In convening the first “Summit for Democracy” of his administration, US President Joe Biden intended to send a message of democratic commitment to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), among other parts of the world.
But his initiative has raised many questions in the region. The first has to do with his guest list. Many wondered if the choice of the 100-plus nations that were invited, and those that were not, was part of the intended message.
The answer was muddled by the broad spectrum of countries left out. In the Middle East, only Israel and Iraq were included.
Nobody was surprised by the selection of Israel, long described in the US as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Iraq’s choice was, however, a little more problematic. Perhaps if other close US allies, such as Morocco and Jordan, had also been included, it could have been perceived as the result of political and strategic determination. The only reason for choosing Iraq was probably Washington’s need for a token Arab presence.
Further muddling the issue were some of the explanations given by Biden administration officials. One senior official involved in the planning of the summit told Reuters that diversity in “experiences of democracy” was an important criterion for Washington in preparing its guest list.
“This was not about endorsing, ‘You’re a democracy, you are not a democracy,’” the official said. Such an explanation has the merit of offering plausible deniability regarding any US intent to divide the MENA region’s rulers into democrats and despots.
And then, through the convenient blur of the US narrative, lurked the absence of Tunisia, the poster child of the Arab Spring revolts. Until late last year, there was speculation Tunis could even host the summit.
That was before July 25, when President Kais Saied – supported by public opinion – suspended parliament and established a “state of exception.” The measures were put in place in response to what he said was an imminent threat to the country.
Since then, uncertainties about the Tunisian democratic transition have been a matter of open concern in Washington. But if the Biden administration excluded Tunisia from the summit as a way of pressuring Saied, it was probably making the wrong bet. Since his July move, Tunisia’s president has shown little proclivity to buckle under domestic or foreign pressure.
Whatever the rationale, the absence of Tunisia from the forum is laden with symbolism. It is a potent reflection of the hurdles met by the 2011 wave of popular protests in ushering in a new democratic era in the Arab world.
The evolution of Tunisia’s transition is indicative of the challenges that legitimate democratic aspirations face in the region.
The Achilles heel of the Tunisian experience was its inability to deliver on socio-economic demands. Populist narratives and short-term fixes offered by successive governments were no substitute for much-needed commitment to reform.
The failure of the political class in the past decade led to disillusionment among large segments of the population, especially the young, about the disconnected ruling elite, and by extension the democratic process altogether.
For a while, there was the illusion that focus on the electoral process could in itself be sufficient to anchor faith in democracy. But it wasn’t.
With Libya now in the throes of a cold civil war over holding elections, many in the region will grow even more skeptical of whether the ballot box alone can save the day when other conditions are not yet met.
Foreign powers and international non-governmental organizations can provide help in guiding a transition. But too much help can give the impression of a model imposed from the outside. Experience has shown in Tunisia that the public tends to be suspicious of foreign moves to influence domestic dynamics.
The Tunisian experience also highlights the difficulty of finding a durable common ground between Islamists and their opponents, and more broadly bridging religion and politics. The chasm of suspicion and animosity remains dangerously wide.
The other dilemma is how to find a compromise between anchoring much-needed authority and avoiding the slippery road to authoritarianism. In Tunisia and other parts of the Arab world, many yearn for a resilient authority that is respectful of citizen rights, impervious to corruption and able to protect them from both extremist threats and Hobbesian social environments.
The discouraging outcome of the Tunisian experience gives the inevitable impression that the MENA region is sinking into irrelevance when it comes to the democracy conversation. The pre-summit debate was focused on the challenges faced by the Western construct of liberal democracy versus authoritarian models of Russia and China. The democratic future of the Arab world did not loom large.
With a sense of fatigue about its previous pursuits of pro-democracy activism in the Middle East, Washington now feels such an involvement is out of place, too costly and too unnerving. After 2011, it would have meant providing transitioning countries in the region with economic and security support to the level provided to Eastern Bloc nations after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite Western goodwill, support on this scale was not forthcoming.
Washington has found out the hard way that the complex considerations at play in the Middle East might not warrant the revival of the pro-democracy agenda of past decades.
The US has accordingly updated its priorities, keeping its focus on a few issues such as the threat of terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program. The ambitions of “regional transformation,” and much less that of regime change, will definitely not be hovering over Biden’s democracy summit.
The Middle East may not be impervious to democracy but it wants it on its own terms, regardless of what US policymakers have on their agenda.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.