A relatively modern concept within Western thought is that all people have a right to democracy. Most of the world is trending this way, except for the Middle East. Early in the 20th century democratic movements began in the Middle East, but they eventually faltered out. The Middle East, though, has begun on a trend towards democratization again since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2010. The teleological results of these events are unknown, but the question remains as to whether these fledgling democracies, like others throughout the world, will have to trade stability and order for increased liberties that democracy offers. Although democratization will cause short term instability in the region, it is important to continue promoting democratic reforms to establish long term gains. During the Bush administration, this concept came to the front of foreign policy thinking. Governor Romney has not spoken much about foreign policy, but this is one of the topics about which his foreign policy team will need to consider.
There were two kinds of democratization in the Middle East that have happened in the last decade: violent and non-violent. The United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the internecine conflict in Libya in 2011 represent the violent transition to democracy. Under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Iraq remained a rather stable country internally. He did suppress freedom of speech, freedom of press, and the Shia majority. However, there was not a vast insurgency or terrorist campaign under his regime. Compare this to after the United States removed Hussein from power in 2003. America tried to institute a democratic government in the country, but the international coalition had to fight an intense and bloody insurgency led by men like Muqtada al-Sadr and others. Both the intervention directed by America and the ensuing civil conflict led to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dying. Iraq was far more stable under the dictatorial regime of Hussein then it ever was under democratic institutions and Nouri al-Maliki.
Comparison of pre and post Libya further demonstrates the instability following implementation of democracy in the Middle East. Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi had a similar regime to that of Hussein where he suppressed all forms of opposition and free thought. After 9-11, he also became an ally in America’s War on Terror. He also suppressed jihadists and terrorists in his country. Gaddafi had created storehouses of weapons, and after he fell from power these stores became open for the taking. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is one in particular that has counterterrorism officials worried. There are not confirmed reports that AQIM has acquired some of these weapons, but officials in Algeria authorities captured 15 SA-24 and 28 SA-7 Russian-made MANPADS in the country. AQIM and other terrorist groups would most likely have not seized these weapons had Gaddafi remained in power.
In addition, a coalition of tribal leaders and militia commanders declared the formation of a semi-autonomous region in oil-rich eastern Libya. This presents a major challenge to the authority of the National Transitional Council, which has been unable to extend its authority over many fiercely independent tribes, militias, and Islamist groups. Libyans are currently dealing with a plethora of problems that many fledgling states have in the Middle East: establishing a balance between the central government and local authority, merging independent militias into a national army, defusing increasing social tensions, and forging a national consensus that includes nationalists, traditional tribal leaders, Islamists, and members of ethnic or sectarian minority groups. Growing Islamist influence, Arab–Berber tensions, and racial problems have increased after the fall of Qadhafi, which is a theme one often sees when dictators fall.
The second type of democratization happens through more peaceful means, like in Egypt. There peaceful protesters continued to challenge the Mubarak regime until he resigned his presidency. After Mubarak left, though, there were several problems facing the country. For instance, the Islamic-Christian problem rose to the surface again. In the decade preceding President Mubarak’s departure, there were seven terrorist attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt. However, after the Arab Spring began in Egypt and Mubarak left office, there have been just many attacks against the Christian minority. Elections in the country are just as turbulent. When Egypt’s election commission announced that Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq would have a runoff election, an angry mob set fire to the campaign headquarters of Shafiq. Egypt is in more turmoil after Mubarak’s fall than it was before he left office. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has proven effective at stamping out terrorist plots before they come to fruition and tracking down terrorists after they have perpetrated attacks. The Saudi royal family does suppress free thought and challenges to its rule, but it still remains a highly stable society and government since its creation in 1932.
The United States’ own democratic experiment should illuminate the troubles inchoate democracies face wherever they exist, not just in the Middle East. Its first government proved woefully ineffective, so the founding citizens had to create a second government. During President George Washington’s first term, he personally put down the Whiskey Rebellion. His successor pushed for the Sedition Act that went categorically undemocratic and antithetical to free speech. Half a century before the South seceded, the Federalists in the north-east tried to secede as well. This was followed the American Civil War, decades of right-wing terrorism by the Klu Klux Klan, and a rapidly growing socialist movement towards the end of the 19th century. All democracies have to sacrifice some form of short term stability in order to gain political and economic freedoms.
Newly democratic states will face hardships and instability in their first several years of existence, but this does not mean democratization should not continue. In the long term, democracies are far better off than their autocratic counterparts. People should stop looking at democracy as a cure for all of society’s problems. France is currently on its fifth republic, even though it has been democratic for close to two centuries with some autocracies in between. Yet free societies offer better opportunities for all of its citizens and further political stability in the long term. The U.S. and other Western democracies regularly change political leadership without revolutions happening, which allows their societies and economies to grow more than in autocratic ones. Democratization is important for the future stability of the region, even if short term instability is the price.