Arab nations have diverse characteristics. Some are monarchies while others have autocratic presidents. Similarly a few Arab countries have elected parliaments and represent some form of democracy. Because of varying degree of strategic importance, geographic location and abundance in oil not all Arab nations are even handedly treated by the U.S., which has dominated the Middle East since mid 1950s.
The U.S. efforts to democratize the Arab nations have never been mention-worthy. There is rationale behind this approach. Most of the autocratic regimes in the Arab world have been friendlier and have served the interests of America from the time it replaced Great Britain as the dominant power of the region. United States’ decisive role in ending the Suez crisis in 1956 when U.K., France and Israel launched aggression against Egypt has established its leadership in the Middle East, an area of its highest strategic importance.
But American presidents have always been wrestling with the issue of moral leadership regarding democracy promotion. The classic dilemma of reconciling self interests with political freedom is unfolding in ongoing Arab democratization wave. The U.S. has been a hesitant supporter of political change in Tunisia and Egypt. Its handling of relations with some Arab countries facing people’s uprising for transformation has been characterized by noticeable inconsistency.
America’s history during the Cold War era reveals a contrast between its rhetoric and deeds. United States’ competition with the then Soviet Union led the former to support undemocratic governments. No more telling example of American administration will exhibit a paradox regarding its position on democracy than that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is quoted for his quip about the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. Roosevelt said, “He must be a bastard”-but he is our bastard”.
Not astonishingly, the U.S. has been a generous provider of military aid to some of the Arab dictators including Bahrain where people’s peaceful protests have been crushed with its acquiescence. Recently ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak used to be one of the very few Arab dictators receiving both economic and military assistance from U.S. administrations since Carter’s in generous quantities. Mubarak served American self interests in the Middle East for thirty years.
Nonetheless, without due support from the U.S. the political transformation in Egypt would not have occurred so expeditiously. The role of America as a champion of liberal democracy has faced setback in the recent years. The turmoil in post-invasion Iraq and growing qualms about the neoliberal economic model, among others, are the reasons.
Arab democracy is certain to experience hurdles because underlying conditions which impact on democratic success are in plenty. It has been found that inadequate attention paid to such conditions in 1980s and 90s led to difficulties in facilitating smooth democratic transition in many countries. The level of economic development, proportion of concentration of sources of wealth, coherence and capability of the state and more significantly amount of historical experience with political pluralism are most likely to impact on prospects of success for would-be Arab democrats.