Democratic Window Dressing in the Middle East
The United States government has backed and continues to back Arab uprisings in the hope that these post revolutionary Arab societies adopt democratic institutions that will moderate and liberalize these Arab countries.[i] However, these post revolutionary Arab states remain ethnically divided, corrupt, and vulnerable to militant Islamists despite elections and having democratic institutions. If precedent continues, a post-Assad Syria will be divided, corrupt and remain anti-Western. The problem is neither American policymakers nor Arab revolutionaries truly know what is required for a stable democratic republic to work. Press releases and government speeches only speak of institutions or policies when mentioning democracy. In reality, the political culture that exists in a society predetermines the success of its institutions yet state institutions are the only factor that policymakers focus on.
Many in the Arab and Western societies understand democracy as an abstract idea but fumble when attempting to describe it in tangible detail. Clarifying democracy is not easy, and few policy experts want to undertake the endeavor. But policymakers must know for certain what they want as an outcome before backing any endeavor in Syria because no post-Assad plan exists in the UN or elsewhere. Popular platitudes include free elections, legislatures, and civilian control of the military but democracy is not only a set of policy initiatives.[ii]
So what does make a democratic state work? What criteria? Does a democracy need separation of church and state? If so, does that mean Great Britain is not democratic? If it is not a requirement, then what happens if the official religion of the state mandates suppression of all other religious practices, as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood espouses?[iii] What about search and seizure laws? Many Americans would view the broad powers of Japanese police to be oppressive but does that mean Japan is undemocratic? Or is it simply requiring that governing institutions be elected? In that case, China is a democracy. Even the European Union couldn't define what a free democracy is in its byzantine treaties and "constitution".[iv] Trying to define a society as democratic simply by the type of institutions or policy ideas will never work because focusing on state institutions is approaching the problem backwards.
The institutions are the end result of a democratic society, not the beginning. The West's political cultures in its societies developed customs and traditions over the course of centuries that created or modified state institutions to become more democratic. Despite the institutional and policy differences among Western democracies, there are three common culturally imposed customs that these diverse institutions must follow. Democratic institutions work if the system: divides and constrains the societies' elites from monopolizing all power, possesses a mechanism of accountability for government decisions, and clearly establishes limits on the authority and jurisdiction of those institutions. Each Western society's political culture differs on the boundaries, checks, and accountability but one can examine a society with these metrics and see if it is truly a free democratic state. Japanese and European political cultures allow for greater state intervention than American political culture but all remain democratically free in one form or another.
A political culture that embraces customs, rites, and traditions of limiting state authority as well as constraining social elites has never existed in the Arab world. So what are the influences on contemporary Arab political culture? Islam, tribal affiliation, and family loyalty provide the foundations for Arab political culture that dictates how important institutions manage and execute political power. Much of the internal power structures of Arab societies are reminiscent of European feudalism. Power bases outside the cities are divided by tribal federations or alliances and tribal power is replaced by corrupt merchant classes in the cities.[v] Power is local and unchecked with little tradition of accountability.
Islamic institutions dictate that society's rulers cannot be questioned if the rulers are pious. Tribal customs demand uncompromising stances against ethnic and tribal rivals while family obligations create a welcoming environment for nepotism.[vi] These three cultural foundations work with collective obligation in mind. Loyalty and deference to Arab societies' institutions replace accountability or individual ambitions as the mainstay political influences on government institutions.
Despite the ideological proclamations of the Syrian and Iraqi Ba'athists to eradicate tribalism, the actual government practice of the Assad and former Saddam Regimes was to exploit tribal and ethnic divisions to sustain power.[vii] The Alawites exploit their advantages in the system at the cost of the Sunni tribal majorities but if the Assad Regime falls, the opposition forces will unlikely be merciful to the former regime and will act in a similar manner as seen in Libya or Iraq.[viii] There is no political or culture precedent to compromise for reconciliation.[ix]
Another side effect from these political cultural influences is the prevalence of nepotism. Nepotism undermines accountability but no one addresses the issue because of the entrenched institutional and cultural precedent that exists in the region.[x] If a wealthy or powerful Arab individual fails to award jobs or gifts for allies or family members then that person could lose reputation and influence.[xi]
But the most politically dangerous cultural foundation to challenge is the Islamic institutions within these states. Unlike the contemporary West, religious institutions are controlled by the state and have the advantage of dictating the moral and ethical code.[xii] How can serious democratic reform occur when one of the most powerful cultural institutions would be threatened by allowing other cultural institutions to develop and create potential rivals?
In Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, the United States government encouraged the creation or the broadening of powers for democratic state institutions. Yet these states remain disconnected with the general populations of these countries. The institutions have no cultural or moral roots that mandate limits on the elites' power or have accountability to the citizenry. Without stronger Western influences on the political cultures, not just the institutional mechanisms, then the revolutionary countries of the Arab region will likely degenerate into kleptocracies or one-party states.
Yet policymakers believe that a well designed system of institutions, governed by enlightened experts, can mold and social engineer any society into a modern democratic nation state. These advocates use BF Skinner's theory that humans can be modified to an ideal state by the proper institutional social engineering system regardless of the history or circumstances of those human beings.[xiii] BF Skinner's theory has not yet worked in practical nation building efforts.
Espousing democratic platitudes and creating democratic institutions create a nice façade of political modernization but it only addresses half of the problem. Without the political culture necessary to support the institutions, the United States will simply waste blood and treasure replacing one bad regime with another. Even if Assad falls, the cultural practices and customs of corruption, ethnic division, and patronage will likely continue because the opposition also maintains its power in the same manner. Iran losing its critical ally in the Levant would help the United States, but otherwise there is little confidence that Syria would experience a radical new democratic dawn. Policymakers like to forget that many of the overthrown regimes were created out of "democratic" revolutions in the 1940s and 1950s.
[i] White House, National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (Washington DC: White House, September 2006): 10-11.
[ii] White House, National Security Strategy (Washington DC: White House, May 2010): 37-38.
[iii] Ufuk Ulutas, "The Syrian Opposition in the Making: Capabilities and Limits," Insight Turkey 13 (2011): 90-91.
[iv] Charles Moore, "Why the EU Constitution is Bad for Britain and the US," Daily Telegraph, February 19, 2005, Editorial. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/charlesmoore/3614994/Why-the-EU-Constitution-is-bad-for-Britain-and-bad-for-the-US.html
[v] Bassam Haddad, "Syria's Stalemate: The Limits of Regime Resilience," Middle East Policy 19 (Spring 2012): 86.
[vi] Ibid, 86-88.
[vii] Ufuk Ulutas, 93-95.
[viii] Andrew Malone, "Atrocities on Both Sides of Libyan War as Prisoners are Killed and Patients Shot in their Beds," Daily Mail, August 27, 2011. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2030662/Libya-war-Atrocities-sides-prisoners-killed-patients-shot.html#ixzz1zEzlMZDj
[ix] Agence France-Presse, "Shocking video shows Islamists punishing Syrian 'collaborator' by throwing him out third floor window," National Post, June 29, 2012. http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/06/29/shocking-video-shows-islamists-punishing-syrian-collaborator-by-throwing-him-out-third-floor-window/
[x] Anna Borshchevskaya, "Sponsored Corruption and Neglected Reform in Syria," Middle East Quarterly 17 (Summer 2010): 3-5.
[xi] Markus Loewe, Jonas Blume, and Johanna Speer, "How Favoritism Affects the Business Climate: Empirical Evidence from Jordan," Middle East Journal 62 (Spring 2008): 260-261.
[xii] Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, (New York: Random House, 2004), 16-17, 20-21.
[xiii] BF Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1971), 4-6.