Middle East freedom needs a true shift

By Jon Alterman

Financial Times

Published: March 29 2005

It is hard not to be swept along by the political drama unfolding in the Middle East. Years of authoritarianism seem to be buckling under a wave of impending elections and, throughout the region, people seem increasingly willing to brave the once-feared state security apparatuses.

Yet, it is important not to be swept along. While there is potential promise in current events, the advances that look so dramatic on television screens are far from irreversible.

Despite a growing belief that a democratic era is dawning in the Middle East - boosted by elections in Palestine and Iraq and mass demonstrations in Lebanon - a new political order remains far from reach. People remain deeply dissatisfied with the status quo - yet governments have successfully made any alternative to them unthinkable.

Even the most optimistic observers of the Middle East understand that the elections of the past year were far from perfect. The decision by Marwan Barghouti, the Palestinian opposition figure, not to challenge Mahmoud Abbas for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority guaranteed Mr Abbas's victory weeks in advance. Iraqi elections were not only marred by widespread boycotts in the minority Sunni Arab community but produced a campaign short on issues decided almost entirely along sectarian lines.

Optimists claim that flawed elections are a precursor to sound elections. The next ones will be better, they say, and freedom is on the march. Yet unless there is fundamental change in the underlying politics of the Arab world, future elections will be little different from past ones.

In every Arab country (including religiously-ruled Saudi Arabia), the political opposition is largely religious in nature. Scholars can - and do - argue about whether this is because the religious realm is the only one granted political space from the state or whether there is a special compatibility between Islam and politics.

What is important is that every Arab government genuinely believes it is locked in an existential struggle with a religiously inspired radical movement within its borders. Consequently, governments use the radicalism of the religious few to delegitimise religious political opposition as part of a radical fringe. Simultaneously, these governments seek to co-opt what they consider to be moderate religious forces, giving themselves the imprimatur of religious legitimacy and pushing their opponents farther to the fringe.

On the other side of the ledger, governments use liberals' fear of religious radicals to bring would-be secular opposition activists under their wing, offering them protection in return for loyalty. A few of the most liberal voices seek their protection from western governments or groups, but these rarely bother Middle Eastern governments. Their values are often so out of touch with those of their populations that they are scarcely a political threat.

This tendency of many Middle Eastern governments to polarise their opponents produces a political landscape devoid of real choices. Governments relentlessly monopolise the vast ground between the liberal left and religious right, leaving only the most radical fringes on each side out of their grasp. This phenomenon covers up the true threat to these governments, which comes not from the fringes on either side but from the middle ground they so relentlessly dominate. The governments can rest confident that their citizens will not flock to follow the ideals either of a radical Islamist such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda kingpin, or an urbane former World Bank official such as Ismail Serageldin. The danger, instead, lurks in the possibility that a moderate figure might emerge who could articulate a broadly palatable alternative to the status quo.

Some observers of the Arab world overestimate the importance of evident discontent. Arab television talk shows are full of lively debates, and recent novels such as The Yacoubian Building by Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswani contain scathing indictments of the status quo. Change must be on the way, they judge. But change toward what? Arab talk shows are often about extremes of opinion, not broad centrist views, and the political opposition figures who appear are frequently almost cartoon-like in their hatred for the current regime in their country. Books and films that talk of discontent are careful not to talk of alternatives. Governments allow them as opportunities for their citizens to vent their frustration. Calls to action are viciously suppressed.

The implication of all this is that the growing chorus of westerners who seek greater democratisation in the Arab world have their strategy wrong. Lavishing resources on supporting fringe liberal voices in their struggle against conservative radicals perpetuates the polarisation of Arab politics and the monopolising role that governments play mediating between those extremes. It has the effect of strengthening the governments' central role, because it underlines the fundamental "foreignness" of liberal ideals.

Far more effective than aiding reformers would be to lean on friendly governments to yield more in the political middle, allowing true oppositions to emerge from the centre rather than radical ones from the extremes. The governments will surely complain - as many already do - that opening up the system will bring radicals to power. That is only true so far as the only organised groups are radical ones. The governments can work themselves out of that bind, should they choose to do so. Such a change would take time, but the change needs to start now.

Governments in the Middle East have survived for decades on the idea that they are the only thing standing between stability and chaos. It is a world of their own making. It is also a false choice. Despite recent enthusiasm for democratic change in the region, elections are a poor indicator of the advent of democracy. Indeed, no matter how free they are, elections with a slew of candidates tend to split the opposition and further secure the status quo. Leaders can use their incumbency and the state apparatus to win 60 per cent of the vote instead of 95 per cent, but the outcome is the same.

Before we can be hopeful about the future of Middle East politics, centrist movements must begin to fill the gap between the extremes, and governments must permit such movements to exist. Otherwise, the elections we are seeing today will be either shams or the last stop in a descent into anarchy. In the long term, either outcome would inhibit the spread of freedom in the Middle East, not promote it.

The writer, director of the Middle East programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, was formerly on the policy planning staff at the US Department of State