past.

But some interests are enduring and so are some mistakes.


As a starting point to resolving the "Islamist dilemma," it is critical to make distinctions between the various Islamist groups. Many jihadists consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be kuffar (or disbelievers) due to their participation in elections and increasingly public commitment to democracy. As Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida"s second-in-command, has written, "What is truly regrettable is the [Brotherhood"s] rallying of thousands of duped Muslim youth in voter queues before ballot boxes instead of lining them up to fight in the cause of Allah. They have substituted Allah"s bidding with the conditions and regimes of the infidels."

It would be somewhat bizarre, then, to group al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood together under some common ideological umbrella. Groups with different orientations must be treated differently, an obvious point, perhaps, but one that probably needs to be emphasized.

Even if we focus only on those groups that contest elections, we can make additional distinctions. Hamas and Hezbollah participate in the electoral process but have not renounced violence. The United States is under no obligation to engage with them directly. However, the vast majority of Islamist groups in the region are nonviolent and have committed themselves to operating within a democratic process. These include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan"s Islamic Action Front, Morocco"s Justice and Development Party, Kuwait"s Islamic Constitutional Movement, Al-Nahda in Tunisia, and many others. There is no reason, then, not to at least talk to them.

These groups have accepted many of the foundational components of democracy, including alternation of power (tadowul al-sulta), popular sovereignty (al-shaab musdar al-sultat), separation of powers, and protection of minority rights. This does not make them liberals. They are socially conservative, and say and do things which would likely make a large number of Americans uncomfortable. But it does make them legitimate actors who play by the "rules of the game." The same cannot be said of the regimes who rule over them -- regimes that America deals with, and often funds and supports.

Over the last 20 years, most mainstream Islamist groups have become significantly more moderate over time in both rhetoric and practice. Among other things, the experience of autocracy has impressed upon them the importance of democracy. As Nance Bermeo notes, "Dictatorship can force us to reevaluate the nature of particular regimes, our enemies, and our own goals and behavior. The experience of dictatorship can produce important cognitive change."

She goes on, "Tactics, or the conscious behaviors one uses to obtain a desired goal, may also be altered as a result of political shocks, crises, and frustrations." And it would be fair to say that in Egypt and Jordan, and more traumatically in Syria, Tunisia, and Algeria, Islamists have had to contend with severe "shocks." That is certainly one way of putting it, anyway. Just as regimes have adapted to the Islamist challenge, so too have Islamists adapted to the persistence of authoritarianism and its often arbitrary brutality.

It is not necessarily true that greater political openness and democracy will inevitably push Islamist parties further along the path of moderation, as many seem to think. Just as Islamists have moderated, so too can they radicalize. It depends on their political context, and on the various pressures they face from the regime, other opposition parties, the international community, as well as their own conservative base.

But the possibility that mainstream Islamists may yet radicalize strengthens, rather than undermines, the case for engaging with them, and doing so as soon as possible. The U.S. should not repeat the scenario of the Iranian revolution, where Washington was caught unaware by an antagonistic regime it had neither expected nor prepared for. It is better to have leverage with Islamist parties before they come to power rather than afterwards, when it"s too late. With such leverage, which would come only after years of dialogue and building trust, America can potentially influence Islamist parties to respect and cooperate on U.S. regional interests.

It is not clear what the alternative would be, unless one wishes to think that autocracy can be made permanent. It is unlikely that it can, and, if history is any guide, Latin American, Eastern European, and African populations have come to a similar conclusion. It would be quite a risky wager to believe that the Middle East is somehow exceptional, and will remain so.


If democracy does come to flourish in the region, it will take time and will require a degree of political will America may not have. But knowing that the process will take many years and perhaps decades, how should we begin in this post-Bush era?

There is a concern -- more than that, a worry -- that democracy promotion will not figure prominently in the Obama administration"s long list of competing priorities. Considering the political context -- with the economy in shambles and our continuing involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan -- many would say that we do not have the luxury to worry about democracy promotion. Assuming we are adopting a long-term perspective, and for the reasons laid out here in this article, we no longer have the luxury not to worry.

The legacy of the Bush administration is that policies that might otherwise have been acceptable are now used as evidence of American neo-imperialism and aggression. A handy rule of thumb being, if it sounds like Bush, it must be bad. Today, anyone who engages with audiences in the Middle East on the subject of democracy promotion is constantly reminded that the association between neo-conservatism, Iraq, and promoting democracy abroad is very real, and must be contended with.

One way to do this, some have suggested, is to downplay the whole enterprise of democracy promotion, and, to the extent that we do it at all, do it quietly and without using excessive rhetoric. Michael Cohen of the New America Foundation writes, "There were many bad elements to President Bush"s "Freedom Agenda," but few were worse than the grandiose and overstated rhetoric that he used when talking about democratization. You can"t one day deliver a speech in Cairo criticizing the Egyptian government"s lack of adherence to the rule of law and its intimidation of pro-democracy advocates and then later do nothing when an opposition presidential candidate is thrown in prison."

Cohen is right. We can"t. Bush did. But what we can do, and what Obama could do, is deliver a speech in Cairo criticizing the Egyptian government and then later do something when an opposition leader is jailed. If we limit the choice to a lot of rhetoric and little action on the one hand, and no rhetoric and little action on the other, then the latter is indeed better. But this is a false choice. Cohen"s understandable concern, and that of so many others, isn"t so much the rhetoric, but rather the failure to meet the expectations we have set for ourselves.

If the president used grandiose pro-democracy rhetoric, but followed it up with sustained pressure on autocratic regimes to open up their political systems (i.e. through economic incentives, aid conditionality, mobilizing international opinion when opposition leaders are imprisoned, and engaging with non-violent Islamists), would we then register the same complaints about overwrought rhetoric?

Public diplomacy should certainly "show not tell," but rhetoric is also important in the Arab and Muslim world, independent of what follows it. Rhetoric binds us. Raising expectations forces us to at least consider the prospect of meeting them. Rhetoric also increases the cost of inaction, because it threatens to widen the gulf between words and deeds, which, in turn, damages our credibility. Raising the costs of inaction is a good thing, because it propels us toward action -- or at least it should.

So let us use pro-democracy rhetoric, albeit more modestly and perhaps with less soaring, declarative phrasing. But if we do that, then we must be ready to accept the meaning of our own words, something the Bush administration was either unwilling or unable to do. President Bush and those around him tainted the otherwise noble idea that America has both a positive and, one hopes, peaceful role to play in supporting human rights and democracy abroad. It remains very much just that -- an idea -- because, particularly in the Middle East, it has been so sparingly tried with any real commitment or purpose.

It is an idea worth putting into practice, though: carefully but confidently, knowing the extent of our power and influence, while at the same time knowing its limits. In the process, we can finally begin to bridge the widened gap between ideals and interests, between who we are and who we might still want to be. Our "vital interests" and "deepest beliefs" will probably never be "one." I am not sure if they can be, or even if they should. This, after all, is politics, the art of the possible. There will always be tradeoffs, but there is no reason they should be as stark and damaging in the future as they have been in the recent past.

* Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and a Hewlett Fellow at Stanford University"s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. He blogs at Democracy Arsenal.

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