Is Arab Democracy Possible?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Reuters photo: Faisal Al Nasser)
In his new book, Realism and Democracy, Elliott Abrams holds out hope that the Islamists will lose the battle for the soul of the Arab world.

Editor’s Note: The following piece originally appeared in the December 31, 2017, issue of National Review.


One day in December 2010, a policewoman in a small and rather humdrum town in Tunisia slapped the face of Mohamed Bouazizi. The dispute was over his permit to be selling fruit and vegetables off a barrow. The injustice that he encountered, and the humiliation, drove the poor man to take his life. Just as a butterfly fluttering its wings is supposed to cause a cascade of faraway atmospheric effects, this suicide set off a movement of protest and solidarity in one Arab country after another. The monarchies and republics in which Arabs live are, in reality, dictatorships, and the time had apparently arrived for them to reform and take their place in what was supposed to be an emerging worldwide democratic order.

What became known as the Arab Spring did not live up to these expectations; far from it. Since 2010, Arab countries have suffered civil war, coups, terrorism, invasion by foreign powers, genocide, the sale of women in slave markets, the ruin of historic cities and monuments, the death of civilians by the hundreds of thousands, and the flight of refugees in their millions. The rise of the Islamic State, self-described as a caliphate, redesigned the boundaries of Syria and Iraq, countries that may not be reconstituted for a very long time, if ever. Islamist volunteers in this misappropriated territory murdered, beheaded, crucified, or tortured to death, often in public, whomever they pleased. Libya, Yemen, and Lebanon are also states in varying stages of collapse. A whole civilization seems to be coming apart.

The proper human response to such calamity is that something ought to be done about it. Elliott Abrams takes it for granted in Realism and Democracy: Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring that the United States can and should come to the rescue. His career has given him authority to comment on matters of power politics. In the Reagan administration, he was assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs (1981–85) and assistant secretary for inter-American affairs (1985–89); he later served as President George W. Bush’s adviser for global democracy strategy (2005–09). His sympathies are very wide, his quotations from the academic literature are numerous and apt, and his prose is almost miraculously jargon-free.

His introductory chapter, almost a hundred pages long, is a kind of handbook to the mindsets of American policymakers concerning the Middle East in recent decades. The U.S. approach during the Cold War was perhaps an unfair great-power exercise but at least it kept the peace after its fashion. The most frequent cause of a clash during that era was some independent but rash manipulation on the part of one of the superpowers’ clients. The superpowers’ balancing of laissez-faire and a tight fist was usually enough to keep major clients such as Turkey and Iran, and even Arab-nationalist dictators, on the straight and narrow path of cooperation with them. Those times are over. In the absence of the external pressures of the Cold War, former clients are now in a position to pursue their own ambitions, forming alliances and enmities without regard for Western interests. Military intervention in Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere so far has only sustained or increased the level of instability. The sole alternative is to make a moralizing speech, but if the decision not to intervene militarily has already been taken, this is pointlessly sanctimonious.

Put simply, what Realism and Democracy is asking is whether the United States should deal with the present free-for-all in the role of policeman or of paramedic. Abrams takes his lead from President Reagan, once his boss, who was convinced that whatever Arabs might do or say, basically they want the same freedom as Americans, and they are able to acquire it, too. In this view, freedom is the function of democracy, and democracy in turn is the function of human rights. In the course of his career, Abrams also met and admired the like-minded senators Scoop Jackson and Daniel Moynihan and, last but not least, George W. Bush, the president who did his best to give freedom to Iraqis. Proud to be an unreconstructed Reaganite, Abrams further awards himself the title of neo-con.

In contrast, he has not much good to say of President Nixon or his secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the leading proponents of the different doctrine that goes by the name of “realism.” If they judged military intervention to be in the national interest, they ordered it, but the main geostrategic goal of their day was détente with the Soviet Union. The pursuit of democracy and human rights was bound to be understood in Moscow as anti-Communist incitement, in particular encouraging dissidents who then were likely to be deported to the Gulag.

The scandal of Soviet totalitarian practices had the unintentional short-term effect of postponing and even invalidating détente, leaving Communism to do its worst. In the Middle East, the policy of realism rebounds in just the same way. In a classic example of the inbuilt incongruity, President George H. W. Bush mounted the campaign to expel Saddam Hussein’s invading forces from Kuwait, rectifying a crime at the level of nations. When Iraqi Shiites and Kurds then rose in rebellion, President Bush did not come to their rescue on the grounds of human rights at the level of the individual. His indifference, if that is what it was, allowed Saddam to hang and gas his own subjects, crimes that could have been prevented by the American military. The equally indecisive Obama administration, notes Abrams, “revealed its skepticism of democracy promotion from the very beginning.” When Obama did no more than pontificate in the media about what was happening in Syria, he too was in effect condoning crime.

“Is Islam compatible with democracy?” is the motion now being debated in public and private assemblies everywhere. Abrams gives a resounding Yes, on the basis of what happened earlier this decade in Tunisia. Rached Ghannouchi and his party, Ennahda, proposed to set up an Islamist constitution in that country to empower themselves, probably indefinitely. The opposition refused to participate in drafting such a constitution. “We could have continued without them,” Ghannouchi observed, but instead he and his party gave the first example of peaceful power-sharing anywhere in the Arab world. “Democracy can be implanted in the Arab world,” he asserted, adding a sentence that covers a lot of ground, “So we took a difficult path towards general consensus.”

‘Is Islam compatible with democracy?’ is the motion now being debated in public and private assemblies everywhere. Abrams gives a resounding Yes.

Egypt, a far larger and more influential country than Tunisia, had the opposite outcome. Hosni Mubarak had been its long-standing president and, two weeks before he fell, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saw fit to report that “our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable.” (Bashar al-Assad had already launched civil war in Syria when she complimented him as a possible “reformer.”) The Muslim Brotherhood is a mass movement of extremists, but its leader, Mohamed Morsi, gave the assurance in a television interview that he was not seeking power. A few months later, he won a more or less fair general election. As soon as he was in office as president, he began to purge the secular opposition, feeble as it was. This exclusive political Islamism prompted Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to stage a classic military coup, become dictator, and purge Morsi and the Muslim Brothers, sentencing many of them to death. Business as usual, then.

In the past, I would have agreed unhesitatingly with Abrams that democracy is the best, indeed the only, hope for reconciling the conflicting interests of the Arab world. The end of the Cold War offered an opportunity to undertake the obligatory reforms, and perhaps that was the direction the Arab Spring initially was taking. As things turned out, though, Muslim identity overwhelms politics and governance. In Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, seemingly a world-historical figure on a par with Lenin, had put in place an Islamist order fundamentally hostile to democratization. Representing the Shiite-minority branch of Islam, he and then his successors did much to activate al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brothers, and the Taliban — all counterparts from the Sunni-majority branch of Islam. As Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran now face off for an all-out confessional war between them, the Arab Spring is well and truly over.

Abrams has coined the cautionary phrase “A human-rights policy means trouble.” If I understand it properly, he is accepting the Reaganite assumption that everybody recognizes and wants freedom, but also the fact that if we who are already free insist on others’ having the exact same rights, we will postpone and maybe invalidate any real progress toward freedom: Democratization is misrepresented in Islamic countries as a shameful surrender to the West. Abrams’s prescription for the future is that we go on doing what we have been doing up to now, with and for Arabs, only doing it bigger and better: more-generous aid (especially from private foundations), encouragement of political parties, genuinely competitive elections, no truck with dictators, inclusion of Islamists in the political process as much as possible, civil society, recognition that Arab democracy is linked to American leadership. That’s all very nice, but Abrams is placing a very large bet on hope.


Islam & Terrorism: Opposing It Is Not the Same as Fomenting It

Dispelling the ‘Just a Few Extremists’ in Islam Myth

Muslim Reform Movement Combats Islamism

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Hillary Ruins the Plan

Editor’s note: Andrew C. McCarthy’s new book is Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency. This is the first in a series of excerpts.  There really was a collusion plot. It really did target our election system. It absolutely sought to usurp our capacity for ... Read More

Another Pop-Culture Christian Loses His Faith

It’s happened again. For the second time in three weeks, a prominent (at least in Evangelical circles) Christian has renounced his faith. In July, it was Josh Harris, a pastor and author of the mega-best-selling purity-culture book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This month, it’s Hillsong United songwriter and ... Read More

Max Boot’s Dishonesty

Before yesterday, my primary criticism of the Washington Post’s Max Boot was political in nature. As I wrote in a recent book review, I found it regrettable that Boot’s opposition to the president had not prevented him from “succumbing reactively to Trump’s cult of personality, or from making Trump the ... Read More

A Brief History of Election Meddling

Editor’s note: Andrew C. McCarthy’s new book is Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency. This is the second in a series of excerpts. ‘The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” Thus spoke President Barack Obama just a couple of weeks before ... Read More

The End of Hong Kong as We Know It

The protests in Hong Kong have been going on for more than four months now, and no matter how the current crisis concludes in the coming days or weeks, it will mark the end of Hong Kong as we know it. The protests started in response to an extradition bill that was proposed by the city’s Beijing-backed ... Read More