Beyond their immediate impact on the reigning autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt, the protests engulfing the Middle East have challenged a central premise of many Arab regimes, namely that in exchange for political passivity the leaders would provide stability and economic opportunities. The states never really kept their side of the bargain, and the Middle East increasingly came to resemble the Soviet Union of the 1970s, a corrupt, stagnant bureaucratic state.
It is obviously too early to know what will arise from the upheavals in the Middle East, but a new order would offer the United States both challenges and opportunities.
From the outset it is important to dismiss the trite Orientalist assertion that democratic movements would only lead to the rise of radical Islamist regimes. The reality remains that in the past three decades the Arab populace have gradually grown weary of radical ideologies and their self-proclaimed truths. From pan-Arabism and its promise of Arab renaissance to Islamism and its quest for salvation, the beleaguered populace has come to appreciate that the primary effect of such ideologies is repression and stagnation.
What is unfolding in Arab streets is not an assertion of religious reaction but a yearning for democracy with all its burdens and rewards.
The first such reward would be joining the global movement toward economic reform. The preconditions for a successful market transition, such as rule of law, competing centers of power, transparency and cohesive administrative networks are also essential pillars of democratic polity. Only legitimate regimes resting on popular support can undertake painful structural reforms. A more liberal polity that cedes power to the private sector is well-suited to rekindling the confidence of diverse international investors and meeting the standards of the global economy. Both Eastern Europe and Latin America testify to the fact that an expanding entrepreneurial class has historically proven to be the most enduring nemesis of autocratic rule. In the end, free societies are the most effective way to create prosperous economies.
Although it is too facile to suggest that popular sovereignty dispels conflict, a democratic Middle East is likely to be a more peaceful region. Even a cursory examination of the post-independence Middle East belies the realpolitik confidence in the strategic stability of Arab autocracy. Under the banner of various transnational ideologies, the aspiring hegemons have waged war and conspired against their fellow rulers. Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and his brand of pan-Arabism, Saddam Hussein and his Baathist creed, and Iran’s ayatollahs with their mandate from heaven have all engaged in prolonged conflicts with the neighbors. Proxy war, assassination attempts and even outright military aggression have been the currency of Arab international relations.
Would prospective Arab democracies behave in a different manner? History has demonstrated that citizens in most places most of the time are generally averse to conflicts with long-term costs, and that democracy restrains aggressive rulers. Fully constitutional rule would lead to an independent legislature examining the causes of war, a free press assessing the claims of the executive and an informed public questioning the necessity of burdens it must bear.
Democracies may not necessarily be peaceful, but neither are they naturally prone to indiscriminate belligerence and adventurism. For Arab dictatorships that have often viewed war as a means of enhancing their prestige, an injection of democratic accountability can go a long way toward arresting impetuous impulses.
While the spread of democracy might stabilize inter-Arab relations and create more viable economies, it is unlikely to accommodate America’s presence and its expansive regional agenda. An emerging democratic order would impose certain obligations on Arab states and lead them toward a greater degree of solidarity and coordination than exhibited by fractious despots. Such states would more easily cooperate with one another in protecting the region’s riches, determining the price of its oil and employing all their collective advantages to emerge as important players in the international community free of superpower domination. They would see no rationale for continuing to accommodate U.S. military installations or cooperate with efforts to disarm Iran. This is not a clash of civilizations, but a nationalistic defiance of a global power’s priorities.
Yet another casualty of the democratic epoch would be the Arab-Israeli peace process and the integration of Israel into the regional order. Arab public opinion continues to reject Israel as an agent of an alien and pernicious ideology that usurped Arab lands. Such rejectionist views go beyond Islamist parties and color the perspective of secular, liberal Arabs. All this is not to suggest the imminence of war between Israel and more democratic Arab states. The balance of power will hold, as Israel’s formidable military will continue to deter its adversaries. Still, the prevailing cold peace between Israel and its neighbors will likely be transformed into a cold war, with all its debilitating tensions.
Democracy may stabilize the Middle East and rejuvenate its economies, but it will also create a region averse to American command. As democratic movements seek to displace Arab tyrannies it is important that the debate move beyond superficial parameters and that the costs and tradeoffs are more clearly understood.
By Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.