Political change in the Middle East will require a change in the prevailing political culture as well as institutions, while an empowered civil society is the most reliable and effective buttress against authoritarian backsliding.
Sustaining genuine democracy is a labor of Sisyphus, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested today.
“Democracy is a never-ending task that requires participation and protection and it is only possible if every citizen can enjoy its benefits,” she said. “Societies thrive when all their people contribute and participate. But they stagnate when women are excluded or minorities are persecuted.”
Democratic regression in post-Soviet states and the disappointing legacy of the color revolutions confirm the resilience of authoritarian attitudes, including intolerance and a zero-sum approach to politics. Partnerships between civil society and political leaders can help promote an inclusive approach to government.
“It will be critical,” she said, for citizens and leaders “to work together to resist these dangers and keep their nations on track to become open, inclusive, pluralistic democracies.”
The current upsurge has yet to deliver a credible transition or revolution in terms of a serious transfer or power. But the Arab democracy movements “are obviously a historic moment,” according to Turkish National Security Adviser Ibrahim Kalin.
“Finally we see the end of the Cold War mindset in the Arab world,” he told a Washington conference this week. “This ‘Arab Spring’ will bring new changes as people take charge of their own affairs. Their demands for democracy and accountability will spread across the Arab world.”
When protests continue to gather momentum in even the most repressive states, the real watershed may be psychological as much as political, one analyst suggests.
“Democratisation will be destabilising. It always is. And getting rid of the dictator does not necessarily produce democracy,” writes Roger Hardy, a visiting fellow in London’s Centre for International Studies.
“But everywhere the mood has changed,” he observes. “In city after city, the barrier of fear has been breached. In that sense, at least, there can be no going back.”
The pro-democratic Arab awakening has demonstrated the utility, cost-effectiveness and political sensitivity of democracy assistance, reports suggest. Recent events may even help dispel the post-Iraq clichés about ‘imposing’ or ‘exporting’ democracy and the mistaken conflation of democracy promotion and regime change.
On second thoughts, that’s probably too much to hope for.
“Even as the United States poured billions of dollars into foreign military programs and anti-terrorism campaigns, a small core of American government-financed organizations were promoting democracy in authoritarian Arab states,” The New York Times notes:
The money spent on these programs was minute compared with efforts led by the Pentagon. But as American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.
Given the critical socio-economic dimension of the Arab revolts, it’s a shame that the report doesn’t also feature the Solidarity Center, which has been a vital source of support for the region’s U.S. labor unions – not least in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain – or the Center for International Private Enterprise, which has empowered independent business groups to confront crony capitalism by promoting entrepreneurship and combating corruption.
The region’s authoritarian rulers sought to undermine and sabotage democracy assistance, the report confirms:
Gamal Mubarak, the former president’s son, is described in an Oct. 20, 2008, cable as “irritable about direct U.S. democracy and governance funding of Egyptian NGOs.”
Credit should go to those architects of the NED who insisted on the organizations’ political and operational autonomy from government, recognizing that genuine independence was not only vital to protecting democracy NGOs’ integrity, but also safeguarding the credibility of the grass-roots activists and groups which draw on their assistance.