Democracy in the Middle East

Filed in Case Studies by on 3rd March 2009

It is not feasible to apply the principles of democracy and capitalism as practiced in the United States to nation-building projects in the developing world. This is more an admonition against a naïve approach than a comment against an effort to accomplish a noble goal. State/Nation-building is a difficult process and no two developing countries, or their conflicts or post-conflict situations are the same. Apart from such similarities in countries in the developing world as poverty, and the frustration and inequality that lead to ethnic conflict, each situation presents its own particular problems that require a tailored approach.

To an American, a constitutional nation-state is the highest expression of democratic legitimacy. “To the extent that any international organisation like the United Nations has legitimacy, it is because duly constituted democratic majorities have handed that legitimacy up to them in a negotiated intergovernmental process” (Fukuyama, 2004, p. 109). Many countries fall into conflict because they have not yet developed inclusive or representational political systems and are unable to confer such legitimacy. In countries where ethnic groups focus on religious or tribal criteria, one group tends to gain at the expense of another, resulting in terrorist acts and ethnic displacement. This is evident in Iraq where Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims differ over their interpretation of Islamic belief. In Rwanda, tribal differences between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples resulted in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutu. Such conflictual situations are dramatically different than American society where “national identity is civic rather than religious, cultural, racial or ethnic” (Fukuyama, 2004, p. 113). This means that every citizen, regardless of ethnic, religious or racial affiliation is equal before the law, and free to take part in the country’s political system and economy. However, to apply the same approach in a developing country to ethnic peoples who were involved in killing each other in a process aimed at including them as equal and functional components of an open democratic society, without a well-thought out step-by-step programme would be counterproductive. To act in an ad hoc manner, reacting to events as they happen rather than planning ahead, hoping a country will begin to act on the same principles of democracy and capitalism that it took the United States more than 200 years to develop, is to strain credulity. It is possible, however, to set out guidelines and principles which, with the right training and institutions, will allow the citizens of a newly-developing state to openly practice participatory democracy. The same basic approach will also advance free markets.

State/Nation-Building in practice

When the United States became involved in a humanitarian effort in Somalia in the early 1990’s, its goal was to feed a population that was being deliberately starved by warlords. As U.S. forces focused their efforts on trying to capture Mohammad Farah Aidid, they became involved in “a misguided attempt at ad hoc nation-building” (Ottaway, 2003, p. 16). The exercise ended in failure. Without security, the United Nations left soon afterwards. The battle to control Somalia remains unresolved to this day.

East TimorIn East Timor, the United Nations embarked on a clearly thought-out programme to seek consensus. In an unprecedented move, their efforts paid off with a successful independence plebiscite. This is not to convey, however, a misleading impression that nation-building is about building a nation. Nation-building in its true sense is “the gradual construction of a common identity among individuals with often disparate cultural characteristics associated with issue areas such as ethnicity, race, tribe and religion” . Whether the United States or the international community acts alone in State/Nation-building, it is essential to understand that national identity is forged over a long period as peoples develop and work together, building a new life in common. “Thus, the goal of nation-building should not be to impose common identities on deeply-divided peoples but to organise states that can administer their territories and allow people to live together despite their differences” (Ottaway, 2003, p. 17). No amount of force will persuade Serbs, Croats, Muslims and Kosovars, or Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, or Tutsis and Hutu, or any of several other ethnic groups, to forget past differences, or forge a common identity with past adversaries. Such an identity, if it develops at all, must come from within the people themselves.

Types of Democracy

There are different types of democracy which range from the American republican model, to the British and Canadian parliamentary approaches, to the various European models which view democracy as a sacred universal trust. Each system has checks and balances which enable leaders to govern but also limit their power to ensure that they can’t “maintain their power indefinitely and extend it over greater reaches of society and the economy: this can either provoke rebellion or result in a slide to outright dictatorship” (Goldstone & Ulfelder, 2004, p. 16). We see evidence of such a slide in Russia where the lack of checks and balances has enabled President Vladimir Putin to increase state control over the media, appoint friends in the intelligence community to key positions of power, and set the stage to retain power as prime minister after he steps down as president in March 2008, raising serious questions about dictatorship disguised as democracy in Russia.

Political Instability

Goldstone & Ulfelder (2004) say that in trying to determine indicators for political instability, a group of independent political analysts gathered facts on democracies and dictatorships from around the world from 1955 to 2002. The panel found that a nation’s well-being or strife in neighbouring countries can affect stability. Instability is more likely if the state purposely excludes or represses an identifiable ethnic group. Surprisingly the panel found “that a country’s ethnic composition had almost no inherent impact on its odds of instability” (Goldstone & Ulfelder, 2004, p. 14).  The panel also found that closed dictatorships with little legal restraint on leaders were quite stable. yugoslaviaWe see this under Tito’s communist rule in Yugoslavia which suppressed ethnic strife in the Balkans from the end of the Second World War until the early 1990’s, some ten years or so after his death in 1980. Thus, “the “highest risk of political crisis lies in the middle ground between authoritarianism and democracy” (Goldstone & Ulfelder, 2004, p. 15) especially in countries with no checks and balances on the actions of political leaders or major political groups. Thus when the United States and other countries in the international community engage in State/Nation-building, it is crucial that they define democracy as “a system of institutions that places limits on authority” (Goldstone & Ulfelder, 2004, p. 18) rather than as a system of elections and majority rule. This is more important that saying that American, British or European forms of democracy will obtain. The issue is first to ensure security, let it be known that those in conflict have the equal right to take part in a new government and invite their ideas and participation along certain defined guidelines including restraints on executive and party power. The form of democracy that develops will be a reflection of the peoples involved with the guidance of the international community

The practice of democracy

Signs of democracyThe principles of democracy and capitalism as practiced in the United States are a reflection of American history in the same way that European democracy reflects European history. Both are valid. The various types of democracy all serve essentially the same function, namely providing a multi-party system which enables the pro and cons of proposed legislation to be argued and voted on by representatives of the people who elect them.

Americans believe legitimacy comes from the will of the majority in a democratic vote. Europeans see legitimacy as “based on principles of justice higher than the laws or wills of particular nation-states” (Fukuyama, 2004, p. 114). However, in practice, the question arises as to how these values will be applied and enforced in a State/Nation-building exercise. Since the European sense is handed down from some mental international level, Fukuyama (2004) suggests  that this “invites abuse on the part of elites who are then free to interpret the will of the international community to suit their own preferences” (Fukuyama, 2004, p. 115).  The international community is a hazy concept at best with some members involved in one State/Nation-building exercise and not in another depending on a range of factors. The United States is a dominant agent in some conflicts and a reluctant participant in others. Thus, enforcement depends on individual member states.

Political Goods

State/Nation-building requires a way to measure performance to ensure that former enemies are deriving the benefits of international efforts to bring them a new democratic way to live together in peace with a functioning open economy. Rotberg (2004) suggests that the governmental performance of a state can be assessed by measuring “how many or how few political goods a nation-state provides for its inhabitants” (Rotberg, 2004, p. 74). Political goods are intangible and thus hard to quantify. However, they are vitally important to good governance. The first and most important political good is security. It is needed to bring about peace and allow governance to take place. Security is also a condition for further development. “Only when reasonable provisions for security exist within a country, especially in a fragile, newly reconstructed nation-state in the developing world, can governance deliver other desirable political goods” (Rotberg, 2004, p. 75).  Another important political good is the rule of law, which gives a legal code of conduct for citizens to follow. This also gives them a means to resolve disputes without resorting to violence. Other political goods include freedom from crime, political freedoms such as free speech or joining a political party, freedom of expression, a stable economy, and access to good education and reliable health care.

UN guard postOnce a peacekeeping force gains controls over a conflict, it is easy for a restive public back home to reclaim the return of their soldiers. However, leaving too soon would jeopardise the progress of a young, developing democracy. State/Nation-building is a time-consuming process and can lull international opinion. However, “the world should not be fooled into thinking that it is possible to build states without coercion” (Ottaway, 2003, p. 18) or the long-term presence of troops to ensure that a strong democracy can take root. After Germany was defeated in the Second World War, it took four years to rebuild the country as an independent nation-state. “Similarly, nation/state-building operations in the Balkans began in December 1995 and very clearly remain a work in progress” (Seminar Five, Lecture Seven, p. 3). Turning a failed or conflictual state into a State/Nation depends on several factors, not the least of which is the difficulty in determining how much time it takes to construct a full participatory democracy that can function independently.

Impediments to State/Nation-building

Impediments to State/Nation-building projects are based primarily on cultural and political rather than on economic factors. Oil revenues inIraq or poppy/drug revenues in Afghanistan can support an undemocratic regime in the same way they can support democracy. Cultural factors such as religion have considerable weight in resisting external influences. Tribesmen, for example, tend to use their religious beliefs to expand specific points of view while eradicating others. We saw this in Afghanistan in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed two massive sixth-century statues of the Buddhas at Bamyam because they didn’t represent Islam. The Taliban opposes current State/Nation-building efforts by NATO member states because of resistance to un-Islamic ideas. Another barrier to State/Nation-building is entrenched resistance due to a pattern of autocratic and despotic rule which has taken hold through much of the Middle East. However, the biggest hurdle to State/Nation-building is the difference between Islam and western democracy. Classical Islamic thought has no tradition of citizenship. “The idea of the people participating not just in the choice of a ruler but in the conduct of the government, is not part of the traditional Islam” (Lewis, 2005, p.6). Without a concept of citizenship, the idea of civic representation is foreign to Islamic thought.Truth-Belief

Another impediment to State/Nation-building in the Middle East is Islamic fundamentalism which views democracy as a western evil “The modernizers, with their appeal to women and more generally to the young, are seen to strike at the very heart of the Islamic order – the state, the schoolroom, the market, and even the family” (Lewis, 2005, p. 8). Fundamentalists feel that the west is a threat to their homeland, and is also preventing Islam from fulfilling its predestined triumph in the world. Fundamentalism is a powerful force against State/Nation-building because of a combination of factors such as a perception that modernisation is evil. Fundamentalists communicate easily to promote values with which their audiences are familiar as compared with international powers involved in State/Nation-building whose concepts of secularism and democracy are not as easily understood in the Muslim community. Fundamentalists also have access to a wide network of mosques to convey their message. Ayatollah Khomeini distributed thousands of cassette tapes that were played to the faithful in mosques across Iran which resulted in the Iranian revolution in 1979.

A different sort of impediment to State/Nation-building results from a natural human resistance to change. This is confused with resistance to globalisation which is widely perceived as an imposition of American values on other cultures. Llosa (2002) refers to complaints against globalisation as a “delirium of persecution” (Llosa, 2002, p. 66) driven by hatred of the United States. The process of State/Nation-building, because it represents a change, is confused with the natural process of modernisation that affects all countries, thus creating a resistance to efforts to rebuild the state.


Despite cultural, conceptual and political problems, there is evidence of positive progress in State/Nation-building in countries throughout the Middle East. The comments of scholars at a Washington Conference sponsored by the Middle East Policy Conference in 2005 are quite revealing. Ottaway (2005) says that although trends do not amount to real change, the different and conflicting trends in the area raise questions about how to propagate democratic ideas into a widespread discussion so as to allow a broader segment of the population to participate. She mentions Islamist movements with a broad base of support which “could be a tremendous help to the democratisation of these countries if they joined the democratic trends” (Ottawa, 2005, p. 4).  In Jordon, parties which refused to speak to each other despite sharing common interests in 1989 now meet regularly to discuss their concerns and co-operate on various issues. “They bode very well for the question of tolerance, live-and-let-live co-operation – what we would like to see if we were going to build a democratic society” (Schwedler, 2005, p. 6). In Beirut, after the assassination of Rafik Kariri, thousands took to the streets to demand their own sovereignty after 30 years of Syrian occupation. This is a clear signal seen by others across the Middle East that people want to express themselves more openly. In Iraq, eight-and-a-half million Iraqis lined-up and waited for hours to vote in spite of terrorism, violence and threats. “There is something real there, something that could not have happened only three or four years ago” (Ibrahim, 2005, p. 10). The same is true in Afghanistan which, since the U.S.-led military action to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, has had two elections, the presidential in October 2004, and the parliamentary in September 2005.  However State/Nation-building efforts often suffer setbacks, and newly-elected governments need time to gain experience before they can function properly, especially given tendencies to fallback on local historical precedent. This gives any advance a two-steps forward, one step back quality. It will be a long slow process before real democracy, and a peaceful sharing of power, takes root in the Middle East.



Fukuyama, Francis (2004).State-Building, Governance and World Order in the 21st Century,

Connell University Press, Ithaca, New York.

Goldstone, Jack A., & Ulfelder, Jay (2004). How to Construct Stable Democracies. The Washington Quarterly 28(1), 9-20. Retrieved October 14, 2007 from

Lewis, B. (2005, May). Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East. Foreign Affairs, 84(3), 36-51. Retrieved October 22, 2007, from Academic Search Premier database.

Llosa, M. (2001, January). The Culture of Liberty. Foreign Policy, Retrieved October 22, 2007, from Academic Search Premier database

Norwich University, Seminar 5: Conflict Resolution and Post-Conflict Reconstruction in the International System, Lecture Week 7, Nation/State-Building: An Examination of Relevant Approaches and Theories, p. 1.

Ottaway, M., Schwedler, J., Telhami, S., & Ibrahim, S. (2005, Summer). Democracy: Rising Tide or Mirage?. Middle East Policy, 12(2), 1-27. Retrieved October 22, 2007, from Academic Search Premier database.

Ottaway, M. (2003). Nation Building. Foreign Policy, 16-24. Retrieved October 14, 2007 from

Rotberg, Robert I. (2004) Strengthening Governance: Ranking Countries Would Help. The Washington Quarterly 28(1), 71-81. RetrievedOctober 14, 2007 from

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