Letter to Obama on democracy in the Middle East

Welcome to Through the Middle East. We start with a post on an open letter sent to President Obama yesterday, urging his administration to support democratic movements in the region.

The letter, which can be seen in full here, was signed by 140 signatories who are largely made up of academics, think-tank members and the occasional politician. Announced at a press conference on 10th March at the National Press Club in Washington,  the letter  welcomes Obama’s elections and states that it is: ‘critical that the United States be on the
right side of history regarding the human, civil, and political rights of the peoples of the
Middle East.’

One of the signatories, Michele Dunne, emphaises the importance of the issue:

“We understand that promoting Middle East peace enjoys a high priority in this administration, and we believe that it is entirely possible to cooperate with Arab governments in that endeavor while also pursuing improved human, civil, and political rights for Arab citizens. In fact, not to do so would be shortsighted and ultimately counter productive.”

Elections and Islamists

The authors continue:

“For too long, American policy
in the Middle East has been paralyzed by fear of Islamist parties coming to power. Some
of these fears are both legitimate and understandable; many Islamists advocate illiberal
In many countries, including Turkey, Indonesia, and Morocco, the right to participate in
reasonably credible and open elections has moderated Islamist parties and enhanced their
commitment to democratic norms. We may not agree with what they have to say, but if
we wish to both preach and practice democracy, it is simply impossible to exclude the
largest opposition groups in the region from the democratic process.”

As I argued in my undergraduate dissertation (‘The relationship between Islam and democracy in Muslim states in the Middle East’), only through engagement with Islamist groups can the West hope to centralise them and bring them into a democratic process – the so called ‘inclusion-moderation’ thesis, as previously advocated by, among others, Vali Nasr.

Obama himself made his views on the Middle East clear in an interview with Al-Arabiya, seen after the jump:

Wider picture

There are however, serious problems with the letter, least of all in its authors. I personally admire many of the signatories, in their expertise and passion for democracy in the Middle East. However, there are over twice as many US signatories as those from overseas.

The letter states that:

“There is no doubt that the people of the Middle East long for greater
freedom and democracy; they have proven themselves willing to fight for it.”

However, with a total lack of examples this is little more than well-meaning rhetoric. Can those signatories really know what the ordinary (and increasingly young) citizen in the Middle East wants? They are undeniably the ‘elites’ of their countries, be that American or from the Middle East. They are unelected and largely detached from the ‘Arab street’. Then again, given the lack of free elections in most of the Middle East and a repressed media, is there any other medium through which dissenting, pro-democratic voices can be heard but the Westernised, anti-establishment elites?

Human rights activist and ex-Israeli politician Natan Sharansky disagrees, and is optimistic  about the letter:

“Whenever we speak of democratization in the Muslim world, we inevitably hear the question asked: “But where are these democratic voices in the Middle East itself? Why do we not hear from them?” The answer, simply, is that you can hear them if you want to! This letter is such a voice, signed by democratic activists and dissidents from Syria, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, and many other countries.”

Complex picture

The above issues do not even touch on one of the most ongoing discussions: whether or not Islam and democracy can ‘work’ together. There has been a lot written about this topic. My basic view is that a scholarly, or theological synthesis of the two ideologies cannot work due to their different origins, and even if it did (and many have attempted it), it is insignificant compared to the developments already happening on the ground: the AKP in Turkey, Hamas and Palestine, the many political groups in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamic Action Front (IAF) in Jordan. Therefore, it is their behaviour, success and platforms we should be focusing on.

This will be an eternal debate, and one that journalism and civil development has a role in. Al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera are as much a threat to anti-democratic regimes as US influence. On a smaller scale, so are the bloggers, be they in Iran, Morocco or Egypt who we so often hear about for the wrong reasons – namely their arrest and imprisonment.

In terms of development journalism, the Middle East is a largely under-reported region. If one were to look at capitals like Dubai and Cario, it would be possible to ask why bother focusing on development in the region: it’s wealth is growing already. However, development journalism takes many forms, and especially in the area of new media, the Middle East provides us with a wealth of topics.

The Western media often prevents a confused picture of the Middle East. Speaking to a friend recently, she seemed convinced that it remains a place of violence and conflict. In contrast, we should be careful of assuming the region is ready for, or willing to embrace,  a Euro-centric view of democracy.

Economist covers by Matthew Bradley

Economist covers by Matthew Bradley

Hopefully through its focus and topics, this blog will do its part in the making the picture a little clearer.


One response to “Letter to Obama on democracy in the Middle East

  1. I hope it’s not a faecetious question to ask: how exactly would the signatories like the Obama Administration to support democratic movements in the region?

    It may not be as simple as it appears. Some scholars of democratization have suggested that supporting the creation of a cohesive middle class may be an important factor. Similarly, bringing in the centre-right to a democratic settlement has been correlated with successful transition periods. Is it more effective to support grassroots democratic movements (likely to be progressive or even revolutionary), or to work with existing elites to promote reformist change?

    My point in all this is simply to say that supporting democratic movements is not as simple as it appears, or as the authors of the letter you refer to seem to acknowledge. Of course specific policy detail is always going to be the province of the State Department, but one would have hoped that the letter might have said something more substantive than: democracy is good and the US should encourage it.

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