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When Democracy Gets Messy

The U.S. is finding out that in promoting democracy abroad, when you 'let the genie out of the bottle,' the results are not always predictable.

By Patricia Smith


After a radical Islamic group swept the Palestinian elections in January, the overwhelming sense among politicians and intellectuals throughout the Middle East was that America's little chemistry experiment had blown up in its face.

For several years, President Bush has promoted democracy as a key part of the solution to the region's problems. But when Hamas, a group dedicated to Israel's destruction and responsible for scores of deadly suicide bombings, won an unexpected victory in the Palestinian legislative elections, the outcome could not have been more contrary to American interests.

"You might remember the saying, 'Beware of what you wish—you might get what you want,'" says Abdel Monem Said Aly, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "It's very much applicable."

Across the Middle East, elections generally considered free have recently unleashed a variety of unfriendly political forces. In Egypt, the radical Muslim Brotherhood made gains in freer-than-usual parliamentary elections in December. In Iraq, Islamic candidates allied with Iran won a plurality in the January parliamentary elections. And in Lebanon, Hezbollah—like Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the West—surged in last year's legislative elections.

Risks Vs. Benefits

Governments unfriendly or even hostile to the interests of the U.S. and its allies have also scored victories in Latin America in recent years: Venezuelans elected Hugo Chávez, a leftist with an anti-American agenda, as president in 1998. And in December, socialist Evo Morales, who has said he will legalize the cultivation of coca (from which cocaine is made) won the Bolivian presidency.

The big question, then, is whether the long-term benefits of democracy are worth the short-term risks. Can a shot of democracy, however jolting at first, be trusted in the end to seduce and tame any dangerous forces it has set loose?

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, highlighted the dangers of failed, undemocratic countries like Afghanistan, which harbored Al Qaeda, and renewed U.S. interest in promoting democracy as a counterforce.

The U.S. encouraging democracy abroad is nothing new. In 1917, during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson made it the centerpiece of his foreign policy. And after World War II, in what became known as the Truman Doctrine (for President Harry Truman), the U.S. promoted democracy and economic development as a way to prevent the spread of communism, especially in war-ravaged Europe.

No matter how unsavory the U.S. finds some election results, says Robert Pastor of American University in Washington, D.C., "the bigger mistake is avoiding elections." The experience of Latin America in recent decades shows that purging electoral slates of radical groups merely pushes them toward violence.

"President Bush is right in saying that democracy should be central to our foreign policy," Pastor says. "But to be credible, he has to accept the results of a free election, even if our adversaries win."

And what happens if the winner is a terrorist organization like Hamas? U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is urging Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

More Than Elections

"Democracy brings not just rights, but it brings obligations and responsibilities too," Rice said. "And one of those responsibilities is to care for and to be a fighter for peace, and not for war and not for violence. Democracy and wanton violence, democracy and terrorism, are incompatible." (The U.S. and other Western countries have threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas plays a significant role in its government.)

Promoting democracy, says Abdelslam Maghraoui of the U.S. Institute of Peace, requires rethinking our understanding of democracy. Elections, he says, are just part of the picture; other key components, which ideally are in place before elections, include a fair justice system, law and order, and an accountable government—things that affect citizens' lives concretely and ease them into democracy.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian democracy advocate, agrees. "Peaceful rotation of power is one sign that a country is democratizing," he says. "Freedom of expression is another. Tolerance toward the opposition and minorities is a third sign. Another is the rule of law and respect for courts."

The path to democracy in the Arab world, where autocratic rulers predominate, has been particularly rocky. Last month, the Egyptian government postponed local elections for two years. And in 1991, the Algerian government canceled elections after it became clear from the first round of voting that hard-line Islamists would win. (Outside the Arab Middle East, Muslim countries such as Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh all have functioning democracies.)

According to Carl Gershman, director of the National Endowment for Democracy, it's a mistake to think the American model of democracy can simply be exported to another country.

"It has to come from within," he says. "We can help. We can provide training and resources and promote civic education, but ultimately it has to come from the people in the country themselves."

Islamist Victories

Currently, the biggest problem for the West is that people in a number of Middle Eastern countries are voting in Islamist parties. That's not surprising, says Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, considering that the region's autocratic regimes have been repressing centrist, secular parties for decades: When you forbid political organizing, she explains, the only place left to meet is the mosque, so you end up with Islamist parties as the only opposition.

Ottaway favors opening up a nation's political system and allowing parties to develop before holding elections. Freer political organizing leads to many different groups, which has the effect of diffusing their power. This sort of development is a long-term proposition that takes years, she stresses.

"We think too much that if you remove the autocratic government, there is a society ready to be molded in a democratic direction," Ottaway says. "But instead there are a lot of problems that we didn't see before. When you open up a repressive system—either by military intervention or by forcing a government to hold elections—what pops up is everything that has been repressed before."

Even if radical groups win, the daily pressures of making a country work could have a moderating effect, says Feisal Amin al-Istrabadi, Iraq's ambassador to the U.N. "Now they have to govern. Pave roads. Make sure the garbage is picked up on time," he says.

Many experts say that part of the appeal of Islamic parties is that they are well organized, untainted by the corruption of entrenched regimes, and better able to provide social services like education and child care.

However the move to democracy occurs, it clearly can put the U.S. in a tricky position once the ballots are cast.

"It's not good to say democracy is fine and elections are fine but we can't live with the outcome," says Ziad Abu Amr, an independent candidate supported by Hamas, who won re-election in January. "I don't think the United States should make too many conditions on countries which choose to embrace democracy."