Sept. 15, 2010, 10:38 a.m.
Steven Heydemann, vice president of the Grant and Fellowship Program at the United States Institute of Peace and professor at Georgetown University, analyzes a recent report from Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) and Hivos, Beyond Orthodox Approaches: Assessing opportunities for democracy support in the Middle East and North Africa. Both papers are worth reading, as they critically examine the West's democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East, while offering alternative strategies for engagement.
The NIMD/Hivos paper examines Western democracy assistance efforts in the MENA region and concludes that they have been a remarkable failure. As Heydemann notes,
When weighed against conditions on the ground, even the very modest gains of democracy promotion appear strikingly insubstantial. We do not have a single case in which democracy promotion has caused or contributed to the breakdown of authoritarianism in the Middle East, much less a transition to democracy, under the most auspicious international conditions for democratization in the past century.
By examining three case studies, Egypt, Iran and Morocco, the study concludes that three factors are responsible for the lack of progress. The first is an inconsistent policy on democracy promotion by donor countries. While nations may fund democracy assistance programs, there is a lack of support where it is the most important - the diplomatic level. The study also notes that despite the nebulous nature of identifying "political Islam" donors have refused to incorporate even moderate Islamists actors into their democracy assistance strategies. By favoring secular elites to the point of excluding political Islam, donors are undermining their mission and delegitimizing their stated values in the minds of local populations. Finally, donors have almost exclusively focused on technical programming, finding success in small, tactical victories, while ignoring larger issues.
Despite these difficult facts, the report’s assumption is that democracy remains the aspiration of Middle Easterners, and that these trends can be reversed if only the right kind of reforms are pursued, supported by the right kind of democracy promotion strategy. It assumes that citizens of the Middle East are willing and anxious to participate in electoral politics, given the opportunity. It assumes that Islamist political parties can function effectively as instruments of political mobilization, simply because they have done so in the past, even though voter turnout for Islamist parties has also fallen. It has faith not simply in the power of grassroots politics, but assumes that such politics are naturally democratic. On all of these counts, however, some skepticism is warranted.