Online Extra: The Mideast: "Generalizations Don't Hold"

Leslie Campbell of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs explains how each country is developing differently

BusinessWeek Senior Correspondent Stan Crock recently sat down with Leslie Campbell, who works at the grass-roots level to promote democracy in the Middle East. Campbell is senior associate and regional director for the Middle East and North Africa for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, which has ties to the Democratic Party. Following are edited excerpts from their talk:

Q: Is there any way to generalize about the progress toward democracy in the Middle East?

A:

The conversation changes when you start going country by country. The generalizations don't hold. There's lots of evidence country-by-country of changes.

So many important changes in Morocco have gone unnoticed in the last five or six years. What motivates change in Morocco? Even though there's a very clear shared sense of cultural identity, there's almost an equally powerful force saying Morocco's future is with the West, and particularly with Western Europe.... It's excited about the possibility of a free-trade agreement with the U.S. It's the dominant news item in Morocco these days.

[Morocco] just went from a country that has had nothing but flawed elections to running an election in September that, by all accounts, was very good. They have a two-year-old code of ethics to try to get at petty corruption within the bureaucracy. They realize petty corruption is an impediment to forms of investment.

Morocco also instituted a set-aside of parliamentary seats for women. Thirty women were elected on the reserved list, and five more were elected on normal party list. They realized, as an Arab country, if they waited for the cultural norms to change, they would be waiting a long time. The political elite realized getting women involved in political life was important. They modernized a lot of the systems that I think investors would want to see [change]. It happened quietly over six or seven years.

Q: Where else has there been change?

A:

Despite all the problems in Algeria, it's a very dynamic place. People with different points of view protest all the time. The military junta, as much as they would like to impose more or less authoritarian control, they can't. People don't allow them to impose that kind of control. They've been forced to adopt forms of democracy, regular elections, local councils, and an elected national parliament. The junta is mostly known for slaughters and massacres, but there really is a demand for change.

People are really sick and tired of corruption and mismanagement. People know that certain individuals have enriched themselves at the public's expense. They want to get at that. A way to fix that without revolution is to build institutions. In Algeria, there's a real kind of gut-level feeling they have to take control of the shadowy people who are controlling their lives. They are ruining the economy. They control the import-export markets. They're enriching themselves while impoverishing the rest of the people.

In a case like Algeria, you can definitely pick on the quality of elections, even how important elections [are]. What's interesting [is that] they feel compelled to keep having elections. Why even bother? It's a military dictatorship. They bother because there's a demand. They feel somehow their legitimacy is at stake. The government feels compelled to go through the process -- and lo and behold, disparate forces win.

Q: A lot of countries in the region have elections and legislatures, but they seem to be Potemkin parliaments with no real power. Should the U.S. try to distinguish between the real ones and the fake ones, and focus on outcomes rather than the process? Wouldn't that be seen as meddling in the internal affairs of the country?

A:

We've gone beyond the old benchmarks for elections. What has happened is that a lot of governments have found a way to meet the basic benchmarks. It doesn't mean a country has become any more democratic.

We're starting to look more at the product of elections. Does an election actually lead to any kind of change in the people that hold power? Does it lead to a diffusion of power? Is the body that comes out going to be taken seriously -- hold the executive branch accountable? In a meaningful election, the outcome isn't predetermined or entirely predictable. It allows disparate voices to be heard.

If the Palestinian Authority goes ahead with elections this January, and if the outcome...is predetermined and the Palestinian Legislative Council again becomes, within short order, a rather docile creature of the Palestinian Authority, then it's tempting to say the election is not meaningful. If we're talking about elections as part of the process of building a democratic Palestinian state, before the election happens, let's talk about some things that increase the chances of the outcome of the election being meaningful, not tainted by terrorism.

It's reasonable to say that people who are violent combatants, who are currently engaged in violence as a means of achieving political ends, should not be simultaneously pursuing political means to an end. Isn't it reasonable to say: "Choose one or the other?" An election that serves to simply elect to Parliament people who are also planning attacks on Israel may not lead to a body that the international community should be compelled to deal with.

Q: How should the Bush Administration deal with an electoral outcome it doesn't like, the election of Islamists or Yassir Arafat?

A:

I would argue that we should be prepared for a political process that's relatively free and open in the Arab world. Be prepared that the winners might be those that some of us in North America would not appreciate. We should be prepared to live with that.... [But] if they use that power to restrict democratic freedom or other freedoms, we shouldn't feel compelled...to accept that diminution of freedom.

Left to their own devices, the Islamist parties look good in the Middle East and Arab world, and Turkey primarily, as a means of protest against corruption and mismanagement. Rightly or wrongly, they're perceived to have cleaner hands. They also represent a cry for identity. If you're young, probably unemployed or underemployed, and feeling very discouraged about life and the chances of betterment of life, you may feel compelled to cast a vote for the party that represents your Islamic and Arab identity to throw a scare into your own government and to throw a scare into the U.S. for good measure.

Left alone to govern, where Islamists have to enter the pragmatic world of [politics], they drift down to a normal state of support. Islamist parties would relatively quickly drift below the 20% mark in every Arab country -- that would include Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt -- if [they] were allowed to run. They'd end up at natural level of support at 15%, and none of us would have to worry about it. At 15%, they're a legitimate political strain. Voting for them in protest gives them a false level of support.

Q: How are the State Dept.'s democracy-building efforts, such as the recent conference here for 50 Arab women activists, working?

A:

They're looking at targeted openings where there's some hope in the region. They're trying to expand small openings. They're providing workshops on the ground. When I was with the Arab women the first morning, they were kind of cynical. "Why are we here? What about Iraq?" They were having a hard time getting along with each other. They were Moroccans, Yemenis, Saudi, Kuwaitis, Algerians, and Palestinians. They don't have much in common other than the language.

After a few days, they had both Republican and Democratic women political consultants talking about message development and image and targeting and fund-raising. The combativeness and cynicism disappeared. They said, "We didn't really know what this was about. We thought it was about trying to convince us that the U.S. is not as bad as we think. But we're getting a lot of practical information here. We need to learn these things."

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