One year ago this week, a United States Institute of Peace report warned that the widening moral, ideological and social gap between regimes and societies had left Arab regimes vulnerable to "systemic domestic crises and exogenous economic, political or security shocks." But if the tumultuous protests in Tunisia, Jordan, Algeria and most recently Egypt are to have any kind of silver lining, they must be the catalyst for a major reevaluation of how the U.S. can most effectively promote democratic change in the Arab world.
For starters, this effort should reexamine the "demand side" approach that has long guided U.S. democracy assistance programs. This approach assumes that local civil society groups can acquire the capacity to prod regimes to reform. While important, by themselves civil society groups can achieve little. On the contrary, substantive political change will never unfold absent high-level efforts by our national leaders and diplomats to encourage Arab regimes to supply substantive constitutional, legal and institutional democratic reforms. U.S. democracy promoters are well aware of the need for such a supply side strategy. But many, and particularly those in government, question whether the U.S. has the diplomatic leverage to press Arab rulers to move beyond the boundaries of state-managed political participation.
The answer to that very valid point is now before us. By calling for the very downfall of discredited rulers, Arab protestors have provided the U.S. the leverage our policy makers say is missing. There has never been a better moment to make clear to the region's ruling elites that standing between them and the marchers is a workable alternative, one that is far better than the abyss of a violent clamp down: to begin a genuine (as opposed to cosmetic) dialogue within the pinnacle of the state -- and with opposition leaders themselves -- about how to build genuine and effective democratic governance.
Such a dialogue does not presuppose -- and is unlikely to produce -- regime downfalls. In contrast to Tunisia's full-blown autocracy, the leaders of Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Kuwait have permitted a measure of state-controlled competition and pluralism. The institutional apparatus associated with these experiments in "liberalized autocracy" may be frayed and discredited in the eyes of many Arabs. But they are likely to survive, thus creating the complicated but unavoidable political landscape upon which any effort to move beyond destabilizing bouts of state-managed political liberalization and de-liberalization must unfold.
And so the question facing governments and oppositions, as well as Western democracy assistance organizations, is this: how can a serious dialogue begin in a context of growing polarization between regimes and oppositions, and within oppositions themselves? From Rabat to Amman, autocracies have skirted genuine democratization by fostering and magnifying conflict between Islamists and secularists. By giving just enough space to both groups, while also denying them any real power, regimes have encouraged secularists to look to autocracies for their ultimate protection.
To undermine this cynical protection racket, Islamist and secularist opposition activists must hammer out a common vision of reform. The U.S. and other Western states, acting through both international and local NGOs, should avidly encourage this kind of peace making and dialogue within Arab oppositions.
If and when these dialogues produce serious proposals, they must then be directed to those regime actors who evince some interest in genuine political change. Many of these actors, including President Hosni Mubarak's son (and possible heir) Gamal, will surely view these dialogues as little more than an opportunity to reimpose the old rules of the game. But it is also possible that today's cynics can be prodded to see in a moment of profound crisis a chance to transform the façade of state-managed participation into a structure of genuine democratic participation.
For this to happen we need a strategy geared to the particular challenges of state-managed liberalized autocracy. President Obama's remarks about Tunisia's democratic opposition during his State of the Union speech offer an inspiring start. Equally important are those sections of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) dedicated to democracy and human rights. But while the QDDR calls for partnering with "those governments and local organizations...that show strong commitment to development and democracy," it has little to say about how to get regimes to be part of the solution rather than the problem. If we want to achieve something more than inadvertently sustaining the Potemkin reform strategies of the Arab world's wily autocrats, that particular conversation must begin now, if not yesterday.
Daniel Brumberg is a Senior Advisor to the Center for Conflict Analysis at the United States Institute of Peace and Co-Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University.
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