Posted: 24 Oct 2013 06:35 AM PDT
Posted: 24 Oct 2013 03:25 AM PDT
The George W. Bush presidency dealt a severe blow to the U.S. policy of promoting democracy. The normative and the practical aspects of the policy are now both being contested, and pundits call for a thorough remodeling of the American "democracy bureaucracy." The problem is much more complex, however, and reforming the democracy bureaucracy may be just a part of the solution. It is important to remember that the very democracy bureaucracy existing today has helped consolidate democratic regimes in former Soviet bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia for example.
After the Velvet Revolution, U.S. "democracy money" was helpful in fostering an elite of Czech and Slovak democrats and in introducing democratic practices to the wider public. The United States Information Agency (USIA) printed Czech-language brochures about the role of independent media and democratic governance; U.S. grant money was used to fill the practically inexistent political science libraries of universities and to found civil society organizations and think tanks – the necessary watchdogs of any democracy. In the lead-up to the revolution, Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America were an essential means for dissidents to organize amongst themselves and call for public demonstrations (similarly as the social media today).
The U.S. democracy promotion infrastructure was an important partner in the Czech transformation process and, in a way, still continues to be as the U.S. embassy in Prague sponsors numerous civil society initiatives. Although the Czech Republic may seem like a fully democratic state, the democracy assistance follow-up in a transformed country is equally important as democracy promotion in a yet-untransformed society. It will perhaps take another generation of Czechs before certain aspects of political culture that have prevailed from the communist era will be fully uprooted. But even though nostalgic memories about the merits of the old regime still exist – mainly among the older generation – the younger generation of Czechs is all the more vigilant about respecting democratic principles.
The recent expulsion of U.S. organizations promoting democracy and the rule of law in Egypt, Russia and even the United Arab Emirates is the symptom of a very negative trend – something that has come to be labeled as democratic backlash. This has implications not only for the development of democracy in the respective countries, but more so for U.S. soft power. The workings of USAID, NED and the international branches of the Republican and Democratic Party are perceived as meddling into the internal affairs of sovereign states; they are being labeled as spy agencies and accused of attempting to subvert the standing regime. This all nourishes government propaganda, which can "legitimately" be anti-American.
Nevertheless, the anti-American sentiments in Egypt or Russia that facilitated the decision to expel U.S. NGOs cannot be blamed solely on government propaganda. For over forty years, the thinking and the mindset of Czechoslovaks was fed by aggressive anti-American ("anti-imperialist") propaganda. Yet, after the revolution, the vast majority of the population clearly envisioned where their country should be heading. The primary goal of Czech foreign policy was to "return to the West" – join the NATO community and become a member of the EU. Once these goals were achieved – some commentators argue – Czech foreign policy lost its guiding principle.
So why did Eastern European countries readily accept democracy assistance from the United States while elsewhere it is a problem? Was this because U.S. soft power was at its apex in the 1990s and the American model seemed so lucrative? If yes, was it causation or mere correlation of U.S. democracy promotion efforts? Or was it purely because the countries wanted to drift as far away from Moscow as possible?
Simply put, the Czechs explicitly sought to adopt liberal democracy and capitalism and thereby met John Stuart Mill's prerequisites for representative government: "One, that the people should be willing to receive it; two, that they should be willing and able to do what is necessary for its preservation; three, that they should be willing and able to fulfill the duties and discharge the functions which it imposes on them."
Are such conditions being met in Egypt, Russia and other countries where American initiatives promote democracy? Certainly not as explicitly as in the Czech Republic and other countries from behind the Iron Curtain. In the 1990s, the ouster of U.S. pro-democracy organizations from Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic) would be unthinkable since the public would understand this step as a reminder of the communist anti-Western stance.
A prosaic argument can be drawn from this: Democracy promotion works most effectively in countries where, prior to transition, the majority of the population unequivocally seeks the prospects of joining the Western democratic community – either because of security concerns or economic benefit, but it must also feel welcome to join. Otherwise, democracy promotion can backfire and serve as an instrument of anti-Americanism.
Hence, before future U.S. administrations lies an extremely difficult choice where American soft power is at stake. If democracy promotion initiatives cause, in some countries, democratic backlash, which in turn damages U.S. soft power, is it better to cease the pro-democracy efforts and allocate the funds and efforts elsewhere? But then, without the democracy aid, would all prospects for a democratic breakthrough in the given country be lost? How many missed opportunities for democratization would such a decision generate? In a similar vein, one can ask: What would Czech democracy look like today in a parallel universe, where the United States provided no support for democracy before and after the Velvet Revolution? Unfortunately, one can only speculate about the answers to these questions.
Democracy promotion has become a vicious circle and the only way to step out of it is to sacrifice certain moral principles and values that have guided the policy throughout the twentieth century. In other words, become more selective in democratic assistance. It would be instrumental to curtail support in countries where the general populace is hostile toward the United States and devote most effort to places like Myanmar or perhaps South Sudan. This may seem like a cynical approach, but in the end, it may have better results. American soft power may have more chances to regain the momentum it had in the 1990s, but lost (and continues to lose) during the war on terror.
Chinese soft power is still nowhere near that of The United States, but this may be slowly changing – in parts of Africa for example. As democracy is intrinsically connected in many minds with the United States, democratic backlash is also an expression of opposition to the U.S. (and the West), and consequently damages American soft power. This should be kept in mind for all U.S. engagements in the world, because U.S. decline starts not when China beats the United States in GDP, but when Beijing beats Washington in soft power. Moral hubris is thus the most dangerous threat facing the United States, albeit a threat it can fully control.
Posted: 24 Oct 2013 03:23 AM PDT
Tunisia is the last hope for a successful transition arising from the 2011 Arab uprisings. Egypt has regressed into open authoritarianism and military rule; in Morocco, the palace has again outmaneuvered the government, sidelining the Islamist Party for Justice and Development even though it nominally controls the government; the new Yemeni government resembles the old one and faces the same problems of economic collapse and regional separatism. Libya got rid of Qaddafi only to fall in the hands of rival militias that out-power the fledgling political institutions; Syria is engulfed in a vicious and seemingly endless conflict. In Tunisia, rival parties are mired in bitter political battles as they all seek to maximize their political advantage, but as long as the battles remain political there is hope for a long term democratic outcome. If all parties wanted, the impasse could be resolved in a few weeks, on the basis of a road map to which all parties have agreed, but only kind of.
Fortunately for Tunisia, a solution to the present impasse can only come from an agreement among the major political actors. The intervention of a deus ex machina is unlikely. There is no indication that the military—apolitical ever since Tunisia became independent—will intervene, as it did in Egypt. The security forces are more of a question mark, but their intervention still seems unlikely. There is no king to maneuver behind the scene and implement his own solutions, as in Morocco. And outside actors cannot impose their will, as the GCC countries did in Yemen. Tunisian politicians will have to work out a compromise solution among themselves. This could be the beginning of democracy. Conversely, it could be the beginning of a protracted period of instability and economic decline.
The Transition Saga
After the fall of the Ben Ali regime, Tunisia appeared to be off to a promising start. Within weeks, Beji Caid Essebsi, an old-time politician who had occupied a variety of important positions under President Bourguiba, became interim prime minister. Working with the High Authority for the Achievement of the Revolution's Objectives, Political Reform, and Democratic Transition, a body whose convoluted name denoted the difficult coexistence of organizations with different goals, Essebsi managed to steer the country successfully to the election of a constituent assembly in October 2011. The assembly was expected to complete its work in one year.
Two years later, the constitution has not yet been approved, although the third and final draft has been "almost completed" for at least six months. Participants in the process blame each other's perversity for the delay. To an outside observer, it is clear that both structural obstacles and political choices account for the problem. There is no magic bullet to solve the structural problems and Tunisians will have to learn to live with them. Political choices, on the other hand, could be reversed rapidly, as part of a grand bargain among the parties in the negotiation that started on October 23.
A Clash of Ideologies and Elites
The major political groups in Tunisia do not trust each other, and the mutual suspicions are very deep. There are three such groups: the Islamists, represented by Ennahda and by Salafi factions of different degree of radicalism; a centrist, secular, but extremely fragmented and poorly structured coalition best represented by Nida Tounes and its leader Beji Caid Essebsi; and the left, represented by the small parties in the Popular Front and, at present, the leadership of the UGTT, the labor union federation.
Ennahda won 37 percent of votes in the 2011 elections but it remains an outsider to the political establishment, which is still dominated by the political elite that emerged after independence under President Habib Bourguiba. The party is dominated by its moderate wing, which has made many concessions on the constitutions, including dropping all references to sharia. But it is still an Islamist organization and as such it is deeply distrusted by the old political establishment, which tends to dismiss moderate statements as doublespeak. The presence of a more radical Salafi trend within Ennahda and the somewhat fluid boundaries between Ennahda and more radical Salafi groups do nothing to assuage fears.
The centrist coalition represents Tunisia's secularist tradition, embodied in the 1959 constitution, and in the personal status code of that period, the most progressive in the Arab world. It also represents the country's political elite, in control of the country since independence. Its supporters are truly afraid that an Islamist party could reverse this tradition, but they are also resisting the rise of a new political elite. Centrists accuse Ennahda of seeking to turn the clock of modernity back on Tunisia and particularly its women, although they cannot point to concrete evidence. The accusations must be understood in both contexts: genuine fears that the party will undermine cherished values and a way of life; and a very politically motivated desire to suppress unwelcome competition not only by a new party but by a potential new political elite.
Ennahda is also fearful and distrustful of anybody with ties to the old regime. It has good reasons: a large number of Islamists, including Ennahda's top leaders, were jailed for long periods or forced into exile after Ben Ali cracked down on the party after it won 17 percent of the vote in 1989. In fact, it is not surprising that Ennahda tried to enact a law excluding from political life individuals tainted by association with Ben Ali; rather, it is remarkable that it agreed to drop the law in order to facilitate the transition. Still, Ennahda fears that a victory of the secularist parties could usher in another period of anti-Islamist repression
The parties of the left trust neither the secular centrists nor the Islamists, and in turn are not trusted by either. They are secular, of course, but also militantly socialist, still speaking the language of the old European left. But they are also small and much less threatening to both Ennahda and Nida Tounes. Right now, the left is to some extent making common cause with the center against Ennahda, but it is a fragile alliance of convenience, dictated in part by the fears that Ennahda is gaining support among the labor union's rank and file, the traditional support base of the left.
The Political Game
Tunisian politicians are in agreement about what needs to be done in order to complete the stalled transition: approving the constitutions; forming a new "politically neutral" government to lead the country until the elections; and organize both parliamentary and presidential elections, which entails three steps: forming an independent election commission, writing the election law, and setting the polling dates.
But they disagree profoundly about the sequencing and timing of the steps for reasons of political strategy. Ennahda insists that the present government, which it heads, will not resign until the constitution is approved, the election commission and the election law are ready, and the election dates have been firmly set in early 2014. The opposition parties, on the other hand, want to follow the roadmap proposed by a quartet of mediators, including the labor unions and the employers' federation, which in reality is close to the opposition. The roadmap calls for the formation of the election commission in two weeks and the writing of the election law within two weeks of the beginning of the final negotiations or national dialogue; resignation of the government within three weeks and the completion of the constitution and setting the dates of elections within four weeks. Ennahda fears that once the government has resigned the opposition will stall on the constitutions and the election dates—indeed, members of the opposition are saying openly that elections should be postponed long enough to give time to the new government to get rid of Ennahda's appointees in bureaucratic positions. The opposition argues that if Ennahda gets everything it wants before the government resigns, the resignation will never take place.
All major parties signed to roadmap on October 5, but confusion remains whether Ennahda accepted the proposed deadlines or still insists on its own sequencing. The national dialogue started on October 23 amid street protests, highlighting the tension that surrounds the project. There are many problems to surmount, raising questions whether the proposed deadlines are realistic. The choice of a prime minister all consider neutral will be arduous and the parties will bicker on the composition of the election commission, the details of the election law, and the election dates. What they will not bicker about at this point is ideology. The most contentious ideological issues in the constitution have been settled and the major remaining point of disagreement concerns the respective powers of president and prime minister in the hybrid parliamentary/presidential system—an important issue, to be sure, but hardly an existential one.
The real point of disagreement is not ideology, but politics. The date of elections will undoubtedly affect election results, for example, although it is difficult to know for sure how. Ennahda is better organized and thus ready for elections at any time, while the opposition is still divided; on the other hand, the little cohesion of Nida Tounes depends on Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old man in fragile health, and postponing elections might backfire on the opposition. An interim government that remains in power for a longer period might be able to undo some of Ennahda's appointments but would also open itself to criticism and hurt the opposition. Rival parties, in other words, are threatening the success of the transition by playing political games that may not even benefit them.
It would not be the first time that the miscalculations of politicians focused on narrow interests hurt a country. In the case of Tunisia, what is also at stake is whether at least one success story can still emerge from the 2011 uprisings.
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