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The Challenge of Inclusion in the Middle East

By Augustus Richard Norton, in Current History, January 1995

Islam. Democracy. Mutually exclusive terms? This issue of Current History tries to answer that question with an examination of how these two systems have fared when they have come into contact with each other. The conclusions are sobering but not necessarily negative. As our introductory article notes, however, "if the perils of reform [in the Middle East] invite anxiety, the dangers of clinging to the status quo are even more unsettling."

A river of ink has already flowed in debates over the prospects for democracy in the Middle East. While there is sharp disagreement as to why, most observers take a dim view of democracy's chances in the immediate future. Governments rich with oil buy off dissent; Islamists with impressive public support deride democracy; culturally embedded patterns of patronage undermine popular participation in politics; and civil society is weak and easily manipulated. Each of these points has merit. Nonetheless, the pressures for change are formidable, and regional rulers intent on survival may find political reform irresistible. A democratic Middle East may be long in coming, but there is good reason to believe that the region stands on the brink of a momentous era of change.

One of the most obvious indicators is the dramatic picture of rapid population growth and growing citizen demands in the region. Aggregate rates of natural increase, though high in comparison to the remainder of the world, are often dwarfed by urban population growth. In Iran, cities are growing at 5 percent a year, while in Saudi Arabia the increases are nearly 8 percent annually. If sustained, many cities will double in size over the next 10 to 20 years. Middle Eastern populations are young, and growing younger. Forty percent or more of the population of most of the region's countries are under 15. Even providing primary education poses an extraordinary challenge, especially in the less wealthy states, where schools are already inadequate. Unemployment and underemployment are high, and will only grow. At the same time, literacy has steadily increased in the region, and while female literacy rates lag considerably behind those for males, the changes over time are quite striking. Rising female literacy rates portend declining birth rates, but the effects will not be felt for decades. In the intervening years, women will enter the workforce in greater numbers, further increasing demands for job creation.


The average citizen in the Middle East may not yet be cruising the information superhighway, but gone are the days when government controlled the news. In Cairo, Damascus, Algiers, or Baghdad, international radio and television signals penetrate government censorship and bring images of the world that confound government-approved versions. Even in out-of-the-way Djibouti, an estimated 40 percent of households have satellite dishes. Access to modern communications technologies such as computer e-mail-- which inherently undermines vertical structures of control--is growing. As of 1994, Internet connections existed in Bahrain, Israel, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Turkey, joining the region to 2.5 million computers worldwide. Cyberspace is dawning in the Middle East.

The proliferation of printing ateliers and corner shop photocopy machines ensures that people have more to read than government-dominated newspapers. Popularly oriented political tracts and religious pamphlets are readily available from street vendors. Villagers and city dwellers traveling across borders in search of work return with fresh images that often reflect poorly on the quality of life at home. Equally important, labor migrants have earned the money to support protest movements and collective self- help organizations.

Though government ineptitude, unresponsiveness, and corruption are a given, complaints about government abuses of power--corruption and nepotism, torture and mistreatment of prisoners--are increasingly common. One young Egyptian man from Heliopolis, referring to Egypt's political class, expressed the contempt of many when he noted simply, "They are all crooks." Although many citizens, given government intolerance for dissent, choose to remain mute, the resultant cynicism further erodes support for government.

While encompassing only a relative handful of activists, a human rights movement has emerged. Just over the course of the past two to three years, human rights workers have begun to actively collaborate across borders, and Arab activists have even met with Israeli counterparts to find common ground for their work. Just as important, human rights has entered the vernacular of villagers and townspeople. In Turkey one now encounters municipal parks in provincial towns dedicated to human rights, and in rural Egypt villagers have organized human rights leagues.

Although articulate movements for political reform are small- -with the important exception of the Islamists--the appetite for reform and change is growing. A long list of Arab governments have discerned discontent and have already attempted reforms with widely varying degrees of success--notably Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Yemen.

Obviously, democracy is not a necessary outcome of political reform, nor will all efforts to make the political system more efficient or more responsive succeed. Reform does, however, imply an increase in the accountability and responsiveness of those who rule and, therefore, will necessarily involve limits to power as well as the application of the rule of law. In other words, reform entails political liberalization.


The most important pressures for reform emanate from the myriad Islamist movements that have emerged over the past two decades. In fact, the authoritarian state succeeded in creating a vacuum that is being filled by the Islamist movements. Whereas independent political parties, associations, and clubs have been stifled by state controls, the mosque is much more difficult to police. It is relatively simple to outlaw a party, but the Muslim state can no more shut down a mosque than a North American or European government can lock the doors of a church. The state has, however, sought to maintain control of the mosque by keeping religious officials on the government payroll, hence exerting unmistakable influence on the content of the Friday sermon. But at least since the early 1970s, there has been an explosion of private, unlicensed mosques that have eluded state control. In key Middle Eastern countries such as Algeria and Egypt, unlicensed mosques comprise nearly half of all mosques.

It is a commonplace that the growth of Islamist movements is a reflection of Islam's inherent appeal over secular ideologies, which are often derided as alien and failed. There is some truth to this, but equally important, the Islamists have adopted a strategy of power seeking and have combined this strategy with a penetrating critique of government performance. The populist Islamist movements have tapped into a wellspring of discontent; they have not resumed the natural march of Muslim history. Of course, the failure of government to implement sharia (Islamic law) is often cited as part of the Islamists' critique, but central to that critique is the emphasis on corruption, malfeasance, and misbehavior. The mistreatment of people at the hands of government is a constant refrain. The Islamist critique is persuasive because it rings so true.

In the same place but at another time, the recruitment successes of the Islamist movements would have belonged to leftist or nationalist parties. This was the case in the 1950s and 1960s, when crowds thronged to the streets to acclaim Gamal Abdul Nasser or wave the flag of Palestine. Today the natural counterpart to the failure of the authoritarian state is Islamism. Ironically, in the not so distant past several governments aided the Islamists to undercut the strength of the political left, as in the case of Egypt under President Anwar Sadat. Israel turned a blind eye to Islamist activities in the mid-1980s, particularly in the Gaza Strip, in an attempt to undermine the strength of the more secular Palestine Liberation Organization.

Scholarship on the Islamists has been overly textual, too inclined to report the words of the ideologues and the spokesmen, and insufficiently sociological, failing to look at the motives of those who lend their support to the Islamist movements. In fact, rank-and-file supporters of the Islamist movements are remarkably mobile in terms of granting or withdrawing their allegiance. More important, allegiance to an Islamist organization often has much less to do with piety or religiosity than with the organization's demonstrated efficacy and integrity.

In Lebanon, for example, many Shiite Muslims have shifted from the reformist Amal movement to the more radical Hezbullah for prosaic reasons: Amal is corruption-ridden and inefficient, whereas Hezbullah has demonstrated a fine-tuned sensitivity to its constituency's needs and has sustained a reputation for clean dealing. In Turkey, the March 1994 electoral victories of the Islamically-oriented Welfare Party, though interpreted in some quarters as a harbinger of the growing salience of religion in Turkey, says more about the demonstrated ineffectiveness of the party's rivals than a resurgent Islamism.

Some governments have exacerbated their difficulties by trying to emulate the rhetoric of the Islamists. Indeed, religious personalities enlisted to speak on behalf of the government are often discredited by their role or end up buttressing Islamist opposition voices. Either way, the government loses credibility.

As present authoritarian governments weaken, their rulers will be increasingly tempted to resort to demagogic appeals to Islam. This sort of ideological pandering is unlikely to work, as the example of the last shah of Iran illustrates. By mid-1978, sensing the resonance of Islamic symbolism, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi decreed the adoption of the traditional Persian solar calendar and took other superficial steps intended to "Islamicize" his regime. We all know how the story ended.

Steps to demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law, perhaps by curbing police (and secret police) abuses or stemming corruption, will be more successful than attempts to appropriate Islamist discourse. As it is, when the government validates the Islamist dawa (call), it often lends momentum to efforts to coerce and persecute non-Muslim minorities (as in the case of the Copts in Egypt, for example).

Even where governments have not purposely assisted the Islamists, they have aided them indirectly. Just as surely as birds fly and fish swim, authoritarian governments stifle dissent. Where government has impeded if not thwarted autonomous forms of association--political parties, unions, and professional groups--the ensuing vacuum in civil society has been a boon to Islamist organizers.

The indisputable popularity of the Islamist movements challenges governments to respond. But Islamists come in many flavors. Several governments, notably in Tunisia and Egypt, have met the challenge with an iron fist, thereby validating radical ideologues who want to bring down the system rather than reform it. Although it has received surprisingly little notice, the Islamists have been seriously rethinking their views and objectives concerning state, society, and political reform. Western scholars, often striking a tone that might be confused with apologia, have argued for the complementarity of Islamic concepts like consultation and consensus with democratic procedures. These analyses have missed the point; the crucial thinking among Islamists these days deals with questions of tolerance or civility, minority rights, and confidence or security.


Internal pressures for reform interact with external ones, lending even greater momentum to demands for change. Notably, the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict will add to domestic pressures for better government in the Arab world. In the confrontation states (Jordan and Syria primarily), demands to reallocate money from the defense budgets will likely grow. With few exceptions (Tunisia arguably), the officer corps represents a crucial base of regime support, and officers have benefited handsomely from fat defense budgets and the associated privileges and perks. There is no doubt that any attempt to cut real spending on the military will be met by firm uniformed resistance. In fact, the initiation of reform projects that shortchange military spending could provoke military intervention to forestall the process. Even efforts to pull defense budgets into the limelight could cause a protective military reaction. In Egypt, as elsewhere in the region, the military budget is protected from public scrutiny or even nominal legislative oversight.

Thinking of the Middle East as a single region has always presented an analytic challenge. Now that superpower rivalries no longer mask the Arab-Israeli conflict, subregional conflicts will become more obvious, as well as more divisive. New sources of regional turmoil may emanate from attempts by hegemons to interdict reform in a neighboring state. The role Saudi Arabia played in the 1994 Yemeni civil war is instructive; informed reports underscore the deep involvement of the Saudis in fomenting the fighting.

The end of the cold war also deprives many Middle East states of the automatic support of a superpower sponsor. In Syria, for example, there is little doubt that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's upbraiding of Hafez Assad during the Syrian president's 1988 visit to the Kremlin was a decisive turning point. No longer able to bank on Soviet largesse, Assad was brought cheek to jowl with the imperative of coming to terms with Israel and, hence, the United States.

Nonetheless, Unites States aid continues to flow into Egypt and Israel, and to a lesser extent Jordan. The United States Treasury may issue these checks for years to come but, as the Arab-Israeli conflict winds down, the Republican-dominated Congress may choose to stop fattening the sacred foreign aid cows of Egypt and Israel, which devour over $5 billion annually.

No doubt there will be financial sweeteners in any regional peace package, but these sweeteners are more likely to be one-time payments rather than aid programs. In the case of Egypt, it is plain that United States aid allows the government to hold off on reform. It is precisely in those states that have contemplated financial disaster where experiments in democratization have occurred. Thus Algeria and Jordan were on the brink of insolvency when their respective reform programs were launched. In short, the prospect of financial collapse mightily concentrates the mind on reform as a means of dissipating public disaffection and anger, and sharing the blame for the pain of economic restructuring.

Societal pressures for change should not be minimized in those states that do not stand on the brink of fiscal disaster. Although consultative councils that exist in all the Arab states of the Arabian peninsula and the Gulf (except Kuwait and Yemen, which have parliaments), they are a far cry from autonomous legislatures. There should be no mistaking the fact, however, that these bodies have been created to satisfy the quest for change.

The richer Arab states, in effect, offer cash rebates to the West--especially the United States. For years the wealthy oil- producing states of the Gulf have been indirectly paying for their security through the purchases of a myriad of weapons systems and armaments that have helped make the Middle East the single most important arms market in the world. An innovation came during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 when Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Arab Gulf states chipped in to underwrite the deployment of allied forces to the Gulf. Saudi Arabia alone paid $55 billion in support of Operation Desert Storm.

Last October, when United States forces, with French and British support, deployed to Kuwait as a counterpoise to Iraqi forces that had moved near the Kuwaiti border, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia magnanimously agreed to pick up the tab to the tune of about $1 billion. These reverse payments, however self-interested, raise additional problems for the relevant regimes. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the regime has been steadily criticized for its profligate spending on guns, its inability to counter Iraqi aggression despite a bulging arsenal, and its dependence on the United States for defense. With an on-call rent-an-army, why spend all those billions on tanks, planes, and installations in the first place?

Prices on the international oil market are flat, and in major oil-producing states like Saudi Arabia fiscal belt-tightening has become the norm. Given the demographic pressures they face, the impressive array of entitlements they provide to their citizens are not sustainable. The absence of taxation systems, many scholars have argued, give the citizens in these states no incentive to demand a voice in government. But a reduction in entitlements may have the same impact as an increase in taxes. If so, and since oil prices do not promise to increase dramatically, these regimes will also not be immune to demands for change.


Most Middle Eastern governments have opted for the symbols of democracy, not the substance. Even so, that autocrats choose to go through the motions is instructive; while they may deride the suitability of democracy for the Middle East, they concede the universality of democratic symbols. Observers are not fooled by displays of pseudoparticipation any more than the people of the region are. When Syrian President Assad won a 1991 plebiscite with 99.8 percent of the vote, or Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali won in 1994 with only 99.3 percent, or when disdained candidates were declared winners in Moroccan parliamentary elections in 1993, few voters confused what was happening with democracy. Indeed, many Middle Eastern elections are so blatantly manipulated that most people simply conclude that it is better not to vote. In Egypt's 1990 parliamentary elections fewer than 10 percent of eligible voters actually cast ballots in many Cairo districts. And given the chance, voters have shown ingenuity in thwarting rigged elections. In the Moroccan elections, the number two vote winner often was the null ballot; voters paid to vote for the pro-government candidate simply put nothing into the ballot box.(1)

Metaphors such as "the Arab street" treat the average man and woman as though rational choice were alien to the Middle East. Unlike citizens in Europe and the United States, it is often assumed that Middle Easterners are easily roused by the shrill rhetoric of demagoguery rather than the calculus of self-interest. Yet there is ample evidence to show that, given the choice, working class people are perfectly capable of casting protest votes, _lending_ loyalty to those who provide services more competently than the government, discerning between local and national interests, shifting allegiance, or concluding that an election is meaningless.

Given freely contested elections, the incumbents would win few votes. Governments have grossly overestimated their popularity, with unsettling results. In Algeria the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) designed an election, replete with gerrymandered districts, that was calculated to produce an overwhelming victory. Instead, in the first round of parliamentary elections in December 1991, the FLN won 15 seats while the opposition Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won 188 out of the 430 total seats. The FLN design worked quite well but not for the intended beneficiary. With 48 percent of the total national vote in the first round of balloting, the FIS was positioned to win a large majority in parliament in the second round. For many of the Algerian voters, the FIS was not the Islamist party; it was a credible opposing voice to a discredited ruling party.

The Algerian example illustrates the importance of carefully designed electoral mechanisms--not to deny the venting of opposition voices but to avoid overstating the popularity of the government or its opponents. Thus, any serious discussion of political reform must pay attention to different techniques of organizing balloting. In Algeria a proportional system would have assured the FIS the major voice in parliament, but would have precluded a situation in which it could have easily mustered the two-thirds vote necessary to amend the Algerian constitution. Moreover, if a proportional system had been in use, voters might well have thrown their support to smaller opposition parties. In the winner-take-all system that was used, a vote for a small party, no matter how articulate its leadership or compelling its program, was a wasted vote.

The January 1992 coup in Algeria marked not only the end of the country's dramatic experiment in political reform, but also the end of a period of experimental reform in the Maghreb (Arab North Africa) and the rest of the Middle East. Following the FIS electoral victories, many Arab elites lost their enthusiasm for reform, and certainly for democratization. In Tunisia and in Egypt, Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak suddenly found a middle class constituency urging caution rather than demanding a more open system.

Skeptics, more taken with the frailty of civil society than with its potential, have learned the wrong lesson from recent experiments in democratization. There is no question that civil society lacks the power to confront existing regimes in the Middle East; but the oppositional power of civil society has generally been exaggerated throughout the world.

Nonetheless, when the state opens up public space, the blossoming of civil society, even if inchoate, is impressive, as was seen in Algeria and Yemen. Given the opportunity to mature, these organizations not only lend vitality to experiments in open government but serve as counterweights to populist movements such as the Islamists. Civil society will not mature overnight, however, which is why the project of reform must be seen as a gradualist endeavor.

As for the FIS, the radicalizing effect of the coup was both predictable and tragic. But the violent behavior of the FIS--when denied the fruits of its earned electoral victory--cannot be extrapolated backward to predict how it might have behaved had it been allowed to assume legislative power. Algeria's descent into civil war has certainly illustrated that the logic of violence is an unlikely cure for the problems dogging Middle Eastern states. The Algerian army is a professional, well-trained body, yet it has been unable to impose its will on the country. And recent government actions indicate that a dialogue between the FIS and the government may well be in the offing.

For the Islamists, the decision to participate in elections is almost always contentious. Time and again, the decision to play splits the Islamist movement, though not into equal parts. Hardliners portray the decision as a sellout, saying state-dominated elections as meaningless and worse, a case of playing into the hands of the rulers. Moderates, consistently bringing a majority with them, argue for a gradualist approach, and seize on the legitimacy that comes from competing. Not surprisingly, the decision to exclude the Islamists from elections usually, though not always, solidifies and radicalizes the Islamist opposition, submerging hardliner-moderate distinctions. There are exceptions, as in Tunisia, where the proscribed al-Nahda has, under the leadership of Rashid Ghannoushi, been remarkably restrained despite the Ben Ali government's exclusionist position.

Perhaps the most surprising example of Islamist participation in elections comes from Lebanon. In the mid-1980s the Lebanese Shiite party Hezbullah was intent on revolution and castigated the idea of compromise. Hezbullah ridiculed its adversaries for cooperating with the Western-dominated Beirut government and spent its energies expanding its social base among the Shia, who comprise about 35 percent of Lebanon's population. At the same time it sustained a vigorous resistance campaign against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

As though mimicking a dull student, those who oppose the inclusion of Islamists in elections keep insisting that we do not know how the Islamists will behave. We now have several important examples of Islamist participation in open elections. The examples in Jordan, Kuwait, and Lebanon clearly show a willingness to play by the rules, at least while in the minority. More important, the process of inclusion promotes pragmatism and moderation; service in government and inclusionary politics tend to reduce radicalism.(2)

Of course, we do not yet have an example of Islamists successfully gaining power through the electoral process. Allusions to the Sudan, where an Islamist government came to power through a coup, or Iran, where a revolution toppled the shah, are not instructive. The dynamics of the violent seizure of power and incremental political reform have little in common. Reform implies accommodation and compromise, while revolution is synonymous with the subjugation, or even eradication, of adversaries.

Those who oppose the electoral participation of Islamists point to the Islamists' positions on women, minorities, Israel, and the West. These are not trivial concerns, but to begin with the proposition that Islamicists' values preclude any form of participation in the political process is self-defeating and a recipe for confrontation. Values bend in the face of necessity. That is an empirical fact. Guarantees are essential to address the justified fears of minorities and others who see Islamism as a fundamental threat. This also means that human rights and other watchdog organizations must be given space to develop and the fetters on civil society removed. The legacy of authoritarianism cannot be reversed overnight, but unless governments take gradual steps to open up public space and permit civil society to develop, then only the rulers and the Islamists will be left--in stark confrontation. At that point, examples from Khartoum to Teheran become strikingly relevant.


The key question is whether Middle Eastern governments really wish to reform. The evidence is not altogether encouraging. Last March, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood issued a memorandum accepting multiparty competition and the values of a pluralist society. The document is a significant deviation from the teachings of the late Hasan al-Banna, the founder and "supreme guide" of the Brotherhood. The memorandum was virtually ignored by the government. The "national dialogue" Mubarak convened in June was, as one prominent Egyptian put it, more like a company meeting than a serious attempt to talk about political reform.

In Egypt, as in many other Middle Eastern countries, government response to opposition or potential opposition ranges from cooptation, subversion, and imitation to manipulation, domination, and emasculation. When nongovernmental organizations are gaining support, it is not uncommon for the government to create its own lookalike NGO or alter the rules governing them. Thus in Yemen the government established its own human rights organization to counter the Human Rights League. In Jordan the regime has sponsored a women's organization to undermine more independent female NGOs. In Egypt the government has changed the electoral rules in professional syndicates (niqabat) to thwart Islamist electoral victories. In Sudan the ruling junta moved aggressively to put Islamists in leadership positions in the independent-minded syndicates.(3)

The Islamist opposition is often too strong to be eradicated, yet too weak to topple the state through direct action. In some countries such as Egypt, an impasse has been reached. This offers two possibilities: sinking deeper into the mire of obduracy or bridging the impasse through dialogue and compromise. President Mubarak has chosen the former course, arguing that distinctions between moderate and extremist Islamists are unjustified. In other settings, the second course has been taken, with instructive results.

From the smaller states of the region--including Jordan, Kuwait, and Lebanon--we find a handful of examples of dialogue. These dialogues have culminated in pacts that formalize agreements and, through their visibility, provide some protection for moderates on both sides.(4) (Significantly, the Algerian reform experiment was not the product of dialogue but decree, which helps explain the failure of the experiment.) Governments may require nudging and pushing in the direction of dialogue by major powers. And outside powers will have to guarantee internal processes of reform and be prepared to stifle meddling by recalcitrant authoritarian governments like Saudi Arabia.

The pressures for political reform are being felt across the Middle East--which is not to argue that ruling autocrats are contemplating retirement cottages in Provence. Those who rule do not savor conceding power. Nonetheless, sharing power through inclusionary reform is a means of preserving some power. Even in Libya the resident eccentric, Muammar Qaddafi, has been moving along the path of reform. Strategies of inclusion will obviously vary, and reverses are to be expected. The path of reform is strewn with risks for the present leaders and for the opposition, as well as for outside players. Nonetheless, if the perils of reform invite anxiety, the dangers of clinging to the authoritarian status quo are even more unsettling.

Augustus Richard Norton is a professor of international relations at Boston University, director of the Civil Society in the Middle East program at New York University, and coproducer of the film "Quest for Change: Civil Society in the Middle East."

(1) Henry Munson, an election monitor, generously shared this information.

(2) For an important study that demonstrates the moderating effect of inclusion, see Robert D. Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

(3) These examples are drawn from studies by Sheila Carapico, Laurie Brand, and Moustapha Kamal al-Sayyid, in Augustus Richard Norton, ed., Civil Society in the Middle East, two vols. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994 and 1995).

(4) Pacts are discussed in Ghassan Salame, ed., Democracy without Democrats? The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World (London: I. B. Taurus, 1994).

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