The United States is no longer actively pushing for democracy in the Middle East. The campaign it launched following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 has been reduced to rhetorical statements that neither totalitarian regimes nor pro-democracy forces take seriously. The US change of heart was brought about for the same reasons that initially led it to abandon its old policy of protecting authoritarianism in the Middle East: American interests. Washington seems to have realised that recognising the legitimacy of the ballot boxes would empower Islamic parties dedicated to stemming American influence and ideologically opposed to fundamental democratic values.
By reaching that conclusion, Washington came close to the views of many Arab governments, which had warned that hasty and premature democratisation would result in electoral victories for Islamists, given the absence of other credible parties that can challenge them in a regional environment where political and economic frustrations continue to win Islamic parties wide support. This fear of the victory of Islamists in free elections is not without merit. Nor is the concern for the democratic process itself in the event of radical Islamic parties assuming power. In almost all Arab countries, the Islamists represent the only credible opposition. Islamic parties appeal to the religious sentiments of the people and are able to implement political outreach programmes under the guise of fulfilling religious duties towards the poor and needy. Their reputation for honesty and acting in accordance with religious values secured them an automatic base among the social classes who blame their hard living conditions on the corruption of governments.
The fading of the left, as well as governments' policies of curbing opposition, prevented other political trends from developing, assuring the Islamists a monopoly on grass-roots presence. Yet as they grew in strength and number, parties advocating political Islam failed to articulate new political frameworks that correspond with broader developments in the Arab world. Islamists remain committed to a pan-Islamist ideology that does not recognise the finality of the nation state. They hold the unification of the Arab countries as an ultimate goal and follow an organisational structure that often violates laws that prevent cross-border financial or political connections.
This provided some Arab governments with a strong argument for banning Islamic parties. But most of these governments have also used this argument as an excuse for denying people their right to live in free pluralistic societies. Fighting the Islamists through preserving totalitarianism is not the solution. Historical evidence has shown that restricting freedom and tightening the space for political participation can only help radical groups acquire more support.
The same governments that complain about the monopoly of Islamists on the political scene are those largely responsible for preventing the emergence of democratically orientated political parties that would challenge them in a lawful democratic manner. They want a full grip on power and have persecuted those who advocate more transparent government structures. Some regimes are fighting democratisation because oppression is the only way to keep them in power. Just as it was wishful thinking to expect Saddam Hussein to allow any degree of participatory government, it is unlikely for the Ba'ath in Syria to ease its hold on power and allow a challenge through the ballot box. But other regimes, especially more benevolent ones that have ruled through an acceptable level of openness and tolerance, seem to be realising that allowing more space in the public sphere is the only way to secure a stable future.
This realisation has yet to be translated into significant steps on the path of democratisation. Reluctance to experiment more boldly with democracy is often attributed to a tense regional environment that benefits the hardliners and the absence of a democratic tradition that can ensure a smooth transition. A valid point, but no reason not to proceed. A democratic tradition can be built through lifting restrictions on political activism and initiating wide ranging legal and educational reforms. Judicial reforms that guarantee freedom of expression and the right to organise in lawful parties can go a long way to building democratic values. So can educational reform. A recent UN report stated that educational systems in the Arab world teach students to be obedient rather than develop critical thinking. Democratic values will not take root in societies where university students fear to express their views, are not allowed to question the status quo, or suffer heavy consequences for experimenting with political organisation.
Only through creating conditions conducive to the emergence of enlightened political parties in modern states that respect the human and political rights of citizens will millions of Arab youth have an alternative to fundamentalist parties. It is in the interest of Arab regimes to encourage this alternative even if it means losing some of the absolute power they have enjoyed in running their states. Having this power accountable to the ballot boxes and governed by democratic laws is certainly better than losing it to chaos or to extremists.
Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan, and is a commentator on Middle Eastern issues