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Democracy, Islam Vie For Power in Arab World
The Washington Diplomat / January 2008

By Larry Luxner

In December 1991, Algeria held national elections amid solemn declarations of respect for democracy and the rule of law. But as soon as it was obvious that the Islamic Salvation Front would win, the Algerian government annulled the electoral process and banned the popular party, plunging the North African country into bloodshed—the residual effects of which could be seen as recently as Dec. 11, when twin bombings killed more than 60 people in the capital of Algiers.

Fifteen years after Algeria’s initial experiment with democracy, the Palestinian people held historic free and fair elections—and voted into office a radical party that publicly calls for the destruction of Israel. The United States promptly cut off all contacts with Hamas, which had taken 44 percent of the vote, compared to 41 percent for the long-ruling Fatah party of Yasser Arafat. Street fighting in Gaza ensued, and U.S.-led sanctions continue to strangle the Hamas government, pushing the Palestinian people further into poverty.

This leads to an obvious question: Does the United States, with its troops bogged down in Iraq for more than four years, genuinely support democracy in the Middle East and Arab world—or only when it furthers Washington’s interests?

The issue is so sensitive that when asked about it, the Palestinian Authority’s normally verbose representative in Washington, Afif Safieh, dryly responded with a “no comment.”

Abdeslam Maghraoui, former director of the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace, had no such reservations. He said the decision to isolate Hamas was a “huge strategic mistake” on the part of the Bush administration and the European Union.

“Regardless of whether we agree with Hamas, once you promote the concept of democracy and people go and vote, you have to respect that vote,” Maghraoui told The Washington Diplomat.“I think this could have been a huge opportunity to moderate Hamas. We have seen a radicalization of Gaza, and Hamas getting close to Iran. All of this could have been avoided if the United States and the EU had adopted a strategy to integrate Hamas rather than marginalize it and punish the Palestinian people.”

The Moroccan-born Maghraoui is now a visiting associate professor of political science at Duke University. His current research focuses on political violence in Western and Muslim nations, and in early December, he gave a timely talk at Georgetown University titled “North Africa’s Balancing Act: Radicalization, Reform and Autocracy.”

Looking across the predominantly Muslim Middle East, it’s hard not to conclude that democracy is in very short supply—especially among the oil-rich emirates of the Persian Gulf. In Saudi Arabia—a key U.S. ally—women aren’t even allowed to drive, let alone vote.

Syria, which has long been on the U.S. State Department list of states sponsoring terrorism, is widely regarded as a police state. Lebanon, meanwhile, remains mired in political crisis, with its upcoming presidential election postponed for the seventh time as Hezbollah, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement battle it out with the March 14 group led by Saad Hariri and other supporters of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Then there’s the singular case of Iraq. Perhaps only history can judge if that country’s U.S.-led adventure with democracy failed or succeeded, with some lauding the nation’s shaky steps toward democracy that marked an end to Saddam Hussein’s brutal 24-year dictatorship, while others point out that free elections in 2005 may have only sparked the civil war that has since wracked the country, suggesting that perhaps a strongman such as Saddam was needed to keep Iraq’s rival ethnic factions from killing one another/

Another prominent and embattled strongman is Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Although Pakistan is located in South Asia and not the Middle East, the country is synonymous with its battle against Islamic extremism. It is also a classic example of dubious U.S. support for what many perceive to be a dictator, as President Bush continues to hail Musharraf—a key U.S. ally against al-Qaeda—as someone “who believes in democracy,” even in the face of massive political upheaval.

And although Musharraf pledged to lift the state of emergency prior to January’s widely anticipated elections, it remains to be seen if he won’t use the country’s political instability as a pretext to clamp down on civil liberties again. In mid-December, for instance, the New York Times reported that “the country’s once-thriving television news media remain largely muzzled by sweeping new restrictions that journalists and Western diplomats say stifle criticism of the government.”

Indeed, Maghraoui argues that the threat of Islamic terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda has given the dictatorships of the Middle East—and especially North Africa—an excuse to crack down on civil liberties, even in monarchies where there’s been some nominal movement toward democracy, such as Jordan and Morocco.

“The regimes are dealing with this threat in a very efficient way,” Maghraoui said. “However, they’re clamping down on civil liberties, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression. There have even been some reversals of human rights in Morocco. Democracy may actually be suffering because of this.”

Massive U.S. economic and military assistance to Israel, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, has long been predicated on the argument that the Jewish state is the only true democracy in the Middle East. Nejib Ayachi, founder and president of the Maghreb Center, tends to agree.

“Israel is a functioning democracy, no doubt about that. Lebanon has its ups and downs, and Jordan somehow has free elections when it comes to Parliament, but that’s about it,” said the Tunisian-born Ayachi, whose Washington-based think tank deals specifically with North African issues.

According to “Freedom in the World 2007,” an annual index published by Washington-based Freedom House, Israel was the only country in the Middle East to score a perfect 1 in political rights for its citizens (on a sliding scale, with 1 being the best and 7 the worst). No other country even came close.

Only two nations, Kuwait and Lebanon, were free enough to score a 4. The Palestinian Authority and five Arab nations—Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Mauritania and Morocco—earned a 5, while five others—Algeria, Qatar, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen—were deemed too repressive to score anything other than a 6. That left the most repressive Arab regimes of all: Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Syria, all with scores of 7.

“People have been very frustrated throughout the Middle East. That’s why they vote for Islamic fundamentalists,” suggested Maghraoui. “In the Arab world, people have lost their values, and this is sometimes expressed as an identity crisis. People tend to go back to religion when they don’t know who they are, especially when there are no outlets within the secular parties to express their frustrations.”

And this sentiment may be giving rise to support for terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Experts say that although the organization has branches in Algeria and Libya, it’s still a relatively marginal group compared to its operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To prevent al-Qaeda and other Islamic-based groups from growing in influence, the Bush administration recently launched the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) designed to assist nine countries: Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia.

“The TSCTP is a multi-faceted, multi-year strategy aimed at defeating terrorist organizations by strengthening regional counterterrorism capabilities, enhancing and institutionalizing cooperation among the region’s security forces, promoting democratic governance, discrediting terrorist ideology and reinforcing bilateral military ties with the United States,” said a State Department press release announcing the new program.

Among other things, the five-year effort will work with the African Union and its new Center for the Study and Research on Terrorism in Algiers. Significantly, it is the U.S. Agency for International Development—not the Pentagon—that is taking the lead on this program within the U.S. government.

Yet Morocco, the country that perhaps has gone further along the road to democracy than any other in North Africa, is apparently backsliding.

“The democratic process has really gone backward there,” charged Maghraoui, noting that a moderate Islamic coalition, the Party of Justice and Development, placed second in Morocco’s recent parliamentary elections. “There’s been a reversal of democratic gains. In the last election, fewer than 30 percent of eligible voters participated. That’s the lowest turnout in Moroccan history.”

The reason? “People don’t think it matters who they vote for, even if the electoral process was very transparent and free,” Maghraoui argued. “They believe political power ultimately rests somewhere else—in this case, with the monarchy.”

On the contrary, Tunisia, which holds itself up as an example to the rest of the world, “is the most repressive and autocratic regime in North Africa, even more than Libya or Algeria, which has a very vibrant civil society even though Islamic Salvation has been dissolved,” claimed Maghraoui.

“In Libya, there are no political parties, but there are other forms of opposition taking place. Civil society is much more diverse than in Tunisia,” Maghraoui continued, pointing out a strange dichotomy: “Tunisia is the most stable and advanced country in terms of women’s rights and education, but on the political front it is very repressive. Human rights activists are afraid to speak out.”

In November, Tunisia marked the 20th anniversary of power for President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who in 1987 ousted 84-year-old President-for-life Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup, just as the North African country teetered on the verge of civil war.

Since then, Ben Ali has been re-elected over and over, though few outside Tunisia, and even plenty of people within Tunisia, take those elections seriously.

In 1999, Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally won 99.66 percent of the vote, even though two alternative candidates were allowed to run for the first time ever. And in October 2004, Ben Ali officially won 94.48 percent of the vote, following a constitutional referendum in 2002 that allowed him to seek re-election.

Roger Bismuth, president of Tunisia’s tiny Jewish community and a senator in the Tunisian Parliament, is a realist. He doesn’t even pretend to believe that his country is a true democracy a la France or the United States.

“That wouldn’t work with us,” he told us matter-of-factly during a recent visit to Washington. “We have a system of democracy but at our speed, and with our mentality. It would be very unwise for us to think about total democracy. You cannot just snap your fingers—nobody’s prepared for that. So we must have homemade democracy. I believe we are heading in the right direction.”

The Maghreb Center’s Ayachi, who was born in Tunisia, couldn’t disagree more. “Unfortunately, Tunisia is a long way from democracy,” he lamented. “They keep saying they’re working on it, but I personally believe that institutions and the rule of law should come first, before establishing a democratic system that works effectively.”

Ayachi added: “All the ingredients are there: economic growth of over 4 percent a year, an educated middle class, and equal rights for men and women. Yet in spite of that, they are still struggling to become a democracy.”

Regarding the dilemma of whether to push for democracy even if fanatics may win, Ayachi pointed out that “Islamists are losing election after election, because those Islamists who agree to participate in the political process want to moderate their views. When the rules of the game are not democratic or transparent, the Islamists tend to win.”

One bright spot may be the North African desert nation of Mauritania. With only 3 million people, Mauritania—whose official name is actually the Islamic Republic of Mauritania—rarely gets any attention, even though it’s one of only three Arab countries (besides Egypt and Jordan) to have formally established diplomatic relations with Israel. The country is ruled by Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who was inaugurated in April 2007 following a 2005 coup that ended the 25-year dictatorship of Maaouiya Ould Taya. Abdallahi, 68, was supported by a coalition of 18 groups previously loyal to Taya.

“For the first time in Mauritania,” said Ayachi, “a military junta that took power through a coup has willingly organized democratic elections and has given power back to the civilian politicians.”

An example for the rest of the Arab world to follow? One can only wait and see.

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