America’s Marketing of Democracy to the Middle East Has Failed

Biden has learned from the experience of previous administrations and is willing to accept authoritarian regimes if they create a suitable facade

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U.S. President Joe Biden speaking at the Summit for Democracy in Washington last week.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaking at the Summit for Democracy in Washington last week. Credit: Evan Vucci / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

America is “going back to basics,” Brett McGurk told The National, a website based in the United Arab Emirates. In the interview last month McGurk, the U.S. National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, also explained what he meant by that – “the basics of building, maintaining and strengthening our partnerships and alliances” in the Middle East.

In other words, Washington is abandoning the goals of the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations: replacing dictatorial regimes as a way of effecting change in the Middle East and, above all, marketing Western democracy.

Two months later, on December 9, U.S. President Joe Biden convened around 110 national leaders, human rights activists and heads of pro-democracy groups for the virtual conference Summit for Democracy. The goal was to discuss ways and means to promote democracy around the world.

There was a lot of prattle and a lot of lofty rhetoric at this summit, whose guests included some of the world’s least democratic countries. Practical steps, budgets and timetables weren’t mentioned in the statements, and not one speaker talked about the option of regime change.

So Iran can rest easy after this summit. Biden isn’t adopting the view that his predecessor’s sanctions are designed to topple the regime by spurring a popular uprising. He has concluded that you have to work with what you’ve got. And that isn’t a lot.

Biden, who once put promoting human rights at the top of his diplomatic agenda, finds himself linked to the very leaders known for suppressing human rights and running autocratic regimes. Granted, he refuses to speak with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman due to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing war in Yemen.

But he sells arms to the Saudis for “self-defense” as part of Washington’s commitment to bolster its allies in the region. And he sees no contradiction between his promoting of human rights and his sending of senior administration officials to discuss security and economic issues with Prince Mohammed, including trying to persuade Riyadh to increase its own and other OPEC members’ oil production.

Biden froze $130 million of the aid America gives Egypt because of its severe violations of human rights, including freedom of expression. But he’s conducting a strategic dialogue with Cairo, and when a military coup took place in Sudan in October, he asked Egypt to pressure the coup leader, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, to release the ousted prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok.

So Hamdok was freed, a new government was formed, and Burhan won praise from the U.S. government, which called the agreement signed by Burhan and Hamdok “an important first step.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken even said he was “encouraged” by the deal, even though it left power in the army’s hands.

Now Sudan is waiting for the $700 million the administration promised to lend it, which was frozen after the coup. Washington plans to see how the democratic process unfolds, but it isn’t applying any pressure to change the structure of Sudan’s government before elections are held.

The UAE may be the most Western country in the Arab Middle East. But the term “Western” can be misleading.

Lebanese-American historian Fouad Ajami once said that Arabs import the West in the form of objects, not as a culture. This was a sweeping generalization he later backtracked from. But he was referring to the Western architecture, cars, spendthrift lifestyles and advanced technology that invaded Arab countries as they blocked the introduction of Western democracy and its universal values.

Still, Ajami ignored the yearning of millions of Arabs, especially young ones, to import Western culture and establish democracies. And like most pundits, he was surprised by the Arab Spring revolutions.

The UAE and the other Gulf states seem to have been in Ajami’s mind when he made his diagnosis. There’s no technological, economic, artistic or architectural innovation that the UAE hadn't imported or tried to import. But democracy, no.

Still, it’s the United States’ strongest ally in the Middle East, and that’s what’s important. When Biden decided to delay the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, he didn’t do so because of its autocratic system or suppression of human rights, but because he feared that the advanced technology would leak to China.

Meanwhile, the UAE has purchased 80 advanced Rafale fighters from France. The country that gave us the French Revolution apparently doesn’t care who it sells arms to as long as the checks don’t bounce.

Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan speaking in Khartoum after the coup he led in Sudan in October.Credit: Ashraf Shazly / AFP

Fictitious lighthouse

In Tunisia, the Arab Spring protests toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorial government. Unlike all the other Arab countries where protests took place, Tunisia managed to establish a functioning democracy, elect a parliament with real power, adopt a liberal constitution and create government institutions that had public legitimacy, inspiring the rest of the Middle East.

But in January, protests against President Kais Saied erupted due to the grim economy, the security service’s brutal treatment of demonstrators and the government’s flawed handling of the coronavirus. In July, the president decided to dissolve parliament, fire the cabinet and senior officials in both the executive and judiciary, declare a state of emergency and assume all executive powers. Only in October did he appoint a new prime minister, Najla Bouden, a jurist with no political experience who follows the president’s orders.

Thus the only democratic model to sprout after the Arab Spring now looks like it’s about to wither. Granted, Washington is pressuring Saied to recall parliament and restore political normalcy; it has also condemned his takeover in diplomatic language. But it hasn’t made any threats.

This week, Saied said he would hold a referendum on a new constitution in July, one year after ousting the cabinet and parliament. Five months after the referendum, new elections would be held.

Washington was happy. “We welcome President Saied’s announcement of a timeline outlining a path for political reform and parliamentary elections and look forward to a reform process that is transparent and inclusive of diverse political and civil society voices,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

There wasn’t one word about the Tunisian president’s behavior, no condemnation of his authoritarian moves. After all, Washington is now “going back to basics,” which means working with existing partners rather than trying to replace them, even if these partners aren’t exactly exemplars of promoting democracy and defending human rights.

Nonetheless, people in the Arab Middle East still cling to the fiction that the United States is a beacon of human rights that will lead them to the promised land of democracy, protect human rights and free the media of its chains.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed at a meeting at the State Department in October.Credit: Andrew Harnik / Pool via Reuters

Anti-American sentiment

Still, it’s hard to lay all the blame on the U.S. government, even when it’s turning away from democratic breakdowns and the crushing of human rights. Washington has to tread a fine line between its good intentions and its desire to spread democracy, on the one hand, and the opposition it would probably face from both regimes and ordinary people if it intervened in what is termed domestic affairs.

Anti-American sentiment, fears of a cultural invasion and globalization, and economic dictates from international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund have all nourished the intellectual and journalistic conversation for decades now. “America wants to swallow up the entire world,” Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a cleric considered the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, once warned.

Though he was referring mainly to a Christian takeover of the Muslim world, secular intellectuals who consider themselves democracy-loving liberals talk the same way. Sudanese author Tayeb Salih, for instance, wrote his book “Season of Migration to the North” in this vein. Galal Amin, a left-wing Egyptian economist and thinker, wrote in his “The Illusion of Progress in the Arab World” that he rejects the desire to imitate of the West, as it leaves Arabs dependent on a “new colonialism.”

Amin cited former U.S. President George W. Bush’s policies as proof of his argument. Bush coined the term “greater Middle East,” which included virtually all Islamic countries and aspired to sell democracy to all of them. To this end, he budgeted $100 million for PR efforts.

Bush saw democracy as a universal concept, relying heavily on Natan Sharansky’s book “The Case for Democracy.” Sharansky, who gave Bush a copy of the work, argued that democratic countries don’t go to war with each other. Spreading democracy, and especially democratizing Iraq, thus became the main justification for the Iraq War once it became clear that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and no ties with Osama bin Laden.

Biden learned that lesson well, so he’s leery of trying to spread democracy. Instead, he talks about human rights. In other words, autocratic regimes are legitimate as long as they guarantee human rights, or at least create a suitable facade protecting them – as if the terms authoritarianism and human rights could ever go together.

The importance of Biden’s false distinction relates to the administration’s ability to take action. It doesn’t want to replace benighted regimes, nor can it. But it can impose sanctions to get them to improve their treatment of their citizens, as long as those sanctions don’t undermine American interests.

Israel has particularly benefited from this distinction. It’s still considered the only democracy in the Middle East, and compared to the region it’s in – a pretty dubious basis for comparison – it protects human rights. Freedom of expression isn’t merely theoretical here, and the justice system, for all its flaws, keeps its distance from both politics and money.

At the same time, Israel is an occupying power that violates international law and abuses around 5 million people living under its control. It’s a place where not just democracy but also human rights  make sure never to cross the Green Line.

But there’s no reason to worry. America is “going back to basics.”

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