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Gütersloh, 08/02/2011

Daring to Be More Democratic

Commentary by Hauke Hartmann on current political developments in North Africa and the Middle East

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Western reactions to the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt and the resulting calls for change have evinced a fear that North Africa and the Middle East might become destabilized. Yet analysis carried out for the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) has shown that the autocratic regimes supported by the West are actually key contributors to instability in the region. As a result, the European Union and the United States should demonstrate their courage and political will by supporting pro-democracy movements in Arab countries.

Country analyses carried out for the 2010 BTI confirm that major obstacles to political and economic reform exist in the Arab world -- obstacles that have been the reason for protests from Tunis to Cairo to Amman.

Corrupt presidential regimes and conservative monarchies refuse to give citizens a voice or allow them to participate effectively in the political systems governing them. Freedom of speech, the right to vote and other civil liberties are systematically restricted or denied altogether. The presence of all-pervasive state-security organizations results in countries being led by a small elite that refuses to allow a separation of powers and rule of law, while persecuting critics and enriching itself through corruption and misuse of office. The recent civil society protests have been directed at exactly these efforts to subvert or deny basic rights -- a situation that the BTI has documented continuously in almost all Arab nations since its initial release in 2003.    

In terms of regional averages, the BTI values for the quality of democracy in North Africa and the Middle East have significantly lagged those in all other global regions for years. At the same time, detailed BTI country reports have shown the problems that arise when Western nations adopt policies which often condescendingly serve their own security interests in the region and which refuse to support local efforts to install democratic systems. For some time now, political and social protest movements have been forming “under the surface” in seemingly stable, repressive regimes, proving that a genuine desire for democracy and human rights is not limited to select cultural circles. In economic terms, bloated and inefficient government systems, widespread corruption and patronage abuses have run up against economic policies primarily designed to promote growth and free markets. Problematic social trends such as increasing inequalities between urban and rural populations, rapidly rising unemployment among young people and the growing gap between rich and poor have largely been ignored in past decades. As the BTI has observed for years, there has also been a growing gap between favorable global developments such as rising prices for raw materials and the lack of effort to address issues such as poverty, education, healthcare, infrastructure and social reform. In light of the hunger riots of spring 2008 and conflicts with trade unions, the 2010 BTI country report for Tunisia emphasized the need to deal with growing social inequalities and the high unemployment rate in the North African country that economists liked to praise as a model for others. The 2010 BTI country report for Egypt, moreover, noted that the majority of the population had not benefitted from the free-market reforms of the Nazif government and that the number of strikes and protests had increased accordingly.

For its part, the West has chosen to cooperate with politically questionable and socially instable regimes in North Africa and the Middle East in order to achieve its foreign and security policy objectives there. The BTI analysis has noted for a while that the calculated assumption that repressive regimes are more stable and therefore more reliable foreign policy partners is a mistake with wide-reaching consequences, one that undermines the West’s credibility as a defender of democracy and human rights. This alleged dualism between security-driven realpolitik and democracy-promoting idealism needs to be dismissed and the idea recognized instead that good governance and long-term stability cannot be achieved without widespread economic and political participation, not to mention democracy based on rule of law and a market economy that is cognizant of sociopolitical concerns.

For those reasons, the European Union and the United States should use their remaining influence to press autocratic regimes in North Africa and the Middle East to allow fundamental political and social reforms. The dialogue that will be necessary for such a change should also include all political and civil society organizations. 

This also includes the Islamist organizations that the West views with skepticism due to the fear that they will promote fundamental radicalism. The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s country analyses and findings from discussion forums suggest three reasons why a dialogue with the Islamists should be considered. First, a democratization process is not credible if it does not consider concerns advanced by all major constituents. The BTI country reports show that in many Arab countries with repressive regimes, Islamist groups have been the most important organizations -- if not the only ones -- to emerge as political players over the years demanding democracy, corruption-reducing measures, social responsibility and good governance. In many countries they have long taken on the state’s social duties, giving them not only a certain degree of credibility, but also the infrastructure necessary to respond effectively to the social concerns advanced by protesters.    
Second, the Islamist organizations’ hunger for power has been grossly overstated in the public debate. They are, in fact, prepared to serve as the junior partner in a government coalition, as is the case in Algeria, or to support compromises that conflict with their worldview, as is true of the family-rights reform in Morocco. In Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco, the Islamists have preferred restraint to confrontation, supporting candidates in only one-third of the electoral districts, on average, in order not to provoke authorities, among other reasons.

Third, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt consider themselves primarily religious organizations concerned with addressing educational and social issues. At a conference recently organized by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace -- a meeting that brought together representatives of Islamist organizations from Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco -- Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s governing council and currently one of the opposition leaders negotiating with Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman, emphasized that Islamists see themselves as representatives of movements that are concerned with achieving social progress and combating injustice and political oppression in their home countries. This, he said, was compatible in many areas with Western ideas of poverty reduction, democracy, equality and freedom.

At the same time, in its various regional incarnations, Islamism is quite heterogeneous and, in terms of militancy and its insistence on political structures that reflect religious beliefs, it advances various viewpoints throughout the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is home to both a moderate and a radical wing. In addition, how Islamist groups approach Israel and the peace process in the Middle East must be watched carefully. At the same time, however, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be compared to terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda, and the transformation process taking place in Egypt should not be conflated with the revolution in Iran in 1979. Western governments should avoid past mistakes and not go looking for “strong men” to support or supposed stability guarantees. The demonstrators’ current democracy agenda has made impressively clear that more political options exist in the Arab world than just repressive autocracy and religious fundamentalism. To that end, the governments of Europe and the United States should attempt to enter into dialogue with all social players in North Africa and the Middle East. Marginalizing or ignoring Islamist organizations as happened in the past would only serve to strengthen their more radical adherents.

About the BTI:
The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) is a global ranking that analyzes and assesses development, governance and transformation processes in 128 countries in transition. It assesses the progress these countries are making toward adopting democracy based on rule of law and a market economy that also addresses sociopolitical concerns. Detailed country reports serve as the basis for evaluating the current level of development and ongoing challenges, and for assessing the ability of political actors to implement reform in a consistent, targeted manner. The BTI is thus the first comparative international index that measures the quality of governance using proprietary data, while offering comprehensive analysis of the policy outcomes relating to transformation processes.  


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