How Arab Governments Resist the Trend to Democracy

The West must help break the stalemate.

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Amr Hamzawy is research director and senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

BEIRUT--Throughout most of the Arab world, poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy rates are on the rise while the quality of education, healthcare, and social safety-nets for the poor and elderly are falling to unprecedented levels. Despite these failures, the repressive governments under which they occur remain firmly entrenched. And this lack of democracy limits the West's ability to realize its goals in the region.

While authoritarian governments facing similar circumstances have toppled elsewhere—as we saw in Ghana and Indonesia—the Arab world is different. Some observers suggest its cultural and religious values are responsible. But this is simply not the case. In fact, several unique features hinder reform and block the democratic progress that the United States and Europe desires.

[See a slide show of 5 Ways Repressive Arab Governments Remain in Power]

First, Arab governments have poured even more money into security in recent years. This spending not only includes monitoring and punishing the opposition using traditional methods, but also exerting pressure on civil organizations and the media and even changing the composition of electoral districts. All of these efforts make it harder for citizens to organize and confront the hugely powerful regimes.

But should signs of protest arise, the regimes have no qualms using violence to squelch them. While a number of nonstate actors carry out threats of violence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, the power of repression resides exclusively with the authoritarian governments in most other Arab countries. The use of violence ranges from intimidation to torture to, ultimately, murder.

Second, ruling regimes also squash reform by warning citizens that any demand for change will threaten order and stability and unleash chaos. Despite spontaneous protests increasingly seen throughout the Arab world in recent years, the government's message—delivered largely by religious institutions and the media—has sufficiently scared people from pursuing the kind of organized, sustained activity that could bring about real change.

Third, while the elites rule with an iron fist, the resistance responds with kid gloves. Opposition leaders have failed to develop a serious message and platform about what kind of change is possible. This lack of leadership does little to reassure an anxious public that the opposition will not make an already bad situation worse.

Fourth, change is unlikely to come from Islamist movements either. Although these forces have sparked excitement in Arab politics, their leaders are more interested in pursuing an ideological and religious agenda than in forging compromises with the regimes to improve people's lives.

And fifth, a small group of individuals who form close alliances based on their common interests are leading these regimes. By banding together, these Arab elites limit the possibility of internal conflicts that led to the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Latin America and Eastern Europe.

The limited number of powerful families in Arab countries also makes disagreements unlikely. Each family can be represented in the cabinet or in important security positions, as we see in Jordan. Prominent figures, such as those in Egypt and Morocco, can exercise uninterrupted control for decades at a time. Although some Arab elites have cracked open the doors of their regimes to small groups of businessmen, they have not—and do not plan to—fully integrate these outsiders anytime soon.

While some ruling elites want to promote ideas like rationality, negotiation, and peaceful settlements—ideas the United States and Europe welcome—others align themselves with non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah. It is this latter group—which calls for waging jihad on the United States and Israel—that creates immediate policy implications for Washington.

The West needs to act in defense of democracy in the Arab world. It's critical for its interests in the Middle East peace process, Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen as democracy is the only sustained path for development, moderation, and peace. The United States and its European allies should make democracy and human rights integral parts of bilateral diplomacy, condition aid packages and trade relations on improvements in these policies, publicly condemn abuses, and closely monitor elections.