An expert's point of view on a current event.

Obama’s Middle East Democracy Problem

The Obama administration’s quiet approach to promoting freedom in the Arab world is about to meet its first major test.


Barack Obama entered office last year promising a sweeping reinvention of America's image in the world, most of all in the Middle East, where George W. Bush saw his ambitious agenda of democratic transformation meet with the reality of a region deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions and locked into stagnant authoritarian regimes.

Barack Obama entered office last year promising a sweeping reinvention of America’s image in the world, most of all in the Middle East, where George W. Bush saw his ambitious agenda of democratic transformation meet with the reality of a region deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions and locked into stagnant authoritarian regimes.

As part of that reinvention, the Obama administration has changed the tone of U.S. interaction on the democracy front. Administration officials have espoused democratic principles in general — as the president did in his eloquent June speech in Cairo, in which he pointedly criticized Arab regimes’ lack of accountability to their people — but shied away from direct confrontation. The question is whether this behind-the-scenes approach will be any more successful than Bush’s in-your-face policy.

The first major test of the Obama administration’s stance will come in the next few weeks when Egypt is likely to renew a 29-year-old emergency law that gives the government extraordinary powers to stifle political opposition. Egypt has been promising for years to replace the law — imposed after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamist terrorists — with more limited counterterrorism legislation. But somehow the new law is never ready and the "emergency" endures.

If the past year is any guide, the U.S. State Department will express disappointment, but neither President Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will publicly criticize the government of President Hosni Mubarak — the sort of high-level rebuke of which global headlines are made.

Under the Obama administration, democracy promotion in the Middle East is clearly not a major regional priority. Clinton made that plain in a speech Feb. 14 in Qatar, in which she listed promoting human rights fifth and last following the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran, combating violent extremism, and promoting opportunities for young people.

In the administration’s defense, it took office at a time when the muscular Bush model of democracy promotion had been largely discredited and abandoned. The 2003 Iraq invasion at first spooked other Arab regimes into reforms — and then convinced them to retreat as Iraq descended into sectarian warfare. Elections in Iraq, Egypt, the Palestinian territories, and Lebanon strengthened IslamistU. groups at the expense of secular parties. The biggest setback came in 2006, when Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections that were held at the insistence of then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Perhaps surprisingly, some Bush-era "Freedom Agenda" programs have survived and even grown under Obama, including the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) — former vice presidential daughter Liz Cheney’s signature program of training and small grants for civil society groups. But other U.S. funds have been cut and the language used by Obama and Clinton in public toward Arab allies is generally deferential. Advocates fear that not much more is being said behind the scenes.

"The problem with the Obama administration is that you don’t have a strong voice at the top telling ambassadors that this is a priority," said J. Scott Carpenter, who replaced Cheney in the democracy promotion job at the State Department in Bush’s second term. "Hillary has been better than the president. She gets this, but I don’t think at the policy level, this is given a great deal of attention."

A Pivotal Year for Egypt

Egypt — the Arab world’s most populous and influential state — is a case in point.

Neither Obama nor Clinton has publicly singled out Egypt for its poor performance on democracy and human rights, said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of an online journal, the Arab Reform Bulletin. Meanwhile, democracy money for Egypt from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been halved to about $25 million annually — 30 cents per Egyptian — as overall U.S. economic aid to that country has dropped to about $200 million. Funding for civil society is down by two-thirds, Dunne said, despite a recent USAID inspector general’s report stating that grants to such groups were the most effective part of the program.

In addition, she said, the Obama administration appears to be preparing to convert the annual appropriation for Egypt into an endowment that would allocate funds without requiring tight congressional scrutiny, which would give Egypt greater leverage to kill programs it dislikes. Tamara Wittes, the new deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, confirmed that the United States is "considering" Egypt’s request to set up such an endowment.

That all this is happening as Egypt prepares for parliamentary elections this year and presidential voting next year worries democracy groups. They want the United States to apply pressure on the Cairo government to open up, particularly if Mubarak, now 81, decides not to run for a sixth six-year term. "It’s not clear to me that the administration has a clear strategy for supporting those elections," said Stephen McInerney, director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington nonprofit. "It looks like those elections will be a sham."

Daniel Brumberg, a Georgetown  University professor who also directs the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), said he was in Cairo late last year and young activists told him they "want Washington to become more active now, not at the last minute. There is a new generation of young urban activists who are hoping a window will open up with Mubarak’s succession."

Those hopes could well be dashed. Mubarak, who was Sadat’s vice president, has been in power since 1981 and Egypt’s leaders have traditionally served until they die or are removed by a military coup. Mubarak has never named a vice president for fear of grooming an alternative to himself or his son, Gamal.

There are, however, a number of small political parties and civil society groups that appear eager to enter the fray. Popular distaste for Mubarak has increased to such an extent that many Egyptians are urging Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to run. On Feb. 24, ElBaradei announced that he was setting up a "National Front for Change" to push for reforms that would ease the regime’s control over nominations.

Egyptian officials say it is foolish to think the United States can change Mubarak’s political behavior despite the fact that his country has received $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military aid since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. "The notion that any progress [or as some would charge reversal] in Egypt’s reform process is somehow the result of external pressure or lack thereof is simplistic and misguided," said Karim Haggag, spokesman for the Egyptian Embassy in Washington.

Even some Americans agree that there are limits to what the United States can achieve in a country as old, proud, and prickly as Egypt. "You can’t treat a 5,000-year-old civilization like it’s under colonial tutelage," said a former senior U.S. diplomat in Egypt, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is still in the Foreign Service.

Wittes, who warned in a 2008 book, Freedom’s Unsteady March, that the Middle East would become increasingly unstable without political reforms, defends the softer U.S. approach. "Our goal is not to make a splash. It is to have an impact," said Wittes, a former Brookings Institution academic who is experiencing that quintessential Washington reward and punishment: being put in charge of the programs she used to critique. "I would not have taken this job if I didn’t think that this was an administration committed to the issue and committed to making an impact," Wittes added.

The U.S. goal for upcoming elections in Egypt, Wittes said, "is to see an open, free, and fair process in which Egyptians and the international community have confidence." She added that there is "a long list of things that would contribute to what we’d like to see," among them protecting freedom of expression and making it easier for NGOs to register and operate. Wittes said Obama did bring up human rights and democracy with Mubarak when the Egyptian leader came to Washington in August. She noted that the State Department rebuked Egypt on Jan. 15, when security forces arrested a group of bloggers traveling to a town that had been the scene of violence against Coptic Christians. The bloggers were quickly freed.

Beyond Egypt

The Obama approach — leaving public criticism largely to State Department press guidance — has been similar in Jordan, which has seen scant progress in democratic rights in recent years as government promises to open independent broadcast outlets have gone unfulfilled and gerrymandering continues to underrepresent Palestinians in favor of East Bankers. Saudi Arabia, another key U.S. Arab ally, has progressed a bit under the leadership of King Abdullah, who in 2009 named a new cabinet that for the first time included a female deputy minister. But the kingdom still has few democratic features.

The administration has increased support for MEPI, which has evolved since its creation in 2002 from a fuzzy regional effort to one that nurtures a growing cadre of civic activists. Congress appropriated $65 million for MEPI in the current fiscal year — up from $50 million in each of the previous two fiscal years. The administration is requesting $86 million for fiscal 2011.

Bothina Ahmad, 23, is a beneficiary of MEPI. The Qatari student said she got 336 hours of training in 2008 and 2009 from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), one of several Reagan-era organizations created to promote democracy in Latin America and Eastern Europe and now active in the Middle East. Ahmad set up the first political club in her university, attracting 30 young men and women. She said they hope to build awareness about a key societal issue, possibly Qatar’s 60 percent divorce rate — the highest in the Arab world.

Ahmad is writing a book, Diary of a Qatari Woman, about the challenges of forming stable marriages in a society where bride and groom may meet only a dozen times in supervised situations before they marry. Promoting social change is safer than seeking political reform in Qatar, a tiny emirate best known for its Al Jazeera television network, which tends to criticize every Arab country but Qatar.

Ahmad said she has no interest in changing the form of government. Oil and gas revenues make Qataris rich, and the royal family ensures that Qatar is "much more peaceful than other Middle East countries," she said. Her involvement with NDI has affected her views toward the United States, however. "We used to believe that Saudi Arabia was our big brother," she said. "I really believe that we are becoming very attached to the U.S. as our big brother."

Democracy professionals point to other achievements of the U.S. effort. Sensing the mood in Washington, Morocco in 2004 changed a reactionary family-status law that discriminated against women. In Egypt, MEPI money supported election monitors who in 2005 disclosed that turnout for Egypt’s first nominally contested presidential election was only 23 percent. Last year, four women won election to the Kuwaiti parliament. Les Campbell, NDI’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, also points to progress in Yemen. Although Yemen "could go south in many ways" because of separatist and militant challenges, he said, a peaceful "opposition is very viable and is agitating big time to replace" President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2013.

Brumberg, however, warns that U.S. grants might actually prolong authoritarian government. MEPI "inadvertently fragments the political space" by giving so many grants to such small entities, he said. "It looks like pluralism, but the regimes like it because it divides the opposition." In a recent working paper for USIP, Brumberg wrote that the United States should push for a transition from "state-managed liberalization to democratic transformation" — meaning real, not cosmetic reforms. Regimes, he wrote, "must be encouraged to repeal the array of exceptional laws, defamation codes, political party registration statutes and religiously based laws that … hinder free expression and assembly."

Wittes wrote something similar in her book, in which she compared the Bush approach to "putting a Band-Aid over a gaping wound."

"Until American democracy assistance programs engage the most powerful tools the United States can bring to bear — namely, its diplomatic and economic relations with Arab governments — all the small-bore programs in the world will not do the job."

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Twitter: @BarbaraSlavin1

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